Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Poplar, Montana

Grain elevators on Great Northern line, 1984

Grain elevators on Great Northern line, 1984

If you arrived in Poplar, Montana, via train, as tens of thousands did 100 years ago, you saw little that made this place seem different than dozens of other northern plains towns.  Grain elevators dominated the skyline; almost as imposing were multi-story hotels–not luxury lodgings but a place to literally land for newly arrived homesteaders or “drummers,” salesmen traveling the line trying to drum up business for industries located in faraway metropolitan centers.

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Gateway Hotel, Poplar MT

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Poplar Hotel, Poplar MT

 

 

 

 

 

But if you move north away from the tracks and toward the modern-day U.S. Highway 2, a different, distinct world is found, in the historic buildings of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  Near the Montana Highway Historical Marker telling the reservation’s story is a historic jail building from the late 19th century–the town’s most identifiable historic landmark in my 1984 work and today.

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Next to the jail was a new arts and crafts shop, aimed at travelers along U.S. Highway 2, part of a significantly expanded presence for the Fort Peck Community College.

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Indeed, the new college buildings are among the most attractive institutional buildings that you can find along the eastern end of U.S. Highway 2 in Montana.  Their bold colors and dramatic placement along the highway demonstrates the importance of education for the future of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

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North of the new buildings are many historic buildings associated with the reservation’s development in the early 20th century.  Some are abandoned and in poor repair but most are in use, still serving the tribes in the 21st century.

This building was a museum in 1984; now that activity has moved to the highway, better to attract visitors

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No doubt as to my favorite new building in Poplar in 2013:  The Perculator.  Not only a classing roadside building, but they also made great coffee–perfect for a long day of fieldwork in the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Wise River Club, then and now

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 In my 1984 travels in northern Beaverhead County, I found few local dives more evocative than the Wise River Club, which stands along Montana Highway 43 near the confluence of the Big Hole and Wise rivers.  I have used this image in the decades since multiple times to illustrate the vernacular of the Montana roadside.  At the Wise River Club, the food, company, and adult beverages were great then, as they were in the spring of 2012, when I repeated my visit.

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 The club was still there, and the food remained excellent but certainly the exterior had evolved over the past thirty years.  A new stone veneer–like something out of the mid-20th century–had replaced the rustic log look of 1984.  A portico was there too.  But what you really missed were the racks, wagon wheels, and totem pole of the earlier exterior.  Until you ventured inside.

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The racks had moved into the ceiling, throughout the tavern area.  Quiet when I first arrived and everyone stepped back to accommodate the photo.  Residents could still tolerate visitors at the Wise River Club.

Wise River is a village, and like the club, little had changed there in 30 years.  I did document one building that I had unwisely ignored in 1984:  the Wise River Women’s Club, established in 1958. (Once again the so-called “50 year rule” clouded my vision).  The impact of women on community institutions can be found in any diary or book about rural Montana in the 19th and 20th centuries.  But we do not often look for the buildings that embody in a physical sense that impact.  This unadorned frame building is just one of many across the state that deserve much more than a quick look.

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Town Signs along U.S. Highway 2 in Hill and Liberty counties

Right now everyone is into Montana’s traveling season with rodeos and fairs in full swing (my old residence of Helena is having Last Chance Stampede this weekend). So I thought that a rather straightforward but fun look at signs along two Hi-Line counties was in order.

Let’s begin with Joplin, in Liberty County. In 1984 it had one of my favorites in the state, a relic of old fashioned early twentieth century boosterism with its motto–“Joplin: Biggest little town on Earth”

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The sign still exists, located north of the highway, closer to the railroad tracks (passengers of the Empire Builder see it daily). Joplin’s highway sign, however, is more modern and sleek–and symbolic with the grain elevator and wheat motifs. This 21st century type of metal, CAD-drawn sign is found all along U.S. 2.

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For instance, Chester, the seat of government for Liberty County, has a newer metal sign, suggesting a bit of streamlined Deco with its quotation of a classic passenger train engine.

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Kremlin, in Hill County, wishes to make clear its allegiances, complete with an American flag.

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Hingham, in Hill County, uses a metal screen to proclaim its existence, along with identifying community landmarks of importance. When compared to the standardized green rectangular state sign, “Entering Hingham,” there can be no doubt why town signs still matter. To officialdom, the small railroad towns are relics, hardly worth a glance, or slowing down. For residents, the signs say: hey we are here; we’re home.

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Rudyard, also in Hill County, is even willing to air its dirty laundry-an admission that in true Montana style, a resident took as the slogan for their business along the town’s main street.

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Let’s end with Hill County’s Gildford–for no particular reason except that this town has a sign always found when bragging rights can be asserted–especially when it involves high school sports. When I come back to this topic in other parts of the state we will see many more examples of signs that not only identify but also celebrate the town’s most precious assets: their high schools.

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Gladstone Hotel: A threatened landmark in Circle, Montana

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Circle, Montana, is an isolated place in the big scheme of the western landscape.  It is not close to any interstate nor is it served by any federal highways.  It is at a key Eastern Montana crossroads, that of state highways 13 and 200.  The seat of government for McCone County, the place has been an important trade and agricultural crossroads since the early 20th century.  It was at that time that the two-story frame Gladstone Hotel was constructed–as a place of first residence for homesteaders coming into the region and later for highways travelers in the automobile age.

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When I traveled the state in 1984 for the preservation plan, folks at the State Historic Preservation Office–Marcella Sherfy, Lon Johnson, and Pat Bick particularly–were eager to see what I thought about this recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places.  They knew that it was already a rare yet fascinating relic of the early homesteading era.

The day and evening in Circle were memorable.  Orville Quick, the head of the local museum and a heritage treasure in his own right, arranged everything, managing even to get a decent crowd there for my evening remarks, even though Circle was playing in the regional basketball tournament in Miles City at the same time.  The Gladstone was just as memorable–creaky, yes, quaint, yes, but quiet except for a truck or two roaring through the town.

I wasn’t surprised just disappointed at its condition today.  Certainly it is among the state’s threatened National Register landmarks.  Anytime a business is closed, the lack of use is not good for its preservation.  The solutions for a building of this size in an age of standardized lodging and marketing are daunting–where can the money come from to adequate conserve the building but yet recoup the investment when relatively few travelers come this way.  But to lose this c. 1910s building, and the role it played in giving the early town a semblance and symbol of permanence and prosperity would truly be a loss for understanding and documenting the homesteading experience of the northern plains.