Montana’s Community Gymnasiums

The state basketball tournaments have been all of the talk in Montana newspapers and communities over the last three weeks, and in places like Belt, in Cascade County, they are celebrating state championships this March morning.

Cascade Co Belt school

Gyms were not on my mind particularly when I carried out the 1984-1985 historic preservation plan survey for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, but even then I picked up on some of the community gyms created by the WPA during the New Deal, such as the one in Virginia City, an unassuming building if there ever was one, and then

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VA City WPA gym, community center

the tiny log construction gym for Sanders, a tiny community in Treasure County, seen below.  Both the Virginia City and the Sanders gyms are listed in the National Register of

Community Hall Sanders Treasure Co 2

Community Hall Sanders Treasure Co 4

Historic Places, but the state has dozens of other worthy community gyms, that are very much at the center of recreational, sports, and social life in these towns and counties. Some await new fates and new futures, such as the gyms in Pony, Madison County, also on

Pony school gym

the National Register, and the more architecturally distinct Craftsman-styled community gym built for Whitehall in Jefferson County.

Gym, facade, Whitehall

Others date to mid-century and their more modern styles reflect their function–the half-barrels roofs–but they also dominate the one buildings around them, such as the high school gym in White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County, seen below.

Meagher Co White Sulpjur Springs school 2

Then there is the frankly spectacular modern-style gym of Twin Bridges, in the state’s southwest corner, with its sweeping overhanging roof.

Twin bridges gym

But wherever you encounter community gyms, you can tell from their location and maintenance, these are buildings of local pride and achievement, and places necessary to community life when so much else is scattered and disconnected.

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Gymnasium in Circle, McCone County.

Powell Co HS Gym

Powell County High School Gym, Deer Lodge.

Lake Co Polson gym

High School Gym, Polson, Lake County.

Phillips Co Malta old gym

The “Old Gym” in Malta, Phillips County

Communities across Montana are clearly proud of their gyms, and even when new ones come along, they find new uses for the stately buildings, like the conversion of the old gymnasium below, located in Boulder, into a fine arts theater, which is just one example of this type of adaptive reuse project in the state.

Gym facade, Jefferson County high school, Boulder

Here’s to new futures, grounded in meaningful pasts, for these community, and often times architectural, landmarks across the Big Sky Country. As a group, they are powerful reminders of the importance of community spaces in the counties, both urban and rural, of Montana.

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Art Deco styled gymnasium, Kalispell, Flathead County

 

 

Glendive: Landmarks Old and New

img_7257In the early posts of this exploration of Montana’s historic landscape I spoke of the transformation that I encountered when I revisited Glendive, the seat of Dawson County, for the first time in about 25 years, of how local preservation efforts had kept most of the town’s railroad era landscapes alive while leading to the revitalization of its amazing number of historic residences from 1900 to 1950.

Dawson Co Glendive Merrill Ave NR district city hallLet’s now turn our attention to public landmarks, old and more recent, that also deserve notice, starting with the magnificent Classical Revival-styled City Hall, one of the anchors of the Merrill Avenue historic district, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Built in 1914, this all-in-one municipal building is an impressive architectural

Dawson Co Glendive Merrill Ave NR district city hallstatement by the second generation of Glendale’s leaders that the town would grow and prosper during the homesteading boom of the first two decades of the 20th century.  The architect was Brynjulf Rivenes of Miles City.  His firm had so many commissions coming from eastern Montana and Yellowstone Valley patrons that by this time Rivenes operated offices in both Glendive and Miles City.

img_7268Rivenes had earlier marked Glendive’s new emerging townscape with his Gothic design for the First Methodist Church, in 1909.  Fifteen years later, he added another landmark church design with the Romanesque styled Sacred Heart Catholic Church (1924-1925).

Dawson Co Glendive Sacred Heart Catholic NR

The grand circular entrance window depicted the story of the sacred heart of Jesus.  Bishop Mathias Lenihan dedicated the window in 1925. The tan brick of the building came from Hebron, North Dakota.

