Wolf Point on the Hi-Line

Great Northern corridor along U.S. in Roosevelt County

Great Northern Railway corridor along U.S. 2 in Roosevelt County

When I encountered the northern prairie of Roosevelt County in 1984, it was difficult to tear your eyes from the omnipresent tracks of the Great Northern Railway.  The trains roared past regularly, and the tracks defined space and town location throughout this stretch of U.S. Highway 2.  So when I arrived in Wolf Point, the seat of Roosevelt County, I immediately looked for the depot, and came away disappointed.  Here, for northeast Montana, was a large town: certainly I would

Wolf Point depot, Roosevelt  County

Wolf Point depot, Roosevelt County

find more than the standard-issue Great Northern design.  It was different but nothing as I expected.  No grand architectural statement–rather a modernist building with little ornament or aesthetics to it, except here was what the railroad had become in the second half of the 20th century–a functional transportation system not the town builder and landmark of the turn of the century.

IMG_7737 But as I explored the town in 1984, and visited it again in 2013, I found several places worth considering in this small county seat of 2621 in 2010.  First was the impact of the New Deal.  Roosevelt County–named for TR not FDR–received one of the most striking modernist courthouses in the state, courtesy of the Work Projects Administration.

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Encountering such a gleaming landmark of the federal imprint on the region startled me, but also started me looking much more carefully at the impact of federal projects on the region, a research interest that culminated in an essay titled “The New Deal Landscape of the Northern Plains” for the Great Plains Quarterly.

Wolf Point, like almost every Hi-Line town, had suffered from population decline.  The town’s heyday came in 1960 with a population of 3585, which had dropped by 500 by 1980, and another 400 since then.  Yet Main Street was alive, not dead, but dilapidated with later day “improvements” marring historic commercial facades.

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Yet the town retained its historic movie theater, and had recently expanded a local history museum that has a remarkable array of objects.  Wolf Point in the 2010 census was about 1/2 Native American in population; the most impressive building added to the town since 1984 was the Fort Peck Community College.

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Wolf Point also had hoped to become the final landing spot for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame.  It was a worthy contender not just for its open plains, but the Wolf Point Rodeo is among the state’s oldest, and the historic fairgrounds continue to host the “Wild Horse Stampede” every summer.

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Smack in the middle of U.S. 2 is another monument to the Montana Cowboy, and a symbol of the hopes that the Hall of Fame would land in Wolf Point.  This bronze statue titled Homage was executed by Floyd DeWitt and given to the town by the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.

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To travelers along U.S. 2 Wolf Point may be considered as one or two blinks and that it is, but the history here is deeper, and strongly felt.  Yes it has the rails and the elevators to define the horizontal and the vertical but its landmarks continue to say:  we’re here and we matter.

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New Deal Transformations: A Hot Springs in Phillips County, Montana

 In 1922 the Bowdoin Oil and Gas Company was drilling on land about 4 miles north of U.S. Highway 2 and the tracks on the Great Northern Railway, on the high benchlands north of the Milk River. They struck not oil but “a flow of warm sulphur water,” estimated at 24,000 barrels per day. The oilmen didn’t need a hot spring and moved on. But local citizens in Phillips County thought long and hard about harnessing that natural resource, which was just east of the Nelson Reservoir of the Milk River Irrigation Project of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

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By the mid-1920s local residents, led by the Malta Commercial Club, developed a plan–known as the “Malta Plan,” that involved the federal purchase of submarginal land in order to enhance conservation and also to gather greatly scattered ranchers into central locations in order to address land erosion and settlement patterns. As summarized by Bernie Alt and Glenn Mueller in their “Evolution of the National Grasslands”:  “The gist of the plan was that the Federal Government would take options to buy or buy outright land from farmers and ranches who could not continue to operate as in the past because of low prices, drought, erosion of land, and other reasons.  Any of the individuals who desired would then be resettled in the Milk River Valley.”  The Malta Plan became the proverbial first step towards not only the later Resettlement Administration (1935-37) but its successor the Farm Security Administration and then the National Grasslands. Re-purchase and then re-seeding in grass of abandoned homestead land was the big picture, and Phillips County was front and center in this national experiment from the 1930s on.

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But this story focuses on what changing federal land policy meant for one place in the county–Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs–that is now being re-energized and restored by determined property owners. When I visited the hot springs in 1984, I did not consider it much of a place. The buildings needed work; everything looked dated, worn. I did not dig deeper–and just assumed that there was not much a story here. Matters looked maybe even worse when I visited in 2013–the place was closed, abandoned, and seemed to have little hope. Local residents told me great stories of the springs’ best days. Those seemed to be gone forever.

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Then I noticed a small hipped roof open-structure which was certainly there in 1984–but my eyes had not been trained by viewing hundreds of New Deal-era structures to notice it. Here was existing truth in the ground that spoke strongly to the larger story of the New Deal transformation of Montana’s plains.

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The structure covered Public Water Reserve No. 141, federally established in 1931 by executive order from President Herbert Hoover to protect the hot springs. In 1932, the federal government transferred the well to the Saco Post #79 of the American Legion for development of recreation uses. By the mid-1930s, the American Legion Health Pool was open, and the tradition of the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs was underway. The New Deal guidebook for Montana encouraged visitors to go to the Health Pool for its recreational and “curative” waters and the Legion sold postcards like the one below.

