Choteau to the Blackfeet Reservation on U.S. 89

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot 021The two lanes of U.S. Highway 89 as it winds northwest from Choteau to the southern boundary of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, cross a stark yet compelling landscape, a jaunt that has never ceased to amaze me. To those only with the mountains of Glacier National Park in their minds will see merely open land, irrigated fields, scattered ranches.

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot 001But there’s a deeper landscape here, some embodied in the tiny towns along the way, others in places just ignored, certainly not recognized. In the first post of 2016, and the 200th of this series of explorations of the Montana landscape, let’s once again look a bit harder.

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot 011For one, this is a landscape shaped by Cold War America.  Nuclear missile silos were installed throughout the region with some easily accessible from the roadway.  You wonder  how many tourists realize that.

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot nuke base 022 – Version 2The federal imprint has lingered on this land for almost 150 years.  Today north of Choteau this highway historical marker, and a lonely boulder set square in the adjacent field, mark the first federal intrusion, the creation of the Teton River Agency, where in 1868-69 the federal government established its reservation headquarters for the Blackfeet Indians.  The agency was only here for about 7 years but this spot was where the first white-administered schools for Blackfeet children began, in 1872.

Teton Co Blackfeet Agency site US 89 2Irrigation systems would be a third federal imprint on the landscape and it came early to this region–through the Reclamation Service’s Valier Irrigation Project–but to find that place you need to venture a bit east of U.S. 89 to the town of Valier, on the banks of Lake Frances, which was created as a reservoir for the irrigation project.

Pondera Co Valier Lake FrancisValier has never been a very big place, but its investors in 1908, including William S. Cargill of the powerful Cargill family of Wisconsin (today’s Cargill Industries), had high hopes that the engineered landscape could create a ranching and farming wonderland.

The investors funded the Montana and Western Railroad, a spur to connect the project to the Great Northern line to the east.  The depot was still here in 1985 but is now gone.  Local residents spoke to the hopes for the town through the construction of the landmark Valier Public School, built of locally quarried stone in 1911.

Pondera Co Valier NR schoolListed in the National Register of Historic Places, the school remains in use today, as a bed and breakfast establishment. Even though Valier never reached the dreams of the Cargills and other outside investors, it has been a stable agricultural community for 100 years–the population today is only 100 less than what the census takers marked in 1920.  Valier has that

physical presence, that businesses may be changed but that they are still there, which is often missing in other plains country towns.  There is a sense of identity too, expressed by the town’s sign, and the obvious pride in the public school and the town’s civic center.

Pondera Co Valier civic center

Valier is the exception to the towns between Choteau and Browning on U.S. Highway 89.  Bynum, Pendroy, and Dupuyer, are more than dots on the map but not much more than that.

Fun local bars and historic school buildings link these three places.  The two-story white frame Bynum school still served local children when I visited in 2013; the bright brick Pendroy school had closed long ago, and is now private property.

Teton Co Bynum school 1

IMG_9376Heritage tourism also remains alive along U.S. Highway 89, and for those travelers who slow just a bit there is now the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center at Bynum.

Teton Co Bynum dinosaur museum sculpture 4

Choteau, U.S. Highway 89 Crossroads

Teton Co ChoteauOne of my favorite county seats is Choteau, where U.S. Highways 89 and 287 meet.  Both of those roads were and are among my favorite to take in the state, and Choteau I quickly found had one of my favorite local dives the Wagon Wheel.  Back in the day, however, I did not appreciate how the town’s history and built environment was shaped by the Sun River Irrigation project and the overall growth in the county during the first two decades of the 20th century and later a second boom in the 1940s.

Teton Co Choteau courthouseChoteau has a different look than most towns from this era of Montana history.  The centerpiece of the towns plan is not a railroad depot but the magnificent Teton County Courthouse (1906), which occupies a spot where the two federal highways junction.  Designed by architects Joseph B. Gibson and George H. Shanley, the National Register-listed courthouse is made of locally quarried stone in a late interpretation of Richardsonian Romanesque style, similar to, but to a much lesser scale and detail, than H. H. Richardson’s own Allegheny County Courthouse (c. 1886) in Pittsburgh.

 

The courthouse defines the south end of town and then U.S. Highway 89 heading north defines Main Street.  Since my first visit to Choteau in 1982 the town’s population has only declined marginally, about 100 less residents in 2010 than in 1980.  But there is a clear pattern of building change in more recent years.  Some are successful adaptive reuse projects, such as the conversion of this old service station/garage across from the courthouse (left above) into offices.