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Rivenes also designed various commercial buildings along Merrill Avenue and its prominent side streets as Glendive business boomed from 1900 to the era of the Great Depression.  During the New Deal, the federal government worked with local and state government to improve local infrastructure and irrigation.  It also sponsored the construction of the Colonial Revival-styled Glendive post office, by federal architect Louis A. Simon, in the mid-1930s.

img_7269With recovery and the arrival of more and more automobile traffic from the late 1930s to the 1950s, many of the older buildings received mid-century updates.  The remodels could

Dawson Co Glendive Merrill Ave NR district masonic hall

overwhelming, like the glass block windows and brick wall inserts at the Classical Revival styled Masonic Lodge, above, or they could be more effective blending of the early 20th past with the mid-century present as at the Kolstad Jewelry shop, below.

Dawson Co Glendive Kolstad Jewelry decoThe 1950s and 1960s brought many changes to Glendive.  Post World War Ii growth both in the town and the many surrounding ranches led to expansion and remodeling at the historic Glendive Milling Company in 1955.  When the historic districts for Glendive were designated in the late 1980s, preservationists questioned the inclusion of this important industrial/agricultural complex due to the changes of the 1950s.  Viewed today, however, the mill complex is clearly a very significant historic site.

Dawson Co Glendive 1

As passenger traffic on the Northern Pacific Railway slacked, automobile traffic on the Yellowstone Trail (U.S. Highway 10) became more important as the old motel above also attests.  Architectural signs like for the Gust Hauf located at 300 West Bell Street downtown don’t really make sense today but it did in 1965 when travelers were still using U.S. Highway 10 every day.

img_7218More contemporary styled church buildings were also dedicated in the mid-century, such as the classic “contemporary” styling of the Assembly of God building, with classrooms at

img_7292at the front rather than the rear, or the modified A-frame style of the First Congregational Church, which I shared in an earlier post on Glendive.

Dawson Co Glendive Congregational churchGlendive is very much a blending of different 20th century architectural styles, reaching back into the region’s deep, deep past, as at Makoshika State Park, where the visitor

img_7297center/museum is an excellent example of late 20th century modern style–clearly a building of the present but one that complements, not overwhelms, the beauty of the park itself.

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Transformations of Montana Avenue

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Billings c. 1882.  All historic images courtesy of Western Heritage Center.

At the time of my field work for the Montana state historic preservation plan in 1984, I had already gotten myself deep into one Montana place–Billings, the seat of Yellowstone County, and its early history.  I have to blame June Sampson, David Carroll, and Lynda Moss at the city’s Western Heritage Center for my initial immersion–they along with board members wanted a research report about both the town of Coulson, the short-lived precursor to Billings along the Yellowstone River, and the early history of Billings, the railroad town.

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Billings birdseye view, detail, 1904.

Starting in 1982, I began  to drive to Billings, explore the landscape, dig into archives and museums, and talk to people, which of course meant in 1982, when the city was a mere 100 years old, there were a few children of the founders still around for interviews.

McAdow store 2011

At first the competition between Coulson and Billings captivated me, particularly the efforts of regional merchant Perry W. McAdow to transfer his business dominance from Coulson to the new city of Billings by placing his store on Minnesota Avenue, on the south side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, rather than on Montana Avenue, on the north side of the tracks, where development was controlled by one of the west’s leading capitalists, Frederick Billings.

Perhaps it is symbolic, or even appropriate, that McAdow’s first store on Minnesota Avenue still stands–but its best days long ago passed away, leaving it today as a junk store in 2011, or in 2015 the Big Sky Blue Gallery.  While, on the other hand, a grand statue of Frederick Billings–who never lived here but did come to visit his son Parmly–stands on the north side of the tracks, and helps to mark Montana Avenue as the predominant commercial street in Billings.

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No doubt, Montana Avenue, and the north side of the tracks became the public face of Billings.  Not only did a range of two to three-story commercial blocks populate a long stretch of the street, here too was the grand Classical Revival styled passenger depot of the

Billings 2006 002 NPRR depot

Northern Pacific Railroad.  And when U.S. Highway 10 was designated through the city in the 1920s–first known as the Yellowstone Trail–it used Montana Avenue to pass through Billings.  The bright, shiny, and busy appearance of Montana Avenue in this second decade of the 21st century, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When I did the bulk of my research in Billings from 1982 to 1992, there was not much going on, outside of the Rex Hotel.  The depot was boarded up, and falling apart.

