Eureka!! It’s a Lincoln County Town

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Nestled within the Tobacco Valley of northern Lincoln County is the town of Eureka, which serves as a northern gateway into Montana along U.S. Highway 93.  I first encountered the town in 1982, as I returned from a jaunt into Alberta, and immediately thought here is a classic linear town plan, a landscape created by a spur line of the Great Northern Railway.

Flathead Co Eureka streetscapeAs I would come to find out, on two return trips here in 1984, the town was much more than that, it was a true bordertown between two nations and two cultures.  The two trips came about from, first, a question about a public building’s eligibility for the National Register, and, second, the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, where such obvious landmarks as the National Hotel and Eureka passenger depot were noted.  Thirty

Flathead Co Eureka National Hotel 1907

Flathead Co Eureka GN depot 2years later I was pleased to see the National Hotel in much better condition but dismayed to see the Great Northern passenger station–a classic example of its early 20th century standardized designs–is far worse condition that it had been in 1984.

Flathead Co Eureka GN depotOtherwise, Eureka has done an impressive job of holding together its historic core of downtown one and two-story commercial buildings.  In 1995, owners had the Farmers and Merchants State Bank, built in 1907, placed in the National Register.  Walking the town, however, you see the potential of a historic district of this turn of the 20th century place.

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Oh yeah, what about that second reason for two trips in 1984?  That would be the Eureka Community Hall, one of the last public buildings constructed by the Works Progress Administration in Montana in 1942.

Flathead Co Eureka WPA community hall 2Located on a hill perched over the town, the building was obviously a landmark–but in 1984 it also was just 42 years old, and that meant it needed to have exceptional significance to the local community to merit listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  Eureka had been a logging community, and the depression hit hard.  The new building not only reflected community pride but also local craftsmanship, and it became a

img_8239foundation for community resurgence in the decades to come.  The building was listed in 1985, and was the first to have my name attached to it, working with Sally Steward of the local historical society.  But credit has to go to Pat Bick and especially Marcella Sherfy of the State Historic Preservation Office for urging me to take it on, and to guide me through the maze of the National Register process. Today, it has experienced an adaptive reuse and serves as a rustic log furniture store.

Flathead Co Eureka WPA community hall 4During those visits in 1984 I also held a public meeting in Eureka for the state historic preservation plan, where I learned about the Tobacco Valley Historical Society and its efforts to preserve buildings destined for the chopping block through its museum village on the southern edge of town. Here the community gathered the Great Northern depot (1903) of Rexford, the same town’s 1926 Catholic Church, the Mt. Roberts lookout tower, the Fewkes Store, and a U.S. Forest Service big Creek Cabin from 1926.

But thirty years later I found new public interpretation not just in the museum village but in the town itself, as Eureka introduced visitors to its history and setting and also told its

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border story of such fascinating people as Joseph Peltier, who built the first dwelling at the town site in 1891, and especially the cross-border entrepreneur Sophie Morigeau, who was trading in the area as early as 1863.

The Peltier log dwellings came within a year of each other, 1891 and 1892, and their size, finish, and log notching speak to the region’s rapid development.  His 1891 low pitched roof, v-notched cabin is typical, throughout the mountain west, of first homes–quickly constructed shelter.  The second house, with its hewn log exterior and crafted corner notching speaks to permanence.  The settler was here to stay in 1892.

Eureka has held its population steady over 30 years, just a few families over 1,000 residents, a sizable achievement considering the change in both railroading and logging over that time.  I think community pride and identity has to be contributors, because you see it everywhere, and I will close with two last examples.  The town’s library and nearby veterans park, and then the magnificent Art Deco-influenced high school–yet another New Deal era contribution to this special gateway town.

 

 

 

The Sweet Grass of the Yellowstone Valley

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Sweet Grass County has one of the most spectacular landscapes of the entire state of Montana.  Located in the middle of the Yellowstone Valley, the county has long been a significant crossroads, from the prehistoric era to today.  At the county seat of Big Timber, Interstate Highway 90 (along with the historic route of old U.S. Highway 10) parallels the Yellowstone River.  The town is also the southern point of origin for U.S. Highway 191,

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The Lazy J, near the intersection of U.S. 191 and old U.S. 10, is a classic bit of mid-20th century roadside architecture.

which strikes northward cutting across Central Montana and continuing until the highway ends at the Canadian border, north of Malta.

