Back on the Hi-Line: Hinsdale and Saco

Phillips Co Saco west on US2 showing old road, new, and GN tracks

Hinsdale (just over 200 people in Valley County) and Saco (just under 200 people in Phillips County) are two country towns along the Hi-Line between the much larger county seats of Glasgow and Malta.  I have little doubt that few visitors ever stop, or even slow down much, as they speed along the highway.  Both towns developed as railroad stops along the Great Northern Railway–the image above shows how close the highway and railroad tracks are along this section of the Hi-Line.  Both largely served, and still

Phillips Co Robinson Ranch w of saco roadside

serve, historic ranches, such as the Robinson Ranch, established in 1891, in Phillips County.  Both towns however have interesting buildings, and as long as they keep their community schools, both will survive in the future.

Valley Co Hinsdale school

Hinsdale School, Valley County

Phillips Co Saco school

Saco School, Phillips County

Of the two towns, I have discussed Saco to a far greater extent in this blog because it was one of my “targeted” stops in the 1984 survey.  The State Historic Preservation Office at the Montana Historical Society had received inquiries from local residents in Saco about historic preservation alternatives and I was there to take a lot of images to share back with the preservationists in Helena.  But in my earlier posts, I neglected two community

Phillips Co Saco post officebuildings, the rather different design of the post office from the 1960s and the vernacular Gothic beauty of the historic Methodist Church, especially the Victorian brackets of its bell tower.

Phillips Co Saco UM church

I ignored Hinsdale almost totally in its first posting, focusing on roadside murals.  This Valley County town is worth a second look, if just for its two historic bank buildings.  The former First National Bank and the former Valley County Bank both speak to the hopes for growth along this section of the Milk River Project of the U.S. Reclamation Service in the early 20th century.  Architecturally both buildings were touched by the Classical Revival style, and both took the “strongbox” form of bank buildings that you can find throughout the midwest and northern plains in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Valley Co Hinsdale 4 1st national bank

Valley Co Hinsdale 2 bankValley Co Hinsdale 1 bank

The rest of Hinsdale’s “commercial district” has the one-story “false-front” buildings often found in country railroad towns along the Hi-Line.

Valley Co Hinsdale 3

Local residents clearly demonstrate their sense of community not only through the school, which stands at the of the commercial area.  But community pride also comes through in such buildings as the c. 1960s American Legion Hall, the c. 1902 Methodist church (the separated cupola must be a good story), and St. Anthony’s Catholic Church.

Valley Co Hinsdale American Legion hall

Valley Co Hinsdale UM Church 1902

Valley Co Hinsdale St Albert's Catholic

These small railroad towns of the Hi-Line have been losing population for decades, yet they remain, and the persistence of these community institutions helps to explain why.

Small-town Montana: 35 Years Ago

BA40C123-2091-4C10-B2FF-91072816A954The new year will mark 35 years since I began my systematic exploration of Montana for the state historic preservation office.  I am using that loose anniversary (actually I started in Toole County in February) as an excuse to share some of my favorite images from a time that seems like yesterday but certainly belongs to another era. The image of a winter morning in McCabe in the northeast corner of Montana is still perhaps my favorite of all.  The idea of a town being merely a handful of unadorned buildings fascinated me, and the primacy of the post office also struck me.

EC800707-BDBD-40EC-A3A3-DBEB918A67D1The imprint of the metropolitan corridor of great railroad corporations crossing the northern plains with their trains speeding between Seattle and St Paul never left my memory— as four decades of my graduate students will sadly attest. The image of Hoagland in northern Blaine County recorded what happened to the spur lines of the main corridors by the end of the century. The image below of Joplin along US Highway 2 is what I always think of when someone mentions the Hi-Line.

1975D293-C467-450A-B0D4-8122F5F66F79Small-town Montana is also defined by its local bars and taverns, as I have repeatedly emphasized in this blog.  Swede’s Place in Drummond just said a lot to me in 1984. But I wasn’t sure which door to use— the one between the glass block windows did the trick.

C808D840-B507-49A2-A3E0-79239C8B0605Some places I considered small town landmarks have disappeared in the last third of a century.  The Antler Hotel and bar in Melstone on US Highway 12 is one I still miss.

D801E41B-7955-482D-9ACB-D760810DFEE3Rural schools were everywhere even though some had been abandoned for a generation.  The Boston Coulee School still had its New Deal privy. The New Deal also built the modernist styled Shawmut School. I haven’t been that way in awhile—I wonder if it still serves that tiny town.

C78B440C-A573-465A-9CF2-114D5518C3503E0BE5B1-0313-4445-A8F6-18A2B6D0DE92The towns defined only by their community centers also fascinated me.  Loring was bigger than Eden for what that’s worth but these comparatively substantial and obviously valued buildings told me that community meant something perhaps more profound in the Montana plains.