Listing Montana Avenue as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s began to change the street’s fortunes, along with the development in that same decade of the Western Heritage Center as a real cultural anchor and heritage tourism lure, and then the investments by new entrepreneurs who convinced city officials to revisit sidewalks, add plantings, and make the street more pedestrian friendly.  It has been a bit amazing to see this transformation in the past decade as Montana Avenue became an “it” place–and shed its forgotten, tired past as a railroad corridor.

 

Ranches and the Montana landscape

 

Hirschy Ranch, Big Hole Valley, MT 278, 45 mmHere is a property category that could be, probably should be, a blog of its own–the ranching landscape of Big Sky Country.  Historic family ranches are everywhere in the state, and being of rural roots myself, and a Tennessee Century Farm owner, the ways families have crafted their lives and livelihood out of the land and its resources is always of interest.

Wibaux Co Wibaux ranch house 1988

Wibaux ranch house, 1985.

When I carried out the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the Montana state historic preservation plan, a handful of ranches had been preserved as museums.  On the eastern end of the state in Wibaux was the preserved ranch house of Pierre Wibaux, one of the 1880s cattle barons of eastern Montana and western North Dakota.  The ranch house today remains as a historic site, and a state welcome center for interstate travelers–although you wish someone in charge would remove the rather silly awning from the gable end window.

Wibaux Co Wibaux Pierre Wibaux ranch NR 1Preserving merely the ranch house, and adding other period buildings, is one thing.  The massive preserved landscape of hundreds of acres of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch in the western end of Montana is a totally different experience. This National Park Service site

not only preserves one of the earliest settlement landscapes in the state it also shows how successful ranches change over time. John Grant began the place before the Civil War: he was as much an Indian trader than ranch man.  Grant Kohrs however looked at the rich land, the railroad line that ran through the place, and saw the potential for becoming a cattle baron in the late 19th century.  To reflect his prestige and for his family’s comfort, the old ranch house was even updated with a stylish Victorian brick addition. The layers of history within this landscape are everywhere–not surprisingly. There is a mix of 19th and 20th century buildings here that you often find at any historic ranch.

When I was working with the Montana Historical Society in 1984-1985 there were two additional grand ranches that we thought could be added to the earlier preservation achievements.  Both are now landmarks, important achievements of the last 30 years.

Bitterroot Stock Farm painting at Ravalli Co Courthouse 1The Bitter Root Stock Farm, established in 1886 by soon-to-be copper magnate Marcus Daly outside of Hamilton, came first.  I can recall early site visits in 1985–that started the ball rolling but the deal wasn’t finalized for several years.  All of the work was worth it.

Here was one of the grand showplace ranches of the American West, with its own layers of a grand Queen Anne ranch house (still marked by the Shingle-style laundry house) of Daly’s time that was transformed into an even greater Classical Revival mansion by his Margaret Daly after her husband’s death.  It is with us today largely due to the efforts of a determined local group, with support from local, state, and federal governments, a group of preservation non-profits, and the timely partnership of the University of Montana.

Daly Mansion by A.J. Gibson

 

The second possibility was also of the grand scale but from more recent times–the Bair Ranch in Martinsdale, almost in the center of the state. Charles Bair had made his money in sheep and wise investments.  His daughters traveled the world and brought treasures home to their Colonial Revival styled ranch house.  To get a chance to visit with Alberta Bair here in the mid-1980s was a treat indeed.

Once again, local initiative preserved the ranch house and surrounding buildings and a local board operates both a house museum and a museum that highlights items from the family’s collections.

The success of the Bitter Root Stock Farm and the Bair Ranch was long in the making, and you hope that both can weather the many challenges faced by our public historic sites and museums today.  We praise our past but far too often we don’t want to pay for it.

Tash Ranch, 1200 MT 278 Hwy, Dillon

That is why family stewardship of the landscape is so important.  Here are two examples from Beayerhead County.  The Tash Ranch (above and below) is just outside of Dillon and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  But is also still a thriving family ranch.

The same is true for the Bremmer Ranch, on the way to Lemhi Pass.  Here is a family still using the past to forge their future and their own stories of how to use the land and its resources to maintain a life and a culture.

