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.

Montana’s Malta: More Travels along the Hi-Line

Phillips County is one of my favorite places along the Hi-Line. The Milk River Valley is beautiful; the high plains at Loring and Whitewater are lonesome yet compelling. Empty I guess is how many would describe the county as just over 4250 people live there–in a county of 5,212 square miles.

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Loring Hall in 1984

But the diversity of the landscape is memorable. The southern tip of the county is the gateway to the Charles M. Russell National Monument, truly one of the great national parks that few people know about but home to some of most overwhelming views of the Missouri River. North of the Missouri are the southern end of the Little Rocky Mountains and the old mining towns of Zortman and Sandusky.

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Abandoned cabins at Zortman, 2013

I have already written about the two Hi-Line towns on the west end (Dodson) and the east end (Saco). Now it is Malta’s turn. When I visited there in 1984 little did I know that Malta was at its population peak.

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The 1980 census counted 2,367 residents–never had the town had that many people, and judging from the last three decades, that number is never returning: the population is now under 2,000. The 1980 as a peak population decade–not common among Hi-Line towns, but that wasn’t all that set Malta apart from what I encountered east or west.

Vibrant community institutions anchored the town. The neoclassical Phillips County Courthouse (1921) served as the foundation for the east end residential neighborhood. Designed by Great Falls architect Frank E. Bossout, the red brick courthouse reflects a more restrained expression of the popular classical revival movement, especially compared to Bossout’s earlier more flamboyant Beaux-Arts design for the Hill County Courthouse (c. 1914) in Havre. (I wish they would remove the vines–not good for the bricks.)

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Nearby was the Carnegie Library, which had been recently converted to serve as a county museum. In 1984 the community was quite proud of the place, recently (1980) listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Now the museum has moved to new quarters, the Phillips County/ Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, on U.S. Highway 2, where dinosaurs are the primary attraction moreso than local history after a major nationally-noted dinosaur discovery happened in the county in 2000. Yet the town has preserved a notable local house, the Victorian-style H.G. Robinson House (1898), nearby the new museum and there in a domestic setting the town’s early history and settlement is interpreted. The new highway historical/cultural institutions are improvements–but have come at a real cost: a crumbling Carnegie Library, the town’s only National Register-listed property that needs help, now.

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Another community institution was the Woman’s Club of the late 1930s, a Rustic-style building that has been discussed earlier in the blog, as part of the institutions that spoke to women’s history that I missed and could not “see” in 1984. But it was also one of three major New Deal buildings that missed–the others being the two-story brick WPA-constructed City Hall and the massive brick “Old Gym” that once served the high school.

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Malta also had its share of schools and churches, although again I did not “see” in 1984 the beauty of the contemporary-styled St. Mary’s Catholic Church from c. 1960.

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Malta’s business district is the classic T-town type of design found all along the Great Northern line. It too had its anchors: massive grain elevators and grain storage bins, along with the Arts and Crafts styled Great Northern passenger depot, defined the top of the “T”.

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Once you took the New Deal-era underpass to go under the tracks, there was the neoclassical First State Bank introducing the “stem” of the T and several blocks of businesses: two movie theaters (both closed now unfortunately) and an Art Deco-styled auto dealership being particularly notable buildings.

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Although it was in rough shape Malta also had its railroad/highway park (Trafton Park) on the north side of U.S. 2, where the original U.S. Highway 2 passed using a steel Parker through truss bridge to cross the Milk River.

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Nearby was a railroad bridge allowing Great Northern passenger trains to do the same.

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Malta, Great Northern Bridge over Milk River, 1984

The town also had its own rodeo grounds, tucked away next to a historic livery stable at the corner of N 2nd Street and N 2nd Avenue. The Maltana Motel–even in 1984 it struck me as a classic 1950s motor court–was the place to stay then, and now. It is one of the few survivors of the “Mom and Pop” roadside abodes I enjoyed in 1984 along the Hi-Line.

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Malta has many potential National Register listings–as the many photos here suggest. And all of these heritage assets could be a valuable foundation for new visions and investment. The community is keeping the buildings in use and in general decent repair. But you worry about the future–if the town’s recent trend of population decline continues.

Milk River Project Towns: Dodson, Vandalia, and Tampico

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The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Project is one of its largest and most significant in Montana; it was one of the agency’s first five projects carried out under the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. I have already briefly mentioned the project in regards to Fresno Dam outside of Havre. Now let’s consider the project and its impact on three much smaller villages: Dodson in Phillips County and Vandalia and Tampico in Valley County. All three were once major stops along U.S. 2, but a later re-routing of the highway bypassed Tampico and Vandalia, and not much is left decades later but the canals and ditches of this massive irrigation system.

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Original U.S. 2 route between Vandalia and Tampico (to right is Great Northern roadbed)

The Bureau launched the Milk River Project in the first decade of the 20th century but due to disputes over who controlled the water (the Winters case) along with international negotiations with Canada since the Milk River basin passes through both nations, serious construction did not begin until the century’s second decade. The project area encompassed 120,000 acres, with 219 miles of canals, and hundreds more of secondary laterals and ditches. The water begins at Lake Shelburne at Glacier National Park, flows through the St. Mary Canal to the Milk River where then water is stored at Fresno Reservoir outside of Havre and then at the Nelson Reservoir between Malta and Saco.

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Dobson developed as a major base for the Bureau. Nearby here was a major diversion dam, and bureau officials established a regional headquarters at Dobson in the 1910s.

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This impact of the federal agency is still reflected in the impressive two-story brick high school, the magnificent Phillips County Fairgrounds (discussed earlier in this blog), and the fact that such a small town has impressed contemporary styled churches from the 1950s. I was very impressed with the quality of the town’s built environment, considering its size, when I visited here in 1984.

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But in the mid-1990s the Bureau left Dobson for a more centralized regional office in Billings, hundreds of miles to the south. Dobson’s emptiness was shocking in 2013–even the iconic (and once very good) Cowboy Bar had shuttered its doors.

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Dodson now is entering the same fate suffered by its neighbors to the east, Vandalia and Tampico. Although trains still rumble by on the former Great Northern route, these two towns lost their highway connection when U.S. was re-routed to the north. Ever since they are slowly ebbing away. Vandalia was another location of a Bureau diversion dam on the river along with a historic steel bridge from 1911. The dam remains but the bridge is gone.

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In 1984 I loved the historic Vandalia school (1912) and had a good conversation with folks there–the school was closed but now it was a post office and still very much a community center, competing with the bar next door. Now both businesses are closed.

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Tampico lays just south of both a major canal and the railroad tracks. A scattering of buildings marks its existence.

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The water still flows through the Milk River project but the towns it once nurtured are becoming fainter with each passing year. But it is not without promise:  later we will visit the Nelson Reservoir and what is happening at Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs.  Next is Malta, the seat of Phillips County.