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In the second half of the 20th century, the American Legion transferred the property to private owners, who expanded operations and launched the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs, so named for a sacred rock that stood down on U.S. Highway 2.

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What happened to the well? It is still there, with bronze markers explaining how this spot is part of the Resettlement Administration’s Land Utilization program–what became known as the Malta Subsistence Homesteads project centered around Wagner between Malta and Dodson. When I traveled Montana in 1984, I did not give enough attention to federal law, water rights, and the impact of the Reclamation Bureau.  You cannot miss the impact as you travel U.S. 2 between Chinook and Saco.

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Blaine County spawned the landmark Supreme Court decision on federal water rights of Winters v U.S. (1908). Phillips County spawned the first federal resettlement project and the “Malta Plan.” Historian Joseph Kinsey Howard in 1946 remarked: “So many federal agencies have had their ambitious fingers in the Malta pie that few even among project officials can be quite sure of all of them.”

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Today there is little but the transformed landscape itself to mark how these two rural places shaped national law. The next period of the hot springs’ history is being written right now. Michelle Lefdahl Simpson (a Phillips County native) and her husband Dennis are restoring the place–a process you can follow on the Facebook page for Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs. Michelle Simpson told the Phillips County News in May 2014: “When I was little and we would head to the Sleeping Buffalo, we would travel the approximately 20 miles from Whitewater on the gravel roads,” Michelle said. “I would be sitting in the back seat with my siblings waiting to see that big blue slide come out of literally nowhere and all I could think about was getting my wrist band on and racing up to the top. For me, it was as if our parents took us to Disney-land or something.”  Here’s to the Simpsons for stepping forward to reclaim a forgotten 20th century Montana landmark.

The Irrigated West: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Montana’s Hi-Line

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Fresno Lake, Hill County, 2013

The impact of federally funded irrigation projects is apparent throughout Montana but perhaps even moreso along the Hi-Line.  As I started his fieldwork in 1984 in Toole County, one of the first places I visited was Tiber Dam, a project that turned a large chunk of the Marias River into Lake Elwell.  The dam was finished in 1952 but numerous expansions and alterations occurred in the late 1960s and then late 1970s.

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Lake Elwell, Liberty County, 1984

 

When I encountered the town of Fresno in 1984, there was not much there but a tavern, built in the 1950s to take advantage of the increasing number of folks traveling to Fresno Lake for recreation, and a huge elevator complex.

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Today both the elevators and tavern remain, and the only changes found at the dam was additional fencing and pre-cautions for the security of the facility.

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Fresno Dam was part of the huge Milk River Project of the New Deal era.  The dam dates to 1937-1939, but was raised in 1943 and again in 1951 when “a concrete parapet and curb walls were constructed on the crest.”

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The Milk River project is the one of the state’s oldest and most influential federal irrigation projects.  Dating to 1903, the project slowly unfolded across the plains, starting at St. Mary’s in Glacier County in 1905 and moving to the Dodson pumping station in Phillips County by 1944.  The Fresno Dam was funded by FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act, making it a rarely identified place associated with the New Deal transformation of Montana.  

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We will be returning to this project and the story of the irrigated West often as we move across the state.

 

 

The 1984 Survey 30 Years Later: Toole County

My exploration of Montana’s historic landscape–an experience that has shaped my career and teaching philosophy so deeply–began in earnest 30 years ago this month.  I had been working with the Montana State Historic Preservation Office for several weeks, organizing information already known about the state but also realizing that much was unknown.  That is why the MT SHPO Marcella Sherfy wanted to send someone out of the road–to look, listen, and find what was missing.  In February 1984, the fieldwork began, with the initial focus on the Hi-Line and the first stop, Toole County and the county seat of Shelby.

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View of Shelby, looking north, taken from county courthouse, 2013

 The first stop was Shelby, where I also launched my effort to talk about historic places and the preservation planning process with local communities.  We met at the local library/museum which stood next to the courthouse.

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Toole County Library, Shelby, MT

I learned two things that February 1984 night in Shelby that shaped my work for the next 3 months:  do the community meetings first–Montanans were intensely engaged with their history and made information and primary sources to share.  Just as important, I learned of their pride in the county courthouse–an architectural statement of Art Deco modernism in the guise of local materials and stone that might not be “technically eligible” for the National Register (at that time it was not yet 50 years old) but that everyone considered the landmark of the city.

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This 1934 building, one of the many Federal Emergency Relief Administration projects that shaped small towns and agricultural landscapes across the state during the Great Depression, looms high over the time, with the overall setting enhanced by the period landscaping and stone veneer steps from the parking area to the front door.

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The new courthouse gave the town a new focus, away from the railroad corridor created by the Great Northern Railway, and then the flashy commercial strip of stores and taverns along the adjacent highway corridor of U.S. Highway 2, a route also improved during the New Deal years.

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In Shelby, at the first of the 1984 work, I learned of the imprint of the successive waves of the railroad, then highways, and then the New Deal on Montana’s Hi-Line towns.  Those patterns of development would be constants throughout the fieldwork.  But after the stop to Shelby, I was then ready to explore the surrounding rural landscape.  And that will be the next story.