Drive-In Time in Montana

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 100 US 87 roadside drive-in

June means it is drive-in time in Big Sky Country.  The next three months are not only when most visitors come to Montana.  It is the time when Montanans get out and travel to festivals, rodeos, and their own family vacations.  In my years of traveling and documenting historic places in Montana, I have not forgotten the drive-in restaurant and its role in the roadside landscape of the state.  I paid some attention to this property type during the original work on the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985.  Most drive-ins (and here I am focusing on independent operators not fast food chains) dated between 1950 and 1970 and the best examples were located along stretches of early federal highways.  When I returned in 2012-2016 to revisit the state’s historic landscape, scholarship told me to be on the look for drive-ins of all sorts and shapes.  Some already had shuttered–like Zandy’s in Great Falls–but others were still vibrant, and great places for road food.  The following are some of my favorites:

Bonanza Freeze, 1947, Montana St, Butte, roadside

Bonanza Freeze in Butte is a walk-up and drive–thru.  Gotta love the plate glass wall.

The Dizzy Diner in Terry, on the historic Yellowstone Trail, is a drive-thru and has a few places inside–with traffic on old U.S. 10 being diverted to the interstate, it survives as a local town restaurant–true for several other places in Montana.

Fallon Co Baker US 12 drive-in roadside

The Big K in Baker is along U.S. Highway 12–it too works as a walk-up–in southeast Montana.

Pondera Co Conrad Main Drive-InThe Main Drive-In in Conrad is located on the historic federal hi way (U.S. 91) and still draws in customers despite competition from chains and the diversion of most traffic to Interstate Highway I-15.

Daniels Co Scobey 2 roadsideAt Scobey, Shu Mei’s Kitchen converted an earlier drive-in into a family restaurant on Montana Highway 13 in northeast Montana.

Gallatin Co Three Forks drive-in

This former drive-in at the forks of the Yellowstone Trail in Three Forks has been converted to a coffee shop.

Roosevelt Co Poplar The Peculator roadside

But my favorite coffee drive-in, by far, is the Percolator, in Poplar along U.S. Highway 2 in northeast Montana.

Dawson Co Glendive roadside Frosty In and Out

Frosty’s In and Out is another classic drive-in along the historic Yellowstone Trail, this time in Glendive.

Fergus Co Lewistown drive-in roadside US 191 1It’s not surprising that Lewistown, in the middle of the state faraway from the interstate system, has several still operating roadside establishments from the mid-20th century, such as the Wagon Wheel Drive-In (above–and being a southerner I loved the sign that bragged “we have MT Dew”) and the Dash Inn (below), which opened in 1952.

Fergus co Lewistown Wagon Wheel Drive In 1952 roadside

The next three may well be my favorites of all of the different drive-ins.  Ford’s Drive-In in Great Falls is so eye-catching with its Art Deco-influenced design and neon.  Burgerville in Polson is just, well, eye-catching with all of its signs and towers–how could you ever miss it along U.S. Highway 93?

Then there is Matt’s Drive-In in Butte.  This place was awarded the prestigious 2016 America’s Classic Award from the James Beard Foundation.  The foundation’s press release stated:  “The whitewashed cottage with sky-blue trim opened in 1930 as a drive-in.  The staff still deliver some meals curbside to this day, and they remain cheerful curators of community, working the soda-fountain counter in a room lined with midcentury-style wood paneling.  The food does the roadside genre proud.”  Yes, indeed.  And you haven’t been to Montana if you have not tried a nut burger from Matt’s.  Always add a shake and onion rings here too.

Matt's Drive In, 2339 Placer, roadside

Matt's Drive In detail 3, roadside

Building Zoos on the Northern Plains

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Building zoos are among the most interesting parts of the western historical landscape. At an isolated outpost on the northern plains like Scobey, Montana, these deliberate creations of history, identity, and memory tell residents, much more so than tourists (who come by in dwindling numbers), that once there were people, vitality, and interest here, and what happened in the past could happen again in the future.

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They also are demonstrations of the challenges of early days when tiny homestead shacks were home, and families stood in stark contrast to the seemingly endless flat prairie. As such building zoos are also marks of achievement, that the settlements of today show that the pioneers’ sacrifice was not in vein.

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The Daniels County Museum in Scobey is one of my favorite building zoos due to its fascinating array of buildings plus the obvious care that the facility has received over the decades. When I encountered it in 1984 frankly I was amazed. Here were large buildings moved to a spot in the middle of nowhere. They did “they” hope to achieve? Of course “they” were what they were doing–and they told their story with the same verve shown by the original owners of the Rex Theater, a false front in log rustic style for a land that had so few trees.

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Then were were the multiple churches marking a diversity of faiths from St. Michaels Ukranian Greek Orthodox Church, St. Thomas Catholic Church, and the more stylish in an Arts and Crafts way All Saints Episcopal Church. All were from the second decade of the 20th century when the homesteading boom across Daniels County was at its height.

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A building zoo is not really a building zoo unless it has moved mercantile buildings, which, in turn, are full of artifacts of the past. The Daniels County Museum has excellent examples of the early 20th century commercial aesthetic of the northern plains–a look not different than that of any western instant town of the era between the Civil War and World War I.

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When I visited this place in 1984 the museum proper was in an old quonset hunt, and it was more of a community attic than anything else.

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But in the 21st century, the community has invested in a new museum/community hall where new exhibits were being installed as I visited. The Daniels County Museum is one of the region’s most compelling heritage institutions, and despite the population decline in this corner of Montana, the museum volunteers look forward into the future.
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The high plains of Daniels County, Montana

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The high plains of Daniels County are among the most isolated places in all of Montana.  You may reach this place by heading straight north out of Wolf Point on a state road or you can come from the east on another paved road. Gravel roads are available as well.  Federal highways have never touched this place; railroads came, above is the Soo Line Corridor at Whitetail. They arrived from the east and dead-ended here on the prairie.

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Yet the isolation, the vernacular buildings, the fact that nothing is overtly special here actually makes it a special place. I liked it in 1984, when I made this image of the courthouse in Scobey–certain it would not be there for long.

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I liked it enough to return in 1988, and couldn’t wait to explore some more in 2013. In this blog, I have already spoken of the some of the remaining rural schools; the fairgrounds; the Soo Line railroad corridor; and, the survival of the Daniels County Courthouse, an old homesteader hotel that was once a bordello and still is used today by the citizens of Daniels County. As we take this detour from U.S. Highway 2 far to the south–the Canadian border is much closer to the north–here’s to Daniels County–the residents’ persistence, sense of community, and dogged determination means there is much to commend here.

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The courthouse proudly displays its National Register of Historic Places marker, although officials admitted that they do not get many “faraway” tourists (I found out Canadians naturally were not faraway-but someone from Tennessee, yes indeed).Dropped ceilings may be about but the courtroom retains its turn of the 20th century feel. The place was in great shape, considering the fact it was never built to be a public building, and its condition speaks to the pride residents have in this old false-front frame building.

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Another favorite haunt was the Scobey school, perhaps, next to the Catholic Church, the most architectural stylish building in the county. Keeping the Scobey in good shape and open is crucial to a town and county that has steadily lost population over the last 50 years. The population had dropped over 300 since the 1980s, and now is just over 1,000 residents.

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The Daniels County Cemetery, just outside of town, tells part of the story of those who came and are no longer here. But in the next post I will look in depth at the place that tells that story of change best–the quite wonderful Daniels County Museum, building zoo without rival in northern Montana.

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