Shelby Montana’s historic downtown

Toole Co Shelby sign and BNSF train

As we all have read the newspapers over the last six weeks, it has been doubly sad to learn of the devastation COVID-19 has brought to the people of Toole County, where the town of Shelby is the county seat.  The virus has ravaged most of the United States but the level of its impact on such rural places as Shelby and Toole County has been especially devastating since in places like these everyone does know everyone.  The impact is so direct and personal.

Toole Co Shelby courthouse 4

In this weekend’s papers, reporters stressed how residents are moving forward the best they could, despite the sadness, and fear.  I would expect no less.  I last visited Shelby seven years ago; indeed I made two stops between 2011 and 2013.  Of course people were friendly, helpful, just as they had been when I started my initial Montana survey in 1984 with an overnight program in Shelby at the courthouse.  Imagine my delight to learn in those same news stories that the town had met virtually of course to discuss a pending proposal to place the downtown in the National Register of Historic Places.  I fully agree: the range of buildings along Main Street (historic U.S. Highway 2) has always ranked among my favorite Main Streets in the state.

Toole Co Shelby Main St 2 roadside bars

Let’s me share today views of the downtown commercial buildings that I took in 2011 and 2013.  They reflect the impact of the 1920s oil boom on the town and county–so many date to those decades–but as a group they also show how Shelby grew in the early to mid-twentieth century on both sides of the Great Northern Railway that passed through the heart of town, with its historic depot still serving passengers on the Empire Builder today.

Toole Co Shelby depot

The range of roadside architecture in the tavern, restaurant, and motel signs is particularly significant–in so many other places these touchstones of mid-century commercial design have been lost.  But I also like the unpretentiousness of the buildings, and the commercial district they create.  The architecture in that way reflects the residents themselves:  flashy if you want it, but also solid, grounded, and ready to face what comes their way.

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 010

Toole Co Shelby Main St roadside

Toole Co Shelby Main St 3 Mint Club bar

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 013

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 009

Toole Co Shelby Main St 4 Deco

Toole Co Shelby bar n of depot

The downtown district would add much to the National Register of Historic Places.  Shelby was already represented by a historic garage and the original City Hall, recently a visitor center, that was built for the famous Fourth of July 1923 heavyweight

bout between Jack Dempsey-and Tommy Gibbons.  But these additions tell its full story of commercial growth in the age of the highway.  I hope the project moves smoothly forward–Shelby and Toole County deserves that break, along with many, many others as they fight back against the scourge of our time.


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.

Hill Co Havre roadside

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.

Lake Co Polson motel roadside 4

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!

Mint Bars of Montana


Now that I fulfilled the original goal of this effort to document the Montana historic landscape 30 years after my first attempt in 1984-1985, I want to have fun with many blogs to come, covering themes and places that help to define the Big Sky experience.  After covering all 56 counties, there are many ways to start, but the most natural to me is bars and taverns, those community gathering spots that I learned to love, and learn from, all across Montana.

Gallatin Co Belgrade 5 – Version 2

Belgrade, Montana.

Let’s first just look at and recall Montana’s Mint Bars–they are in every region, and to every taste.  Why so many mints–this is far from Mint Julep territory of Kentucky and Virginia.  Who cares–I never found one that wasn’t welcoming, and fun.


Townsend, Montana.

Lincoln Co Libby Mint Bar

Libby, Montana.


White Sulphur Springs, MT.

The Mint Bar in Livingston, above, remains one of my favorite of the “brand” and is part of the downtown Livingston historic district.


Martinsdale–maybe why I like U.S. 12 is that it has 3 Mint Bars.

The rejuvenation of the Mint Bar in Lewistown, above, is a very pleasant change over the last thirty years.


The Mint in Shelby is just one of the classic bars along the town’s main street.


Always a fan of the Mint Bar in Big Sandy.


Chinook, MT, part of the National Register-listed Lohman Block.


Opheim, Montana.


And last, but not least, the Mint Bar of Froid, up in the northeast corner of the state, in Roosevelt County.  Why I like Froid so much, I cannot explain, but I always like going there.


Toole County, 1984 and Now: to the east along U.S. Highway 2

As soon as you move east of the historic Shelby visitor center on U.S. 2, you encounter the landmarks that physically mark the region’s agricultural character.  On the north side of the highway, immediately adjacent to the tracks are complexes of grain elevators. Here at Shelby there is a tall concrete group of elevators run by CHS–the appearance of concrete elevators always mark a town that has experienced economic growth in the second half of the twentieth century.  Many of the smaller Hi-Line towns have the classic frame elevators of the homesteading era.  Grain elevators thus become a physical barometer of a place’s economic prosperity and development.

