Toole county, 1984 and now: Day Two

ImageToole County, second day: As I ventured out from Shelby into Toole County in February 1984 I followed old US Hwy 91 route (surpassed then as now by I-15)  into an early 20th century  oil patch region–the Kevin-Sunburst field–that had been discovered in the 1920s during Montana’s initial oil boom, but had dried up until the 1950s, although limited production remains even today.  In 1984 everyone in Helena thought that I should give the region a look for early resources associated with the oil industry.

Oilmont school had closed already in 1984 but the hipped roof frame building remained as a symbol of the boom days.  Thirty years later, I was surprised to see, the school was still there, barely–the years had not been kind to it. Jerry Funk in his memoir, “Life is an Excellent Adventure,” recalled that “The school plant itself was an ungainly hodge-podge of after-thoughts and additions and mismatched free-standing structures.  Its construction was obviously undertaken, with boom-town gusto and elan, as and when new space was needed, without the constraints of dealing with architects and planners.  The result was perhaps not what one would call pretty, but it was quite serviceable, and certainly memorable.”

ImageBetter stories in 2013 awaited me in Kevin, to the west. Here the historic Kevin depot, which is listed in the National Register, had been moved off the tracks, but it had been converted to a community center and senior citizens center, a very appropriate and successful adaptive reuse.  The town numbers under 200 residents and their commitment to keeping this connection to the town’s railroad roots along this spur line alive and well is commendable.

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Also in Kevin in 1984 a circa 1930 service station caught my eye, with especially the period “Firestone” signs. ImageRather amazingly the building still stands at the town’s prominent corner, although the roof is sagging and its original function is more difficult to discern today.

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Another favorite building in 1984 was the Derrick Bar, a friendly place where the very name spoke to what was happening in Kevin in the mid-20th century. Its miniature derrick sign, on the top of the building, was a beacon; unlike anything else I would see in Montana.

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The bar is still there–still friendly too–but the derrick had come off of the top–although it too was preserved on the side of the building.

Kevin-Oilmont was a section of Toole County that had promised untold wealth in the 1920s and 1930s–and the boom at the Kevin-Sunburst field helps to explain the strong imprint of 1930s modernism in Shelby.

The most important Jazz Age building in Shelby is the visitor center, from 1923.  Listed in the National Register, the building served as the local headquarters for the city’s ambitious attempt to host a world’s heavyweight fight between legendary boxer Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons.  Flush with oil money, town boosters thought the fight would put Shelby on the map, but the projected tens of thousands of spectators never materialized–only 7,000 made it to Shelby–and the event bankrupted the town.

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At the western end of the historic downtown is another National Register landmark, the Rainbow Service Station.  The development of U.S. 2 as the region’s key east-west automobile/truck corridor happened at the same time as the oil boom, and as auto travel to Glacier National Park also was growing in numbers.

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In between these two landmarks grew an impressive collection of commercial buildings, along with some of the best roadside neon in the state. Modernism isn’t confined to the commercial strip.  There are impressive residential designs of International Style and Art Deco from the 1930s.

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And both the New Deal Art Deco high school (now middle school) and the contemporary-styled St. William Catholic School make their own statements of mid-century modern architecture.

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Shelby might be a modern urban oasis on the Hi-Line but as soon as I started to move east of the visitor center along U.S. 2 I discovered that I was entering a very rural, agricultural landscape: more on that later.

The 1984 Survey 30 Years Later: Toole County

My exploration of Montana’s historic landscape–an experience that has shaped my career and teaching philosophy so deeply–began in earnest 30 years ago this month.  I had been working with the Montana State Historic Preservation Office for several weeks, organizing information already known about the state but also realizing that much was unknown.  That is why the MT SHPO Marcella Sherfy wanted to send someone out of the road–to look, listen, and find what was missing.  In February 1984, the fieldwork began, with the initial focus on the Hi-Line and the first stop, Toole County and the county seat of Shelby.

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View of Shelby, looking north, taken from county courthouse, 2013

 The first stop was Shelby, where I also launched my effort to talk about historic places and the preservation planning process with local communities.  We met at the local library/museum which stood next to the courthouse.