Teton Co Choteau 6This historic neoclassical-styled bank building is now home to a coffee shop but other commercial buildings have changed very little, except for the mix of retail business.  This is not a dying business district but one with a good bit of jump, of vitality.

The historic Roxy Theater is still open, and its Art Deco-styled marquee gives a bit of flash and dash to Main Street.

Teton Co Choteau theater 12

Chateau has its share of eye-catching roadside architecture on both the south and north ends of town.  South on U.S. 89 is the Big Sky motel, little changed over 50 years but on the north end of town is a far different story

Teton Co Choteau 13 US 89 roadsidewhere the historic Bella Vista Motel–a perfect example of a 1950s motel with separate units like tiny Ranch-styled houses–has given way to a c. 2015 conversion into apartments.

The north end of town is also home to Choteau’s heritage tourism, with the local Old Trail museum significantly expanded since the 1980s with more moved buildings, artifacts, and a special focus on dinosaurs.

The stability of Choteau is reflected in its historic church buildings, defining architectural landmarks within the residential neighborhood to the west of Main Street.  Arts and Crafts style influences the look of the Trinity Lutheran Church while the United Methodist Church is a textbook example of Colonial Revival style.  St. Joseph’s Catholic church is also a revival styled building, one in keeping with a vernacular Gothic than the modern look shared by so many Catholic Church buildings in rural Montana.

East of Main Street is the railroad corridor and associated warehouses, elevators, and other industrial buildings along with the historic county fairgrounds and a pretty city park, watered by an irrigation ditch.

Stability, continuity, yet change have marked Choteau over the last 30 years–let’s hope all three traits remain for another generation.

Heading North on Montana’s U.S. 89

Teton Co Fairfield ditch south of town 1We just finished an exploration of U.S. Highway south from Great Falls to Livingston, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park.  Now let’s head in the opposite direction, north of Great Falls to Glacier National Park.  In the first half of this trek, one great man-made landscape dominates either side of the road–the Sun River Irrigation Project, established by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1906 but not completed until the late 1920s.

 

The project has two divisions:  the smaller is the Fort Shaw division centered at the town of Simms (discussed in an earlier post) and the much larger is the Greenfields Irrigation District, over 80,000 acres, headquartered at Fairfield, which is located on U.S. 89.  On either side of Fairfield, you can see the expanse of irrigation land, framed by the Rocky Mountains.  One wonder how many travelers pass by this early 20th century engineered landscape and never give it a look.

Teton Co Greenfields irrigation district W US 89

Teton Co Fairfield Greenfields irrigation 1Feeding in and out of Fairfield are multiple canals and ditches, with the great bulk of land devoted to the production of malting barley, under

contract to Anheuser-Busch for years now.  Dominating the highway along the Great Northern spur line are huge metal granaries for all of the barley to make millions of bottles of beer.

Teton Co Fairfield Busch barleyFairfield itself is a classic T-plan railroad town.  The barley granaries dominate the trackside, where also is located the headquarters for the Greenfields Irrigation District, so designated in 1926.

Teton Co Fairfield irrigation dist officeAlong the stem of the “T” plan are all of the primary commercial buildings of the town, from an unassuming log visitor center to various one-story commercial buildings, and, naturally, a classic bar, the Silver Dollar.

Teton Co Fairfield 6 Silver Dollar BarPublic spaces and institutions are located at the bottom of the “T,” including a community park and swimming pool, a c. 1960 community hall, and an Art-Deco styled Fairfield High School.  The park, pool, and high school were all part of the second period of federal improvement at Fairfield during the New Deal era.

Teton Co Fairfield 9

Teton Co Fairfield 2

The high school and the adjacent elementary school are clearly the heart of the community, even if situated at the bottom of the town plan.  In designing Fairfield 100 years ago, the railroad, the highway, and the grain elevators were the economic focus with the vision of irrigated fields creating an agricultural paradise out of the semi-arid lands of Teton County.  But those who came and built Fairfield as a community

Teton Co Fairfield 4

understood that schools represented their hopes and identity for that future.  Today Fairfield is a few families larger in population than 1970, bucking the trend that the old reclamation towns were fated to fade into obscurity as time moved on in the northern plains.