MT 324, mm 23, log ranch later visited with group

One family ranch that I highlighted in my book, A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986), was the Simms-Garfield Ranch, located along the Musselshell River Valley in Golden Valley County, along U.S. Highway 12.  This National Register-property was not, at

Golden Valley Co Ryegate Simms-Garfield Ranch NR 3first glance, architecturally magnificent as the properties above.  But in its use of local materials–the timber, the rocks from the river bluffs–and its setting along a historic road, this ranch is far more typical of the Montana experience.

Similar traditions are expressed in another way at a more recent National Register-listed ranch, the Vogt-Nunberg Ranch south of Wibaux on Montana Highway 7. Actively farmed from 1911 to 1995, the property documents the changes large and small that happened in Montana agriculture throughout the 20th century.

Wibaux Co Vogt-Nunberg Ranch NR MT 7 4

The stories of these ranches are only a beginning.  The Montana Preservation Alliance has done an admirable job of documenting the state’s historic barns, and the state historic preservation office has listed many other ranches to the National Register.  But still the rural landscape of the Big Sky Country awaits more exploration and understanding.

 

Yellowstone Gateways: Cooke City

img_2876Montana’s gateways into Yellowstone National Park are known far and wide.  The most popular are associated with the trains that delivered mostly easterners to the wonderland of the park–West Yellowstone for the Union Pacific line and Gardiner for the Northern Pacific Railway.

img_2887Cooke City, located in the corner of Park County, was never a railroad town but an overland connection that did not become popular until the development of the Beartooth Highway out of Red Lodge in the 1920s.

img_2904It is all about the Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212) here–when it opens, Cooke City booms as a tourism oasis.  When the highway closes for its long winter, business doesn’t end since the road to Mammoth Hot Springs far to the west is kept open as best as it can be, but the number of visitors drops remarkably. Snow mobile traffic in the winter has meant a lot to local business in the last 30 years.

The one building I focused on when I visited Cooke City for the state historic preservation in 1985 was nearing its 100th year of serving as a general store to this old mountain mining community.  The historic Savage and Elder’s store began business c.1886 and passed through many different owners but remarkably few changes until the time in the second half of the 20th century that it became a community icon and cherished building. New owners in 2003 undertook needed repairs and the old place looks as if it is well on its way to its 200th birthday. In 1986 the state office listed the Cooke City Store in the National Register not only for its late Victorian commercial look but also as a commercial business–general merchandise–that held on through the highs and lows of Cooke City’s history.

img_2879Cooke City uses its mining past to define its identity today, from moving log mining shacks and cabins into town, as shown above, for potential new lures for tourism, to the recently established visitor center and museum, which includes some of the local mining

technology, a moved and restored miner’s cabin, and interprets these resources for the public–a major positive change in the last 30 years.

The rustic log architecture of the miner’s cabin is reflected in several other Cooke City buildings from the mid-20th century as well as from nearby Silver Gate, Montana, located right on the national park border. Some of these properties speak to the local vernacular of building with log, but they also were influenced with the more formal Rustic style buildings constructed by the National Park Service as its signature look in the early decades of the 20th century–witness the Northeast entrance to the park on U.S. 212 next to Silver Gate.

img_2913Perhaps the best example is the rustic yet modern styling of the Mt Republic Chapel of Peace between Silver Gate and Cooke City on U.S. 212. It is no match for the soaring mountains that surround it but its quiet dignity reflects well the people and environment of this part of Montana.

Montana architect Charles Sumner designed the building in 1971 and first services came a year later.  Not yet 50 years, it awaits its National Register future.

img_2877The same can be said for Hoosier’s Bar–a favorite haunt here in Cooke City for several decades, easy to find with its neon sign, and then there is the throwback telephone booth–a good idea since many cell phones search for coverage in this area.  Cooke City and Silver Gate are the smallest Montana gateways into Yellowstone National Park but they tell and preserve their story well.

 

 

A Return to Ekalaka

img_0423Recently one of my graduate students from almost 20 years ago, Carole Summers Morris, contacted me.  Carole had just discovered that her family had roots in Carter County, Montana–and she wanted to know if I had ever been in Ekalaka.  I told her yes, in 1984, as documented by the postcard below I picked up on that trip, and most recently in 2013.

ekalaka postcard 2

I pointed Carole to my December 2014 blog post on Ekalaka.  When I visited that post itself, to remind me what had caught my eye in Ekalaka in 2013, I found out that I promised another post on the area–and had never done it.  So, to honor that initial promise and to show Carole more of the town, here is Ekalaka revisited.

