Saco and Montana’s Hi-Line 30 years ago and today

Saco, a small Great Northern Railway town on Montana’s Hi-Line in Phillips County, is a good place for comparison photography from the historic preservation planning work of 1984 to my return trip in 2013.  

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As I worked across the state in the winter and spring of 1984, my schedule and route was mostly self-driven: choices on how much I wanted to see and in what depth were left to me.  But the State Historic Preservation Office wanted me to take a particular close look at Saco because  several citizens and property owners were turning to historic preservation and no one at the office in Helena really knew what the town looked like.

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Saco at first glance was similar to many other Hi-Line railroad towns that were not county seats.  It had a T-town plan, that is the primary commercial artery faced the tracks (that was the route of US 2) while a secondary commercial street radiated like the stem of a T from the center of the town.  Saco then still had a Great Northern depot, one of the standardized small designs from the 1950s.  Across from the depot on the highway was the Clack Service Station, where I bought gas that morning.  The service station was later listed in the National Register as part of the effort to identify key roadside architecture along US 2: the station now serves as a visitor center.

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But in 1984 no one in Saco talked about roadside architecture.  The focus was on an early 20th century two-story bank building.  Many Montana railroad towns have similar buildings–really landmarks of capital, then and now.  They spoke to the promise of the town–and were always located on the prominent corner (here the point of the T) facing the tracks.  No one who passed through Saco and bothered to take a look would doubt that local residents believed in the community because there was the architecturally impressive bank building, commanding respect on the plains landscape by its mere presence. 

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Saco was different than other communities because the opposite corner from the bank was also occupied by an architecturally notable two-story commercial block, and today both of those buildings remain as physical anchors of the town’s early 20th century history.

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However, the commercial buildings that once lined the stem of the T are missing.  Here is a view from a window in the second floor of the bank building that show some of the buildings.

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One old hotel was barely hanging on in 1984 as these two photos show. and residents wanted to keep it, but now those are gone and the block behind the bank and the commercial block have been wiped clean.

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Other one-story buildings on the highway have also been demolished to make way for new prefab structures, but on the streets behind US 2 a good bit of historic Saco remains, from lodge buildings to garages.

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Saco in 1984 even had a historic attraction–the one-room school that Chet Huntley attended when he grew up in this part of Phillips County in the early 20th century.  In 1984 the Huntley school was worthy of a stop–because of the fame of Chet Huntley, who also wrote well of the place in his memoirs.  But now few stop to look, I was told–because no one recalls who Chet Huntley was.  He was a legendary newsman of his time, and his NBC program once ruled the airwaves.  Then CBS named Walter Cronkite as its evening news anchor.  He is the name people still speak of in the 21st century.  Chet Huntley has been forgotten. 

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My last stop in Saco in 1984 brings this brief narrative to a happy ending.  One resident wanted to show off his home–an attractive bungalow.  We explored the place and looked over the blueprints–from Sears Roebuck–that his family used to build the place in the second decade of the 20th century.  100 years later, the house remains, as attractive as ever. 

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Families remain devoted to Saco, and while its time as a commercial stop is diminished from the early 20th century it remains a community adding new layers of history to this place on the Hi-Line.

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The Hi-Line’s Phillips County Fairgrounds

County fairgrounds may be the single most important place where rural and small-town Montanans gather every summer to celebrate community, achievement, and heritage. Young and old take delight in the exhibits, rides, food, concerts, and rodeo.  Families gather and reinforce their common sense of identity and purpose.  

Historians and preservationists need to do more with the fairgrounds as a significant historic landscape.  Over the next several postings let’s explore the historic fairgrounds of the Hi-Line.

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The Phillips County Fair in Dodson is the state’s longest continuously operating county fair.  According to a research paper prepared by high school students Jade Olson, Sam Petersen, and Abija Rhodes and published on the web in 2011, the fair grew out of an earlier Great Northern Railroad-supported effort to annually showcase the year’s harvest by means of an agricultural fair (dating to 1891).  The fairs were meant as a demonstration that the demanding land of the Hi-Line could produce valuable agricultural commodities.  With the creation of Phillips County, the new commissioners agreed in 1915 to take over the earlier agricultural fair and in October 1916 the inaugural Phillips County Fair took place.   Edgar Lee was the first fair president, and he held the post to 1949–a 30-year reign where he worked with the community to build a tradition that not only highlighted crops and livestock but entertained.  Certainly the rodeo came to dominate the annual fair, but this fair always offered something for almost everyone.  There were concerts, daredevil pilots doing aerial stunts, Native American battle re-enactments, and carney rides of all sorts.  Trade magazines of the 1940s and 1950s recognized the Phillips County Fair as one of the biggest small-town festivals in all of the west.  A 1946 account in Billboard Magazine noted that the 40-acre fair site had exhibit buildings worth $10,000, a grandstand that could seat 2,000 (and noted plans to enlarge the grandstand), and a half-mile race track.  After Lee’s retirement from the fair board, facilities continued to expand with the grandstand expanded to its present size in the 1950s.  As the country music industry expanded its touring acts, famous performers took their turn on the Phillips County fair stage from the 1950s to today.  This year rising star Gwen Sebastian performed–Toby Keith also once played the fair.

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With that brief background sketch in mind, what do you find at the fairgrounds today?  To my eye, you find a very intact mid-20th century fairground landscape, impressive by the obvious stewardship of the community and the unadorned aesthetic of the wood frame, painted white buildings.  The race track is still there but now the rodeo is the key event of the fair as shown in this image of the historic chutes.Image.

The grandstands and related structures dominate the fairgrounds.  But many other buildings contribute to the historic sense of place.

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The octagonal-shaped exhibit building for the county historical society stands at the center of the fairgrounds, a reflection of the pride in heritage shared by the community.  Also impressive is the condition of the livestock barns and associated exhibit areas.  

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Located on the north side of the Great Northern tracks, which are also north of U.S. 2, most travelers probably never notice the historic fairgrounds.  The tall block of the grandstands face the tracks, meaning that railroad travelers can’t really miss noticing the grounds–and of course when the fairgrounds started, its audience came by horse, buggy, wagon, and rail–few depended on autos.

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The Phillips County Fair nears its 100th anniversary–the buildings, and the stories and traditions embedded in them, are a remarkable heritage testament in this tiny Hi-Line town.

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