To those who built a state, and made history

Sad news came out of the state capitol last week when budget cuts gave the Montana Historical Society no choice but to announce that its uber talented staff just don’t have the funding to travel to the hundreds of important places across the state, to gather stories, preserve historic buildings, conserve invaluable documents and photographs, and to celebrate with communities both large and small the history, traditions, and people that made Montana the special place it is.

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It’s unfortunate when a state steps back from its past and thinks its future is better without it.  When I look for those who built the state, the deep past is where I start, and the leaps forward in how Montana’s tribes are documenting and interpreting their history to their terms and needs, one of the most important developments in Montana’s heritage development over the last 30 plus years.

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Then there are the properties that link the peoples of Montana and their sense of themselves and their past–cemeteries large and small across the state, where veterans are commemorated and families celebrated.

IMG_7537Fort Kipp Cemetery, above, is one of those place, nestled on the river bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.  On a larger scale but still intimate, personal, and compelling is the city cemetery of Red Lodge, hundreds of miles away. Here surrounded by the mountains

are graves from the early Finnish residents who came to work at the coal mines and build a community. Some are of a traditional design, immediately translated from the old country.  Others–like the cast iron family marker shown above–are as mainstream as American industry could make it at the turn of the twentieth century:  a prefabricated marker cast somewhere back east but with Finnish lettering, speaking to those who also came over in c.1900 to build a new land.

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The Finnish imprint on the landscape of Carbon County has been eclipsed by generations of growth since the early 1900s, but as the 2016 Road Show of the Montana Preservation Alliance demonstrated, buildings large and small are still part of the landscape.  With a few acres of land outside of Red Lodge, Finnish settlers and their descendants have maintained a place of community–the Kavela–which remains vibrant some 100 years later.  At this place of ethnic identity and celebration, you almost feel like an intruder–that you have stepped inside a sacred circle as an outsider.  But families go out of their way to make you feel welcome, through fellowship, good food, and stories of past and present.  The Kavela naturally features one of the most traditional Finnish community buildings–the sauna, built of concrete in the 1920s.  Speak of tradition, ethnic pride, and assimilation–a concrete sauna might say it all.

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Indeed what you can find in the Finnish landscape of Carbon County is repeated countless times across Big Sky Country, just in different languages and with different forms.  It is why you get off the interstates and travel the backroads, the dirt roads, for

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the markers of the nations that built our nation can be almost anywhere. It might be of the many ethnicities who mined the copper of Butte, or the African American railroad

workers and other average citizens who established permanent institutions such as the Bethel Union AME Church in Great Falls, pictured below.

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Stonemasons from Croatia are credited with many of the architecturally striking stone buildings in Lewistown, shown below, whereas if you stop and explore the state capital

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of Helena, you can see where  Irish Americans banded together to fund some of the state’s most iconic structures, from the majestic Catholic Cathedral that overlooks the city and the commanding statue of General Thomas Meagher in front of the State Capitol.

From the Meagher statue it is only a few steps to the east to the doors of the Montana Historical Society.  Its operating hours are fewer but you will find an institution not just of the past but of the future for like the land itself, the society, its collections, and dedicated staff are the keepers of the things and words that remain from those who built the state.  The idea that Montana can stride into the 21st century without the Montana Historical Society is folly, defined.

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Motels across Big Sky Country

Big Timber roadside motelIn the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, the impact of lodging chains in Montana was pretty limited to the larger towns, and gateways to the national parks.  Many what I called “mom and pop” motels, largely from the pre-interstate highway era of the 1940s and 1950s, still operated.  I was working with the state employee lodging rate of $24 a night (remember it was 1984!) and I found that the per diem eliminated the chains and I was left with the local establishments.  During those months of intense travel I came to respect and really like the Moms and Pops.  Several of the places I stayed in 1984-1985 are long gone–but ones like the Lazy J Motel in Big Timber remain.  In this post I am merely sharing a range of historic motels from across Big Sky Country.

ohaire signI began the fieldwork in February 1984 and the first stop was a public meeting at the Toole County Courthouse in Shelby.  My first overnight was just as memorable–for good reasons–at the O’Haire Manor Motel.  Its huge neon sign on the town’s main street, which was U.S. Highway 2, could not be missed, and actually the sign replaced a building that once stood along the commercial district, knocking it down so travelers would have a clear shot to the motel itself.