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My big omission in the December 2014 post was to say something about Medicine Rocks State Park.  As I drove south on Montana Highway 7 to Ekalaka in 1984, nothing quite had prepared me for this collection of wind-carved rocks lining both sides of the highway.

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Medicine Rocks State Park in 1984.

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The same exposed boulder in 2013.

I immediately thought that here was a landscape of both natural beauty but also of great cultural significance.  In A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986) I noted that “The Sioux called the country Inyan-oka-la-la, or “rock with hole in it.” The Medicine Rocks, which stretch for several miles, have ceremonial and religious significance for Montana Indians.  It is a place where they often gathered to pray to the Great Spirits, and to ask for spiritual guidance.  Within the park, several stone circles mark the location of Native American camps, and there is a large medicine wheel… In the hills visible on the horizon, Indians found sources of red and blue pigments for the ceremonial paints they work at the Medicine Rocks.”  The text included the black and white image above.

Carter Co MT 7 Medicine Rocks State Park 4

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In 1984 I thought that this place would surely become Carter County’s first National Register nomination–that still has not been achieved.  In 2013, I also picked up a rural church and cemetery that I somehow missed 30 years earlier, the Medicine Rocks Church, which overlooks the park. The cemetery is particularly at a beautiful site.

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Carter Co MT 7 Medicine Rocks cemeteryFor Ekalaka itself, my 2014 post focused on public buildings such as the Carter County Courthouse and the historic elementary school.  I did not include an image of the old town

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bank, which is now restored as city offices and is the first property to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Nor did I include the old hotel building below.

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Carter Co Ekalaka nursing homeI mentioned the existence of the nursing home next to the county courthouse–an arrangement of space not seen elsewhere in the state–but did not include a photo of the c. 1960 Dahl Memorial Nursing Home.

Carter Co Ekalaka store deco

Carter Co Ekalaka bungalow

Indeed I did little with the town’s domestic architecture, even though several buildings are noteworthy, as commercial buildings become residences and then historic houses become tourist-oriented businesses, as seen above.

img_0426I didn’t even include all of the buildings at the excellent Carter County Museum, such as this well-crafted log residence from the early settlement period, the Allenbaugh Cabin, dated c. 1882-1883, probably the earliest surviving piece of domestic architecture in the county today.  When I visited the museum in 1984, the cabin had been acquired but it was not restored and placed for exhibit until the late 1990s.

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So thanks Carole for prompting me to return to Ekalaka–a remarkably friendly place, and one where a tiny town in a wide open landscape still speaks to the roots of Montana history and culture.

Mint Bars of Montana

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Now that I fulfilled the original goal of this effort to document the Montana historic landscape 30 years after my first attempt in 1984-1985, I want to have fun with many blogs to come, covering themes and places that help to define the Big Sky experience.  After covering all 56 counties, there are many ways to start, but the most natural to me is bars and taverns, those community gathering spots that I learned to love, and learn from, all across Montana.

Gallatin Co Belgrade 5 – Version 2

Belgrade, Montana.

Let’s first just look at and recall Montana’s Mint Bars–they are in every region, and to every taste.  Why so many mints–this is far from Mint Julep territory of Kentucky and Virginia.  Who cares–I never found one that wasn’t welcoming, and fun.

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Townsend, Montana.

Lincoln Co Libby Mint Bar

Libby, Montana.

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White Sulphur Springs, MT.

The Mint Bar in Livingston, above, remains one of my favorite of the “brand” and is part of the downtown Livingston historic district.

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Martinsdale–maybe why I like U.S. 12 is that it has 3 Mint Bars.

The rejuvenation of the Mint Bar in Lewistown, above, is a very pleasant change over the last thirty years.

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The Mint in Shelby is just one of the classic bars along the town’s main street.

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Always a fan of the Mint Bar in Big Sandy.

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Chinook, MT, part of the National Register-listed Lohman Block.

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Opheim, Montana.

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And last, but not least, the Mint Bar of Froid, up in the northeast corner of the state, in Roosevelt County.  Why I like Froid so much, I cannot explain, but I always like going there.