South of the Yellowstone in Stillwater County

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The Yellowstone River, along with the parallel tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, divides Stillwater County, with the south side of the county more mountainous but with the rich Stillwater River Valley coming out of the mountains to meet the Yellowstone at Columbus, the county seat.  Let’s talk about two towns along the river valley that were once down but now more vibrant than 30 years ago due to the population growth in the southern end of the county.

IMG_5857Absorkee began in the mid-1890s after another taking of lands from the Crow Reservation.  The Oliver Hovda house, a Classical Revival-styled residence on the main artery of Woodard Street, dates to c. 1900 and was built by local carpenter Jacob Wagner.  Listed in the National Register, the big yellow house, as it is known locally, remains the town’s primary domestic architecture landmark.

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IMG_5863Just steps away are an array of masonry commercial buildings, not finished to the degree that you find north in Columbus but still substantial buildings from c. 1910-1920 that reflect the determination of town boosters to show permanence and seriousness in this small country town. The 5 Spot is the town’s iconic bar, just as welcoming in 2014 as it had been in 1984.

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IMG_5854The town’s school is its pride and joy (I apologize for the distance images with fences but school was in session when I visited in May).  Among the historic school buildings is a 1903 two-room section, see below, and then what is known as the Cobblestone School, a more modern building constructed in 1921 with river cobblestones as the primary exterior wall treatment.  W. R. Plew, an engineer at Montana State University, promoted good rural school designed and is credited with this striking building.

IMG_5850Historic churches also define Absorkee’s built environment, no more so than the historic Emmanuel Lutheran Church, with its soaring Gothic steeple but also its modern c. 1970 concrete block screen, an unusual but effective combination of styles and materials.

IMG_5844Further south along the Stillwater River is Fishtail, a place that in 1984 I noticed more for its sleepy general store (c. 1900) but now a town that is much more alive with residents and visitors.  The re-energized store, who got new owners in 2000, is a large part of that as is the general boom in recreational opportunities and offerings in the Fishtail to Nye section of the Stillwater River Valley.

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IMG_5846The rustic-styled front to the Community Hall speaks to the permanent residents while the sprawling Cowboy Bar attracts visitors and locals.  The south side of Stillwater County may be cut off from the mainstream of Montana life since the railroad and interstate are north of the Yellowstone River, but in the last 30 years its sense of itself has grown and is embodied by the care shown many of its community landmarks.

Sandstone Masonry and Historic Landmarks in Columbus, Montana

IMG_5866Columbus, the seat of Stillwater County, has long served as an architectural and settlement landmark in the Yellowstone Valley.  Today when you drive down old U.S. highway 10 (Pike Street) next to the very active tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, two patterns stand out.  First, the town retains its historic depot and a well-defined railroad corridor–reminding everyone that here is one of the valley’s original railroad towns, from 1882-1883.  In a state where so many small town depots have been lost in the last 30 years, I always stop in Columbus just to see if its depot remains.

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This historic NP caboose is part of the displays at the Stillwater County Museum, which sits in a new building near the schools in the north end of town.

This historic NP caboose is part of the displays at the Stillwater County Museum, which sits in a new building near the schools in the north end of town.

The second feature is the striking stone masonry, found not only along the primary commercial blocks of the town but also throughout the residential neighborhood.  This beautiful turn-of-the-20th-century work is largely attributed to Michael Jacobs, a native of Italy who anglicized her name from the original Jacobucci.  Jacobs was a principal in the Montana Sandstone Company, a firm that not only built Columbus’s historic buildings but also took on commissions in Billings and Butte and its most famous project, the Montana State Capitol in Helena.  Jacobs’ imprint on the town was part of its recovery from the

IMG_5912Depression of 1893, which had rocked towns all along the Northern Pacific line.  But Colubmus recovered and rebuilt frame buildings in stone from c. 1900 to 1920 as the homesteading boom spread through the region.  in Italy, the Montana Sandstone Company provided facing stone to numerous buildings in Butte, but it was the contract for the Montana State Capitol that put the company on the map and established Jacobs’ fame and fortune.

New Atlas Bar Columbus

My favorite Jacobs building is the New Atlas Bar, which I first visited in 1982 and then made it tradition to introduce this special place to anyone traveling through the valley with me on fieldwork.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the bar dates to 1915-1916, and was designed by Curtis Oehme.  For almost all of the 20th century it was operated by the same family who opened it, the Mulvihill family.  Known in the 1980s as the “See ‘Em Dead Zoo,” the historic interior features dozens of stuffed trophies, of all sorts of animals from the region.

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But its historic interior of back bars and ladies lounge is intact, and although the place doesn’t quite have the vibe of 20 years ago, it is still a community gathering spot along historic Pike Street.

