Miles City: Bust and Recovery, 1925-1960

IMG_7005The thirty years between 1925 and 1955 were among the worst of times for residents of Miles City, but these were years where the town created and gained new institutions that would serve them well for the rest of the century. Population growth stalled, then sharply declined.  1930 census counted 7,175, a drop of over 750 from 1920.  And the number only ticked up slightly during the 1930s, gaining less than 150 new residents.

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In the late 1920s, stockgrowers worked with local boosters to establish the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds, and over the next twenty years, they added new buildings and features to transform the place into a historic district that showcases what fairgrounds mean to rural Montana communities. Stockgrowers also met with local railroad officials to devise a plan to reinvigorate the grazing lands south of Miles City, properties that had been overgrazed since there were no restrictions on grazing on public lands.  The group established a concept that called for formal leasing of public lands for grazing in return for private investment and better conservation practices.  Congress agreed that the concept was worth an experiment and in 1928 it established by law the Mizpah-Pumpkin Creek Grazing District. As Depression stalked the land in the early 1930s, Congress took the Custer County experiment and transformed it into a national law that impacted the entire West:  the Taylor Grazing Act.

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The Taylor Grazing Act combined with other New Deal agricultural programs to call for the slaughter of thousands of cattle and horses in the region.  That, combined with the end of the open range, devastated the cowboy culture that had so defined Custer County and left everyone in a funk.

At least one bright spot lit up Main Street.  In 1936 the Montana Theatre, a splendid Art Deco building, opened, and the movies provided one important escape from the hard times.

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Postcard of Range Riders Museum c. 1960

Another local reaction came in 1939 when residents met and celebrated the cowboys who came in the early years of settlement and created the culture that everyone hated to see pass.  A year later they gathered in Miles City again and decided to raise money for a “cowboy’s memorial building,” which when completed in 1942 became the Range Riders Museum. As a history of the museum concludes, the building “serves two other principal purposes: A meeting place for cowboys and a headquarters for the annual reunion. The members were satisfied that it was a fitting memorial to an industry in which the raising and furnishing of livestock needed to be preserved for future generations.”

Range Riders Museum, 2013

Range Riders Museum, 2013

The museum has steadily expanded ever since, with the addition of new exhibition space and adding other historic buildings from the county to the property.

IMG_7011Another community institution, Riverside Park, received a new ballpark, fearing beautiful stone masonry, known now as Connors Stadium, in 1940.  This New Deal project was just one of many across Montana in the late 1930s and 1940s, designed to improve public recreation and school athletics.

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New Deal support also combined with local funding to create the Pumping Station Park at the nearby city waterworks plant.  Custer County now had re-energized public spaces.

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Northeast of Miles City, and north of the Yellowstone River, federal agencies created a huge reformed landscape, the Kinsey Flats project (1938-1941), which was a double-layered landscape of the New Deal. Here, federal Resettlement Administration officials relocated formerly displaced ranchers—many of whom the New Deal had dislocated earlier in the decade during its massive purchase of marginal lands throughout the region—to a new planned community north of Miles City. One of the officials involved with both projects, David G. Rivenes of Miles City, recalled: “I know what a terrible experience it was for folks from Fallon County, East Custer County, and Prairie County, to pull up stakes, leave their life-long friends and relatives, the land that some had even homesteaded—and move into strange surroundings and convert to irrigation farming.”

Federal funding also bettered educational opportunities.  The National Youth Administration supported not only the high school but also expanding its offerings to create the Custer County Junior College.  During World War II, federal funding supported civil pilot training at the college, which at that time held its classes at the high school.  In 1957, it moved classes to the historic Milwaukee Road depot.

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

Milwaukee Road Depot, Miles City

In 1966 the college changed its name to Miles Community College and began the process of relocating to its present campus, near the VA hospital complex.  The first junior college in the region continues to shape Miles City today.

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Miles Community College, c. 1967

These different public institutions played a crucial role in Miles City’s decade of recovery from 1945 to 1960 as population grew to 9243 in 1950 and almost 10,000 by 1960.  Federal funding was important but local support was critical.  County government, for example, added a Art Deco Modern courthouse, designed by the firm of J.G. Link of Billings, in 1948-1949.

