Rural Landscapes of Silver Bow County

IMG_1004When travelers, and most Montana residents even, speak of Silver Bow County, they think of Butte.  Outside of the Copper City, however, are small towns and a very different way of life.  To the west we have already discussed Ramsay and its beginnings as a munitions factory town during World War I.  Let’s shift attention now to the southern tip of the county and two places along the historic Union Pacific spur line, the Utah Northern Railroad, into Butte.

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The Union Pacific Railroad, by means of the narrow gauge Utah Northern extension, became the first transcontinental railroad to reach Silver Bow County, arriving in 1881.  Its first stop in the county was at a freighting stop for the Hecla mines, established in the 1870s, that was renamed Melrose.  This place grew as transportation and trade crossroads between the Hecla mines to the west and the Butte mines to the north.

Melrose still has several log and frame buildings typical of late 19th century mining towns gathered along Hecla Street.  There is a substantial brick one-story Victorian styled commercial block and two-story brick railroad hotel facing the tracks, both reminders of

Brick stores, symmetrical plan, Melrose

IMG_1015when Melrose was a substantial, busy place.  This 1870s-1880s history is largely forgotten today as the town has evolved into a sportsmen’s stop off Interstate I-15 due to its great access to the Big Hole River and surrounding national forests as well as the quite marvy Melrose Bar and Cafe, a classic western watering hole.

Melrose bar, murals, US 91Community institutions help to keep Melrose’s sense of itself alive in the 21st century.  Its school, local firehall, the historic stone St John the Apostle Catholic Mission and the modernist styled Community Presbyterian Church are statements of stability and purpose.

The next stop on the historic Utah Northern corridor is a turn of the 20th century engineering marvel, the Big Hole Pump Station.  Already listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the pump station was in the midst of comprehensive documentation from a HABS/HAER team when I visited it for the state historic preservation plan in 1984.

Big Hole Pumpstation, Divide, Silver Bow Co NR eligible (56-12)The photo above was published in A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, in part because of the preservation excitement over this landmark but also because it documented how the boom in Butte helped to transform the historic landscape on the “other side of the divide.”  The pump station took water from the Big Hole River and pumped it over the mountains to the Butte Water Company–without the pump station, expansion of the mines and the city would have been difficult perhaps impossible in the early 20th century.

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The pump station remains in operation but access now, due to security concerns after 9/11/2001, is restricted compared to my explorations of 1984.  Divide is also distinguished by two community institutions–its one-room school, its grange hall, and its standardized post office, still in business following the threat to close many small town Montana post offices last decade.

Divide post office, Silver Bow CountyIn 2014, in reaction to the listing of Montana rural schools as a threatened national treasure by the National Trust of Historic Preservation, CBS Sunday Morning visited Divide School for a feature story.  Teacher Judy Boyle told the Montana Standard of May 16, 2014: “The town of Divide is pretty proud of its school and they want to keep it running. We have a Post Office, the Grange and the school — and if you close the school, you basically close the town.”

Divide School, Silver Bow CountyDivide is one of many Montana towns where residents consider their schools to the foundation for their future–helping to explain why Montanans are so passionate about their local schools.

 

Carter County’s Country Schools on U.S. Highway 212

IMG_5418U.S. Highway 212 enters Montana from South Dakota in Carter County at the state’s southeast corner.  U.S. 212 in this part of the state is a flat, fast ride.  You typically meet little other traffic except for trucks using the highway as a cut-off from Billings to the Black

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Hills.  Traveler accounts from today typically say nothing about this section of the state, save, perhaps, for the Stoneville Saloon in Alzada, really the only serious watering hole for miles around, with its inviting false front–“cheap drinks”–capturing your attention.

IMG_5420But if you slow down a bit, you can find three country schools, with all three being good examples of the types of Montana rural schools that the National Trust for Historic Preservation called attention to in 2012.

IMG_5427Alzada’s school is the largest, with its bracketed hipped roof recalling the schoolhouse style so common in the United States from 1910 to 1940.  It is located a few hundred yards off of the highway, a place that is still the heart of the community.

IMG_5433The Hammond school is a later 20th century version of schoolhouse design–it looks much like a Ranch style house of the 1960s and 1970s.  It faces the highway–you can’t miss it.

IMG_5437Nor can you miss the Boyles school, now closed, like pretty much everything else in this hamlet at the western end of Carter County.  This school is a classic example of the one-room schools of the homesteading era.  Like the other two schools, it faces south, with its band of windows facing east, better to capture as much sunlight as possible since it was built in the era before electricity served this section of Montana.

Three small places–three small schools, important parts of Carter County history that you can still explore today.,

Moving and Saving Historic Buildings in the Montana Plains

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Vananda School, northern Rosebud County. I took this image during the preservation work of 1984.

When I met with residents in Rosebud County in 1984, few places in the county captivated me more than Vananda, one of the county’s Milwaukee Road towns along U.S. Highway 12.  Vananda in 1984 had a few scattered buildings and structures, but two landmarks, a small one-story Classical Revival bank, and the three-story Vananda school. The school in particular spoke to the hopes of the settlers who flooded into the region after the Milwaukee came through in 1907-1908.  In 1917, when Louis Wahl, a Forsyth contractor, built the bank, Vananda like many other homestead towns thought a bright future awaited.  But when the bust came in the 1920s, followed by the Great Depression in the 1930s, people disappeared from here even quicker than they had arrived.

In the years since, I have stopped at Vananda several times, seeing if the buildings still stood as silent sentinels to the homesteading past. The school and the bank survived

Vananda Bank-School Rosebud Co. MT

My favorite image of Vananda, taken in 1998.

the 1990s.  In fact, the Montana State Historic Preservation Office had listed the Vananda historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, part of a countywide effort to designate local landmarks at that time.

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Vananda historic district, 2013

When I next visited Vananda in 2013, fifteen years had passed.  Imagine my disappointment in finding only the school, and it was looking even more worse for the wear.  This was the same year that the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Montana’s rural schools as one of its most threatened properties in the nation.  One can hope that that designation will eventually bring help and preservation to the school.

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What had happened to the bank?  I found out about 17 miles later when I came into Forsyth, and stopped at something new, at the town’s most prominent crossroads, at Main and 10th Avenue.  It was the Vananda State Bank, moved to that location in 2002-2003.

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The abandoned building was now an insurance building, and an important contributor to town’s historic environment, especially since its corner lot was further enlivened by a mural of the Yellowstone River, “Autumn on the Yellowstone,” by local artist Bob Watts, who has several different murals located throughout town. No. moving the bank to Forsyth and restoring it there, rather than Vananda, is not historic preservation in its purest form.  But it is preservation nonetheless in my opinion.  The historic marker in front of the building tells its story, and there is an active heritage tourism infrastructure in Forsyth, with multiple historic districts, a recently expanded county museum, and a Historic Forsyth walking/driving tour you can download from the Internet.  The bank and the story of Vananda remain active contributors to Rosebud County, fulfilling some of that promise first proclaimed in 1917.