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On the south side of the highway in Shelby is the second crucial agricultural institution, the county fairgrounds and rodeo arena.  Livestock is not only important to the economy but maybe even more important to the culture of the region.  The Marias 4 County Fair, held the third week of July, is a regional gathering of no equal.  Thousands attend, and they do so at a fairgrounds with an impressive collection of historic buildings.

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In 1984, I noted this east side of Shelby as I left the town, but my eyes and camera were focused on the small railroad towns that I would next encounter, along with two important historic sites I wanted to document.


Whoop-Up Trail site, U.S. 2, 1984 

The first was the Whoop-Up Trail remnant, a site first documented by state archaeologists in 1968 and among the handful of historic properties then identified in Toole County (another section of the trail near Kevin is listed in the National Register).  In 1984 the location along the highway was well marked, with a series of stones marking the trail and encouraging visitors to go to the property edge and look into the Marias landscape where this historic route between Fort Benton and Fort Whoop-Up in Canada once passed.  

 Image In fact to the south of U.S. 2, a county road still crosses the Marias near the old trail crossing:  it was a somber, beautiful place in 1984. In 2013, the Whoop-Up Trail site is still maintained, put the line of stones to mark the path has either been taken up or covered by growth.  


Across the highway remains another key landmark of the Hi-Line and Central Montana region:  a nuclear missile silo. These military bases are everywhere it seems, and sometimes in the most unlikely places.  By 1984 I had become somewhat accustomed to their presence–coming from the South I had no idea of the role Montana played in our nation’s defense.  


But the missile silo was a surprise:  what I really was seeking was something on the Marias River–or Baker–Massacre, one of the most horrific events of Montana’s early territorial period.  The site is east of Shelby and south of U.S. 2 on private ranch land–and the family has been excellent stewards of this place.  No need for me to tred on such sacred ground, but there is a need to intepret that story, and to tell visitors and residents that here in this seemingly peaceful beautiful countryside a group of territorial citizens murdered Blackfeet women, children, and elderly in some sort of mindless bloody search for revenge.  That story wasn’t told in 1984 but a long text marker does so now. It strikes the right message: that the massacre “profoundly impacted the Blackfeet people and is very much alive in tribal memory.”  A small bouquet of flowers at the marker’s base in 2013 testifies to the truth of this simple memorial.


Dunkirk, the first of a trio of Toole County railroad villages east of Shelby, was too close to Shelby itself to ever maintain its own identity for long.  Its Frontier Bar was long a worthy roadside stop for thirsty travelers.  Outside of the Westermark Grain Corporation elevators, the bar was the only reason to even give Dunkirk a glance.

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Devon is a plains country town on the Great Northern Railway that was the first “prairie ghost town” of the 1984 survey.  Numerous false-front frame buildings from the 1910s and 1920s existed in 1984:  30 years later several of these were gone. 




Devon streetscape, 1984



Devon, Montana, 1984


Devon grain elevator, 1984

Yet I must admit that Devon now had more to it than what I recalled from 1984.  Certainly the old brick bank building had been abandoned, and the town community hall appeared shuttered, but the contemporary-styled Devon Lutheran Church spoke to persistence, even after decades of economic change. The grain elevators that were prominent in 1984 also had persisted, and stood as three sentinels on the plains.

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Galata, established in 1901, is another Great Northern Railway stop, with its corridor landscape speaking to its isolation and agricultural dependence.  It is a T-town plan town, where the main street forms the stem of the T while the railroad tracks form the top of the T.Image

 In the latter half of the 20th century, Galata had actually reached beyond its T-town plan and out to the highway.  Its Motel Galata is a classic piece of roadside architecture, and its huge highway sign of a Montana frontiersman with cowboy hat waving his car keys beckoning travelers to stop.


Galata also has kept its post office–a classic 1960s standardized design.  But the real key is the strength of its community institutions, churches, American Legion lodge hall, and especially the

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school.  The school campus contains two eras:  the classic frame country school of the homesteading era, with additions, and then the more ranch-styled flat roof school building common in American suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s.

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As discussed earlier in this blog, Hi-Line residents also make their presence known by signs, even if they are a little worn or emblematic of the loss of other community buildings.  Galata is no exception.