IMG_6331Established by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1882-1883, Big Timber has the classic T-Plan town plat found on so many Northern Pacific towns.  But one reason I have long liked this place is the quirkiness of its town plan.  The depot and the elevators are where they

IMG_6329should be, forming the top of the “T,” but the beautiful early 20th century stone masonry Sweet Grass County Courthouse is neither on McLeod Street (the stem of the T) nor at the end of the T, dividing the town’s commercial area from its residential neighborhood.  No, it IMG_6333is a block west of the intersection of McLeod Street and old U.S. Highway 10–an uncommon arrangement of public space in northern plains railroad towns.  A public park

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effectively marks the end of the historic town.  When I first surveyed the town in 1984, I found that an old 1946 highway marker for the Lewis and Clark Expedition had been moved to the park a year prior to my visit, and the interpretive sign told me that the town had a sense of its place in history.  In the decades since, residents have added a monument to the town’s early wool industry along with a bronze sculpture, titled “Free Spirit” by Dave Hodges, linking the place to the open spaces and cowboy culture of the valley.  Coming soon will be the new headquarters for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, an institution that searched high and long for a home until finding Big Timber.

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IMG_6271Public interpretation through art is another change I encountered in Big Timber.  The most striking dates to the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial at the start of this century.  On the walls of the local grocery store are three panels telling the story of the expedition in Sweet Grass County as the men encountered the confluence of the Boulder and Yellowstone rivers.  IMG_6296On another commercial building near the intersection of U.S. 191 and old U.S. 10 was an unexpected surprise:  a mural recreating–or is it reinterpreting–the famed Milwaukee Road promotional poster from the turn of the 20th century that encouraged homesteaders

IMG_6267to head to Montana. Oddly the reproduction mural gives the Northern Pacific corporate emblem but the route shown is the Milwaukee’s route, admittedly also showing where the two lines ran side by side in parts of the Yellowstone Valley.

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Public interpretation has not extended into an intensive involvement with the National Register of Historic Places.  In 1984, only one property–a segment of the Bozeman Trail where it crossed the Yellowstone–in the county was listed, and that stood on Sweet Grass’s far western border to Park County.  Then, right after I had finished the project, the iconic western hotel, The Grand, was listed in the National Register.  In the 30 years, a handful of Big Timber landmarks also have been designated on the National Register:  the Classical Revival-styled Carnegie Library, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and the Big

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Sweetgrass Co Big Timber 6 - Version 2 IMG_6306Timber City Hall.  Little doubt these landmarks are cherished–when more library space was necessary this century the expansion of the historic building was done appropriately, keeping this landmark in service for decades.

IMG_6308But when you consider just how intact the town’s historic environment from the 1880s to the 1950s is today, you think a National Register historic district nomination in order, or at least one for the historic commercial district, which has a wonderful array of building types, designs, and, luckily for Big Timber, open businesses, including one of my favorite bars in all of the state–at least favorite bar signs–the Timber Bar.

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IMG_6275IMG_6284The next post will look deeper in the historic buildings of Big Timber, and then stretch north to a real jewel, the Melville Lutheran Church.

Grassrange: Fergus County Crossroads

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Grassrange is a central Montana crossroads, where U.S. Highway 87 meets Montana highways 19 and 200, and it serves as the eastern gateway to Fergus County.  The wonderful vernacular roadside statement of “Little Montana”–an obvious homage to the much larger and more famous “Little America” in southeast Wyoming–reminds even the most oblivious traveler that you have reached a highway crossroads.

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As the name implies, this is ranching country, with several of the state’s most famous spreads nearby.  The school reflects the pride in ranching, witness its school emblem and name the Rangers.

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There is more than livestock to the history of Grassrange, as the elevators attest.  This is also farmers’ country since the early 20th century homesteading boom.  Yet Grassrange has never been a bit town itself.  It dates to 1883 when the first post office was stab listed to serve surrounding ranchers; the town still has its standardized 1970s post office building.

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Grassrange has a definite sense of its past.  Despite its scant population–just over 100 in the 2010 census–it has a city park (top image of this blog) plus its own public interpretation of its history, literally carved from local hands.

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It also has surviving historic landmarks, from a false-front Masonic Lodge to a vernacular Gothic-styled United Methodist Church, to a well-worn one-block commercial building that, considering its add-ons and alterations, has served the community in several different ways over the last 100 years.

Fergus Co Grassrange masonic hall  - Version 2

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Many rural Montana crossroads are little more than a combination bar/cafe/store/gas station today.  Grassrange has dwindled in size since my first visit in 1984 but it has kept its school and such community buildings as the church, Masonic hall, and city park.  It is home than the home of “Little Montana”; it’s a reminder of the precarious state of Montana’s small towns across the vastness of the northern plains.