Toole Co Shelby OHaire Motel

Motels along U.S. Highway 2 often had the grand statement to catch attention of those traveling at 80 miles a hour down the highway.  Galata, which billed itself as a gateway to the Whitlash port of entry on the Canadian border to the north, had the tallest cowboy in the region to greet visitors.

Toole Co Galata roadsideCut Bank’s Glacier Gateway, on the other hand, reminded visitors that it was that “coldest place” in the United States that they had heard about in weather forecasts.

The Circle Inn Motel outside of Havre on U.S. Highway 2 reflected the classic design of separate duplexes–cabins–for guests while the gleaming white horse statue reminded them, if they needed the prod, that they were in the wild west.

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Similar mid-20th century motels are found along Montana’s historic federal highways.  Some, like the La Hood Motel, are now forgotten as the highway, once known as the Yellowstone Trail and then U.S. Highway 10, has been relegated to secondary use.

LaHood motel, Montana 2 roadsideAnother example from the old Yellowstone Trail and U.S. Highway 10 is the Shade Tree Inn Motel in Forsyth–although coal and railroad workers help somewhat to keep it going in the 21st century.

Forsyth Rosebud Co 5Just a block west of another historic section of U.S. Highway 10 in Deer Lodge is the Downtowner Motel, with its sloping roof and extended rafters representing the best in “contemporary” style from the 1960s. This place too was clean, cheap, and well located for a day of walking the town back in 1984.

Downtowner Motel, Deer Lodge

Other motels have carried on, in a diminished role, dependent more on workers needing temporary quarters than on travelers.  In Malta, on U.S. Highway 2, I expected easy to acquire and cheap lodging at the Maltana Motel–a favorite of mine from the 1980s–but even though the town was over 200 miles from Williston, North Dakota, demands for its rooms had risen with the oil boom of the early 2010s.

Phillips Co Malta Maltana Motel roadside

The Country Side Inn Motel in Harlowton once buzzed with travelers along either U.S. Highway 12 or U.S. Highway 191 but as interstate routes have become so dominant, these motels have struggled to attract customers.

Wheatland Co Harlowton motel US 12 roadsideNot only have the changes in traffic patterns been important, the present generation’s preference for chain motels–and the proliferation of chains across the state–have shaped the future of the mid-20th century motel.  A good example is the challenges facing the continuation of the Cherry Hill Motel in Polson, located along U.S. Highway 93.  Here was a favorite spot in 1984–near a killer drive-in–a bit out of the noise of the town, and sorta fun surroundings with a great view of Flathead Lake.

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Lake Co Polson motel roadsideThe place was up for sale in 2015–and the internet today tells me that it is “permanently closed.”  I hope it can find a new owner and is still there when I next return to Polson but with the general boom in the Flathead Lake region, one assumes its days are numbered.

Lake Co Polson motel roadside 1The bear might be hugging the tree but does anyone else care enough–or want this type of lodging, complete with the “picture window” of the 1950s and 1960s, in the comfort obsessed 21st century?

I began this brief overview with the first place I stayed during the 1984-1985 fieldwork, and I will close with the last place I stayed as I finished the new statewide survey in May 2016:  the Yodeler Inn in Red Lodge.  Built in 1964 this wonder chalet-style property is listed in the National Register–of course in 1984 I never gave a thought about the motel as National Register worthy, I just loved the location, and thought it was cool.

It is still that–good rooms, great lobby, and a self-proclaimed “groovy” place.  To the north of the historic downtown are all of the chains you might want–stay there if you must, and leave the Yodeler Motel to me!

