Montana’s oil landscape

Fallon Co? MT 7 oil fieldThe last post addressed Montana’s famous ranching landscape.  Intermixed with the ranches, especially in the eastern third of the state, is a very different landscape of technology, one of pumps, storage facilities, pipelines, and refineries–the oil landscape of 20th and 21st century Montana.

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Billings is the largest city in Montana, and oil refineries along the railroad lines, are a major reason why.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Billings was not close to being the largest town in the Yellowstone Valley–both Glendive and Livingston held that honor.  But due to its railroad network, and the rise of oil from the 1940s onward, Billings had far surpassed any place in the Yellowstone, and, in fact, had become the largest city of the northern plains.  Go up on the bluffs overlooking the city and it is easy to see how oil has impacted this place.

Yellowstone Co Billings from rims 13 oil

Yellowstone Co Billings from rims 19 oil

Billings boomed in the mid-20th century because of oil–and the impact spread throughout the county.  The former Cenex refinery at Laurel–the next railstop to the west–dominates the town’s exit on Interstate Highway I-90.

 

Yellowstone Co Laurel Refinery 2

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Yellowstone County is the distribution center for oil and petroleum in Montana.  The production areas can be found in almost any eastern county, where companies have established wells that pump crude non-stop–there are few oil fields here but plenty of pumps within the fields of Montana.

Musselshell Co US 87 oil wells at MT 244

Sheridan Co Homestead oil well

Richland Co Hwy 200 to Fairview 2 oil

Richland Co Hwy 200 to Fairview 1 oil

The number of pumps stretched across the landscape amazed me during the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan fieldwork.  I didn’t really think of oil when I thought about Montana back then. The focus 30 years ago was not on the transformative boom that had begun ten years earlier but we did know enough to consider the earlier boom from the 1920s which began at a place called Cat Creek in what became Petroleum County in central

 

Petroleum Co Winnett courthouse 2

Petroleum County Courthouse in Winnett is listed in the National Register.

Montana to the similar 1920s boom, which lasted a good deal longer, in east side of the Rockies next to the Canadian border in Toole and Glacier counties.  Cut Bank, the seat of

cut-bank-sign

Glacier County, still bragged about its role as the “north oil center” in 1984.  To the south of Cut Bank at Kevin, you can still find both active and historic resources associated with the region’s oil production.

Toole Co Kevin 7 oil

Toole Co Kevin 8 oil

The towns of Kevin and Oilmont, however, have lost hundreds of residents since the boom–their deteriorating buildings tell a common Montana story of boom and bust, the patterns of extractive industries everywhere.

Toole Co Oilmont school

The former Oilmont School.

Now I wonder what will be the fate of the sudden boom towns of the fracking excitement of the early 21st century.  When I planned my fieldwork for the revisit to the Montana landscape, I decided that I must go to the eastern counties first–places like Plentywood, Sheridan, Culbertson, etc., because they would be the next to transform due to the Baker

Roosevelt Co Bainville fracking

field expansion.  Fracking I found–like in Roosevelt County above–but fractured communities–not so much, as I have discussed in earlier posts.  And now the boom has subsided–for how long? International markets will decide.

Toole Co Kevin oil storage

No matter what happens, Montana’s oil landscape will remain, past and present, and become one of the layers of history that speaks to how technology and international markets shaped the Big Sky Country.

 

 

Winnett and Petroleum County

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West of Jordan, crossing the Musselshell River, on Montana 200 is Petroleum County, the last county to be created in Montana in 1925. Its county seat, Winnett, was never big–even at the height of the Cat Creek oil strike the town numbered only 500 residents. It now has 188 in 2010–a slight decrease of twenty from when I first visited in 1984.

Petroleum County Courthouse, mid-1980s

Petroleum County Courthouse, mid-1980s


In 1928, county officials moved the courthouse into the town’s one substantial business block, a beautiful locally quarried stone building from the town’s beginnings in 1918. The courthouse is now the county’s one listed property in the National Register of Historic Places.
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Another public building is the 1960s post office–I noted it in the 1984 because of the use of a stone veneer on the front of the building, different than many other standardized designs found in the region. That building is
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still there, now as then, an important community gathering place, changed only by the growth of landscaping around it in the last 30 years.
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There is only a single historic grain elevator left in Winnett, but it has two bars, one a converted gas station, the other the iconic Winnett Bar, one of the most famed in the region, especially for its steaks. If you only need one reason to visit Winnett, this is the one.
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While there, you also can take in a bit of Montana modernism, in the A-frame First Baptist Church, which the town’s “W” overlooks from the bluffs above. Other earlier classic vernacular designs, such as false front stores await new futures.
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The future in Winnett and Petroleum County is naturally given a physical space by its schools–the most substantial buildings constructed here in the second half of the 20th century. with less than 500 residents in 210, the county’s future seems to be non-existent but the schools say otherwise.
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