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Toole County Library, Shelby, MT

I learned two things that February 1984 night in Shelby that shaped my work for the next 3 months:  do the community meetings first–Montanans were intensely engaged with their history and made information and primary sources to share.  Just as important, I learned of their pride in the county courthouse–an architectural statement of Art Deco modernism in the guise of local materials and stone that might not be “technically eligible” for the National Register (at that time it was not yet 50 years old) but that everyone considered the landmark of the city.

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This 1934 building, one of the many Federal Emergency Relief Administration projects that shaped small towns and agricultural landscapes across the state during the Great Depression, looms high over the time, with the overall setting enhanced by the period landscaping and stone veneer steps from the parking area to the front door.

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The new courthouse gave the town a new focus, away from the railroad corridor created by the Great Northern Railway, and then the flashy commercial strip of stores and taverns along the adjacent highway corridor of U.S. Highway 2, a route also improved during the New Deal years.

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In Shelby, at the first of the 1984 work, I learned of the imprint of the successive waves of the railroad, then highways, and then the New Deal on Montana’s Hi-Line towns.  Those patterns of development would be constants throughout the fieldwork.  But after the stop to Shelby, I was then ready to explore the surrounding rural landscape.  And that will be the next story.

 

 

Hi-Line Roadside

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U.S. Highway 2 originally closely followed the tracks of the Great Northern Railway as it crossed Montana’s high plains counties.  Today there are places where the modern highway and the railroad tracks diverge, but still you can travel most of the route from Bainville to Glacier and still discover an astounding array of roadside architecture, from the early 20th century to the more recent past, such as the coffee pot above, on the south side of U.S. 2 in Poplar.  

This week begins the holiday traveling season.  With that in mind, I offer up a range of roadside images from the Hi-Line–places that you may roar by in a hurry to arrive at your destination but places nonetheless worth a stop and visit.

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Gas stations of course are a constant, and some may be well kept as an artifact of their function–service stations such as this one on the left in Liberty County–or they may be transformed into ice cream parlors like the station on the right from Chinook.

Motels are everywhere too–but the “mom and pop” businesses of the first 2/3 of the twentieth century have been rapidly replaced by the major chains, from Super 8 to the Hilton and Marriott properties of recent vintage.  This classic from just outside of Havre is a throwback to roadside lodging of a generation or two ago.

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Of course there are creative types all about the Hi-Line. Buck Samuelson’s collection of roadside sculpture just west of Glasgow not only plugs into that expressive tradition but also in the tourism focus on dinosaurs that you can find throughout eastern Montana.  I actually prefer the roadside 

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signs that you find along the highway.  Two from Hinsdale, in Valley County, are favorites. The 

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painted sign, courtesy of the Matthew Hansen Endowment, remands everyone of community vitality even though surface appearances may suggest otherwise.  The second sign is among the state’s most popular–painted rocks in white that outline the first letter of the town–positioned so that travelers and residents can view it.

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Commercial signs are another constant along the Hi-Line.  Most of course are just like millions across the nation–back-lit plastic signs.  But places like Sam’s Supper Club in Glasgow

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and the line of bar signs in the middle of Shelby remind us that once travelers were enticed to stop and jump into another world of flash and class behind the neon signs of U.S. 2.

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The roadside of U.S. is nothing if not varied, and I can spin many more words and images about the compelling and the mundane along the roadside.  We do keep up with the trends, and try out best to merge the roadside with current events, as this coffee stand in Culbertson proves.

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But I will close with this image from Dodson as a reminder that the roadside can be fleeting, and a place that I enjoyed in 1984 is falling apart today as everyone gravitates to the standardized chain-experiences that define our time.

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The Hi-Line’s Marias Fairgrounds in Shelby

The Marias Fairgrounds, host to a four-county fair every July, is located on the southside of U.S. Highway 2 on the eastern edge of Shelby, the county seat of Toole County.  The fairgrounds are also immediately south of the Great Northern Railway line.  The fair dates to c. 1941, and the fairgrounds has a blend of mid-century buildings with new facilities.

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Livestock barns and stalls dominate the fairgrounds, as you would expect in this region.  

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Two buildings are particularly noticeable from the highway.  The false front of the Mercantile Building recalls the earliest frame structures built along the railroad line in Shelby.

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Outside of the grandstand, the fairgrounds’s dominant landmark is the two-story with cupola Dunkirk School, which was moved to the fairgrounds to serve as an exhibit building for 4-H and other youth groups, certainly a very appropriate adaptive re-use of this early 20th century historic building.

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