Red Lodge: Preservation Maybes and Maybe Nots

It’s no secret that I have long admired the towns of the Yellowstone Valley.  Thirty plus years ago, the attitude across much of Montana was dismissive of this region:  I even was told by someone who should have known better that “outside of Custer, there’s really isn’t much history there.”  Not only was their history in spades–chronologically deep, thematically rich–there was this tremendous built environment that I began to explore in 1982, and haven’t stopped since.

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Admittedly I take an old school approach to the preservation of this landscape.  Red Lodge has many exemplary preservation achievements but in the 21st century success may be leading to the community losing that edge, admittedly rough edge, that once characterized this region of Montana.  Case in point:  the Snag Bar.  The image on the left is from the 1980s–on the right is an image from this summer.  I was happy that the Snag was still with us–always a cozy watering hole in the past.  But now its entrance spoke to a different audience, and the place had taken on the “Main Street Preservation” look that you can find across the country–and a bit of distinctiveness was gone.

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Red Lodge was not tipped into that preservation fantasy land right out of Disney’s “Main Street U.S.A.” But new infill of modern false-fronts and even a heavy mountain-like Rustic feel doesn’t help, not to mention the northern California wine bar with its set-backs and sidewalk seating.  It is just worrisome.  As is the future of this once grand movie theater,

IMG_5799which has been hanging on, seemingly by a thread, for decades.  The theater has one of the great Classical Revival facades found in the state, full of whimsy and wonderful detail.

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Its conversion into a garage was kept it alive but a conversion into a new public use:  well it is a huge building, that needs work, and Red Lodge is already blessed with a brilliant historic movie theater, the Roman.  Multiple theaters in the early 20th century made sense: today not so much.

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Red Lodge also has gotten it right in its residential historic districts.  The “Hi-Bug” neighborhood–a designation 100 years ago that spoke to the merchant class that lived in the town’s most affluent neighborhood–has made a remarkable recovery in the last 30 years, and looks great as these few images attest.

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Throughout town there are similar preservation success stories, ranging from a historic service station (that has a nifty exhibit about Yellowstone tour buses and their preservation lurking inside) and one of my new favorites, the Regis Grocery, now a neighborhood (meaning off the tourists’ beaten path of US 212) cafe worth a stop.

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IMG_5804Red Lodge does have challenges–growth that can overwhelm historic character, too many tourism focused businesses–but the changes here over 30 years are impressive achievements, sure signs of how the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act has helped to change the face of Montana.

Red Lodge’s Commercial District: Turn of the 20th Century Masonry in the Yellowstone Valley

IMG_5789Red Lodge’s commercial district is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  While the construction dates in the district span over 100 years, from the 1890s to more recent modern-era “in fill” buildings, the most notable pattern is the number of two-story stone or brick commercial buildings from the turn of the 20th century.

IMG_5728The landmark Pollard Hotel is a good example.  Opened in 1893 as the Spofford Hotel, the building was an instant business landmark, a hotel located halfway between the depot and the heart of the new city.  As the boom intensified at the turn of the century, Thomas Pollard bought the place and doubled its size in 1902. The Pollard served as that “booster” hotel, designed to show businessmen and investors that Red Lodge was an up and coming place.

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The Pollard was not alone in defining the city’s look.  Facing it were long blocks of two-part mostly brick commercial buildings, with retail and sales on the first floor and residences and offices for a growing professional class on the 2nd floors.

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The decorative cornices proudly proclaimed that the new buildings were part of the new century, and a promising era for all involved.  Of course commercial design in more settled areas to the east and west had already moved away from the heavy masonry typical of the 1880s–but Red Lodge was largely a Victorian commercial district for what would be a 20th century mining boom town.

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While two-story, two-part commercial blocks set one pattern in historic Red Lodge, another is created through the rhythm of the large commercial enterprises and the less ambitious one-story brick buildings of the district.