IMG_5876Michael Jacobs’ stately Victorian residence is another example of the firm’s craftsmanship as are a series of remarkable tombstones in the town’s Mountain View Cemetery.  The carvers of these monuments are either Jacobs or another firm employee Pasqual Petosa.

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The county courthouse, however, is not of sandstone, but still it is an impressive Classical Revival statement in its porticoed Ionic entrance and symmetrical facade.  Located in the north end of town, the courthouse, designed by Warren Dedrick, remains an anchor for the county’s history during the homesteading boom.  It first opened its doors in 1921.

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Unfortunately the courthouse faces an uncertain future.  This year proposals have come forth to replace the building, or to modify it significantly with additions, due largely to the county’s population growth and need for greater public space in the last 15 years.  The local preservation commission called for discussions and full consideration before the town, and county, loses such a heritage asset as this striking historic landmark.

The High Prairie of Stillwater County

IMG_5914Stillwater County is one of the most beautiful spots in all of the Yellowstone Valley.   The parallel routes of the Yelllowstone River, the c. 1882 corridor of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the c. 1920 route of old U.S. Highway 10 and the modern marvel of Interstate I-90, shown above, define the county’s historic landscape for most residents, and travelers.

IMG_5894But running directly north from the county seat of Columbus  is a two-lane Montana highway that takes you to a totally different landscape, that of the high prairie of thousands of acres of wheat fields.  The road ends about 20 or so miles away at the town of Rapelje, a promising trade center when it was first established as a railroad branch in 1913

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during the homesteading boom but now one of the region’s small country towns, defined by its school, its church, its cafe, and its grain elevators.  Its set of four early 20th century elevators, standing as sentinels of settlement but also as just man-made landmarks in a vast landscape of seemingly nothingness, is a remarkable statement of the built environment of Montana’s homesteading era.

IMG_5900Businesses are few and far between–the handful of local residents and scattered ranch families take their business to Columbus, or a bit farther to Laurel and Billings.  There is still a town cafe–the Stockman Cafe–which is run as a volunteer cooperative for those passing through.  The past few summers a June bike race has become a popular fund-raiser for the cafe.

IMG_5907The town has retained two public buildings–its post office and its school, the pride of the community, which was built in 1920 and has since been renovated and expanded with a new wing to the rear of the historic building.  The school is home to the Rapelje Rockets.

IMG_5903With less than 100 residents in Rapelje, the school educates ranch kids living throughout the county’s high prairie, a role similar to the local post office, which despite threats last decade to close many of the state’s rural post offices, still serves this farming community.

IMG_5898The loss of population means that Rapelje has just two primary sacred places:  the Gothic-styled community church, built during the initial decade of settlement, and the town

IMG_5901cemetery, which is located south of the village on a rise that overlooks the open prairie in all four directions.  Of course, as Rapelje fades into the past, the cemetery grows in its number of headstones–a sign of what limits the future holds for this high prairie town.

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Reedpoint, Stillwater County, Montana

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Reedpoint, a tiny Yellowstone Valley town located between Columbus to the east and Big Timber to the west, typically never makes the news, except when a forest fire sweeps near the town boundary, as was the case a few years ago, or when it is Labor Day Weekend and the state’s big newspapers arrive, along with thousands of others, for the tongue-in-cheek “Great Sheep Drive” through the town’s main street.

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But the Great Sheep Drive, which has now been around for a generation, is more than what keeps Reedpoint on the map, and surviving.  The Reedpoint Community Club, established in 1979, keeps the community together and looks for opportunity.  Historic buildings such as the ones above and below have been remodeled or renovated for new uses, reflecting the railroad’s town greatest prosperity in the early 20th century.

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The local dive bar comes alive on weekend, when anglers come in greater numbers to fish along the Yellowstone.  Its ramshackle appearance is new “Old West” at its best.

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The Reedpoint School–a photo of the older historic building is featured here–remains a key to the town’s survival and its future.  With somewhere south of 200 residents, good schools are a must or the sinews of the place come apart.

IMG_1217So too are community institutions important.  The local library is small but still there, a place of valued interaction between young and old.

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I worry about the historic Occidental grain elevator.  For 30 plus years I have roared past this place going to and from Billings, but the elevator was a landmark.  Not only did it link

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the homesteaders of 100 years ago to the railroad, it also linked whatever grains from this part of the valley to that worldwide market accessed by the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railway.  Some years ago the old depot was moved off

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the tracks and found a new life in town.  That conversion is not so easy with an elevator.  When this tall landmark goes so too does a key part of Reedpoint’s history, and yet another link to its origins as a Northern Pacific railroad town.