85EABA98-E1B6-4D7A-BCE1-6A2FF3C0F5F75561C665-42CC-4BC6-AB4A-656586479BD8I will always remember Saco fondly for the town tour that residents gave me—it ranged from an old homesteader hotel (no longer there) to a Sears Roebuck kit bungalow, which is still a family home in Saco although Sears Roebuck has largely closed up shop.

8C42D13E-2D57-40A3-8086-8D9A403B4FDBE070E089-F5B8-4846-9424-72757F302496These images are merely a beginning of my reconsideration of what I saw, heard and experienced 35 years ago but I know they represent places that still bring meaning to me today.

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New Deal Transformations: A Hot Springs in Phillips County, Montana

 In 1922 the Bowdoin Oil and Gas Company was drilling on land about 4 miles north of U.S. Highway 2 and the tracks on the Great Northern Railway, on the high benchlands north of the Milk River. They struck not oil but “a flow of warm sulphur water,” estimated at 24,000 barrels per day. The oilmen didn’t need a hot spring and moved on. But local citizens in Phillips County thought long and hard about harnessing that natural resource, which was just east of the Nelson Reservoir of the Milk River Irrigation Project of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

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By the mid-1920s local residents, led by the Malta Commercial Club, developed a plan–known as the “Malta Plan,” that involved the federal purchase of submarginal land in order to enhance conservation and also to gather greatly scattered ranchers into central locations in order to address land erosion and settlement patterns. As summarized by Bernie Alt and Glenn Mueller in their “Evolution of the National Grasslands”:  “The gist of the plan was that the Federal Government would take options to buy or buy outright land from farmers and ranches who could not continue to operate as in the past because of low prices, drought, erosion of land, and other reasons.  Any of the individuals who desired would then be resettled in the Milk River Valley.”  The Malta Plan became the proverbial first step towards not only the later Resettlement Administration (1935-37) but its successor the Farm Security Administration and then the National Grasslands. Re-purchase and then re-seeding in grass of abandoned homestead land was the big picture, and Phillips County was front and center in this national experiment from the 1930s on.

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But this story focuses on what changing federal land policy meant for one place in the county–Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs–that is now being re-energized and restored by determined property owners. When I visited the hot springs in 1984, I did not consider it much of a place. The buildings needed work; everything looked dated, worn. I did not dig deeper–and just assumed that there was not much a story here. Matters looked maybe even worse when I visited in 2013–the place was closed, abandoned, and seemed to have little hope. Local residents told me great stories of the springs’ best days. Those seemed to be gone forever.

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Then I noticed a small hipped roof open-structure which was certainly there in 1984–but my eyes had not been trained by viewing hundreds of New Deal-era structures to notice it. Here was existing truth in the ground that spoke strongly to the larger story of the New Deal transformation of Montana’s plains.

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The structure covered Public Water Reserve No. 141, federally established in 1931 by executive order from President Herbert Hoover to protect the hot springs. In 1932, the federal government transferred the well to the Saco Post #79 of the American Legion for development of recreation uses. By the mid-1930s, the American Legion Health Pool was open, and the tradition of the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs was underway. The New Deal guidebook for Montana encouraged visitors to go to the Health Pool for its recreational and “curative” waters and the Legion sold postcards like the one below.

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In the second half of the 20th century, the American Legion transferred the property to private owners, who expanded operations and launched the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs, so named for a sacred rock that stood down on U.S. Highway 2.

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What happened to the well? It is still there, with bronze markers explaining how this spot is part of the Resettlement Administration’s Land Utilization program–what became known as the Malta Subsistence Homesteads project centered around Wagner between Malta and Dodson. When I traveled Montana in 1984, I did not give enough attention to federal law, water rights, and the impact of the Reclamation Bureau.  You cannot miss the impact as you travel U.S. 2 between Chinook and Saco.

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Blaine County spawned the landmark Supreme Court decision on federal water rights of Winters v U.S. (1908). Phillips County spawned the first federal resettlement project and the “Malta Plan.” Historian Joseph Kinsey Howard in 1946 remarked: “So many federal agencies have had their ambitious fingers in the Malta pie that few even among project officials can be quite sure of all of them.”

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Today there is little but the transformed landscape itself to mark how these two rural places shaped national law. The next period of the hot springs’ history is being written right now. Michelle Lefdahl Simpson (a Phillips County native) and her husband Dennis are restoring the place–a process you can follow on the Facebook page for Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs. Michelle Simpson told the Phillips County News in May 2014: “When I was little and we would head to the Sleeping Buffalo, we would travel the approximately 20 miles from Whitewater on the gravel roads,” Michelle said. “I would be sitting in the back seat with my siblings waiting to see that big blue slide come out of literally nowhere and all I could think about was getting my wrist band on and racing up to the top. For me, it was as if our parents took us to Disney-land or something.”  Here’s to the Simpsons for stepping forward to reclaim a forgotten 20th century Montana landmark.