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Here is another building material found in abundance, rusticated concrete block meant to mimic stone masonry, and the stuccoed top half of the bakery building is another reminder that some owners used imitation materials to fit into Red Lodge’s streetscapes.

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While the commercial district retains much of what made it a special place when I first visited over 30 years ago, it has lost some of that small town Montana feel as owners increasingly cater to those tourists passing through.  The challenges of preservation in Red Lodge will be the next topic.

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Red Lodge: Coal Town on the Clark’s Fork River

Clark's Fork River, off U.S. 212, Carbon County, MT

Clark’s Fork River, off U.S. 212, Carbon County, MT

When the Northern Pacific Railroad entered the Yellowstone Valley in the 1880s, officials and investors immediately began the search to find and acquire locally available deposits of coal.  First there came the Klein mines north of Billings and then by the end of the decade, the first move toward mines to the south, in the Clark’s Fork Valley, at what would become Carbon County with its major town of Red Lodge. Development began slowly, with the Depression of 1893 intervening, but as the era’s financial and railroad magnates combined the Great Northern, the Burlington Route, and the Northern Pacific into one huge co-operative venture, they selected a new place in the Yellowstone Valley, a town called Laurel at the confluence of the Clark’s Fork and Yellowstone rivers, to connect the three railroads. In short order, a Northern Pacific Railroad spur line was built down the Clark’s Fork to the place called Red Lodge–U.S. Highway 212 follows this route–and the boom was on.

IMG_5759Entering Red Lodge from the north via U.S. 212 you encounter immediately the town’s roots as a railroad town, as the historic Northern Pacific depot remains rooted at the head of the town.  Here is where my long-interest with the Red Lodge story began in 1984 when

IMG_5760I met with a small group of local historians, preservationists, and civic leaders determined to keep Red Lodge and its still intact historic environment together. The group’s vision for the depot was for it to be a visitor center, an arts center, but more than anything a community center, a visible sign of the turnaround that could happen.  Already, at the head of town artist Peter Toth had begun the new tradition with his mammoth wood sculpture, “In Honor of a Proud and Noble People,” installed in 1979, a theme of the region’s

IMG_5764Native American history and proximity to the Crow Indian Reservation that also was captured in a much more commercial way by the neon sign of the Red Lodge Cafe then, and still to my mind, the best place in town.  The neon, like Toth’s sculpture, was designed

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to attention of the one course of heritage tourism income that locals recognized:  that summer traffic coming out of Billings and off the interstate heading to Yellowstone National Park via U.S. 212 and the Beartooth Pass, one of the true highway wonders of the United States.  How to get people to stop, and how to restore pride and hope for the town itself: those motivated the group I met in 1984 moreso than any well meaning goal of merely preserving history and pretty buildings.

IMG_5758To say that the initial depot project was successful would be an understatement.  Thirty years later the depot is a public space that includes a gazebo, outdoor art, and a setting of history and culture rarely rivaled in the region.  As you move south from the depot, you also immediately encounter several of the dreams the groups discussed in 1984:  a National Register of Historic Places historic district (there are now more than one); restored and treasured public buildings such as the Carnegie Library and Carbon County Courthouse;

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and their biggest goal of all in 1984, the acquisition, preservation, and transformation of iconic Labor Temple into a history museum and heritage center for the Carbon County Historical Society.

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The group understood the power of the Labor Temple:  they could tell a story not just of railroad magnates and economic development but could look at this history from those who came and labored in the mines, and built the town.  The building dated to the decade of Red Lodge’s height, 1910-1920, when the town’s population reached 5,000 but especially once the Northern Pacfic opened new mines at Colstrip to the east in the 1920s,  the town had been in a decades long period of population decline, where less than 2,000 people lived in 1980.  Many had given up, obviously, but those who stayed saw the bones of a possible community renaissance–and preservation was a big part of that.  That more recent story comes next.