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Then residents and local governments pooled resources to donate almost $30,00 to purchase prime east side property to attract the construction of a modern Veterans Administration hospital. Groundbreaking took place in October 1948 and the hospital admitted its first patients on August 1, 1951.

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The architect was Great Falls native, Angus V. McIver, working in collaboration with Cushing and Terrell of Billings.  McIver had been a prominent architect in Great Falls and Billings for a generation, along with a distinguished career with the military and other federal agencies.  Shortly after receiving this commission, McIver was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

As contractors were building the 100-bed hospital, local ranchers and civic leaders launched, in 1950, the annual Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, one of the premier cultural events in eastern Montana every May.  The sale uses both the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds, the Range Riders Museum, and Riverside Park–among other venues–to pay homage to the city’s cowboy roots but also the persistence of stockraising in this region.

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Miles City’s first steps in preservation, 1984

When I next returned to Miles City in March 1984, I found a town much interested in the promise of historic preservation.  At that time, the town and Custer County as a whole only had three properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places:  Fort Keogh, a steam laundry building (since demolished), and the city waterworks along the Yellowstone river.

Miles City Water Treatment Plant, c. 1911

Miles City Water Treatment Plant, c. 1911

This local landmark, which had been converted into the Custer County Arts and Heritage Center, came out of Miles City’s golden decade of the 1910s when the town boomed following the arrival of the Milwaukee Road, the railroad’s decision to turn the town into a division point, and the potential of new business brought about by the arrival of thousands of homesteaders either on the Milwaukee line or the earlier Northern Pacific Railroad, which had done so much to establish and develop the town from 1882 forward.

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The Pumping Station park at the waterworks dates to 1939, another public project of the New Deal which did so much to transform the town and county.

The public meeting for the preservation plan took place at the waterworks, organized by the director of the Custer County Arts and Heritage Center (now known as Waterworks Art Museum).  It was a lively and interested crowd, like me concerned about the fate of Fort Keogh and its rapidly disappearing historic buildings and what still remained in town of its railroad era of 1882 to 1932.

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The fort property had been accidentally preserved for decades, ever since its conversion into an agricultural experiment station in the 1920s.  But preserving what had been left was not a priority of the agricultural reformers (who, to be fair, were never awash in funding).

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The tall metal flag pole marks the old parade grounds at Fort Keogh.

In 1984, one officer quarters still remained on the property, in poor repair.  It has been moved a few miles down the highway and restored at the Range Riders Museum.

Photo taken from Range Riders Museum website

Photo taken from Range Riders Museum website

One historic c. 1920 mess hall, from the fort’s remount era, also remains, and is the post’s most noticeable landmark.  But one brick water wagon shed from 1883 still exists (it was converted into a truck garage in the 1930s) as well as another New Deal building, a massive horse barn from 1934.

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The mess hall, c. 1920, at Fort Keogh

The group that night at the waterworks emphasized that they knew more needed to be done, and over the next generation, town residents have done impressive work, especially considering that the town’s population has been in decline, from about 9600 in 1980 to 8400 in 2010.  The arts center no doubt showed significant leadership:  how a historic building could be converted into new community uses.  But one ringleader also introduced himself to me that evening–Dave Rivenes.  Dave and Ella Rivenes were community institutions as owners/operators of the local television station, representing the smallest television market in the entire United States.

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As soon as the meeting was over, Dave convinced me to come to his house, and go on the air, discussing for the local audience what had happened that night.  He and Ella then put me on the morning show.  Not having any experience before with live television, I hope that I sounded somewhat with it–it was a surreal experience.  But the pride in the town and the appreciation for the past that I gained from Dave and Ella Rivenes left a lasting mark.  I came to understand that when residents embrace their past, and you help them in that quest, good things for history and preservation can happen.  That is apparent in what Miles City has accomplished in historic preservation over the last 30 years–the subject of my next several posts.