Powell County’s Little Blackfoot River Valley

IMG_2251Between Garrison Junction, where U.S. Highway 12 and Interstate I-90 meet, to Elliston, at near the Mullan Pass over the continental divide, is a beautiful, historic valley carved by the Little Blackfoot River.  It is a part of Powell County that hundreds whiz through daily as they drive between Missoula and Helena, and it is worth slowing down a bit and taking in the settlement landscape along the way.

NP and Mullan Road, Powell Co

Mullan Rd marker and mining, E of Elliston, US 12Captain John Mullan came this way shortly before the Civil War as he built a military road between Fort Benton and Walla Walla, Washington.  A generation later, in the early 1880s, the tracks of the Northern Pacific Road used the Mullan Pass to cross the divide and then followed the Little Blackfoot River west towards Missoula.

Elliston was the first Northern Pacific town of note on the west side of the divide and while today it is perhaps best known for Lawdog Saloon–definitely worth a stop–it also retains key public buildings from the early twentieth century, including its Gothic-styled

community church, a large gable-front log building that to my eye reads like a 1930s era community hall (I have not verified that), and then a quite marvelous  Art Deco-styled brick school, built by the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration in the 1930s.

Elliston school, Powell CoThe oldest federal imprint in Elliston comes from the ranger’s headquarters for the Helena National Forest in its combination of a frame early 20th century cottage and then the Rustic-styled log headquarters.

Helena National Forest ranger station, EllistonThe next railroad town west is Avon, which is also at the junction of U.S. Highway 12 and Montana Highway 141 that takes travelers northwest toward the Blackfoot River. Like Elliston, Avon has several buildings to note, although the National Register-listed property is the historic steel truss bridge that crosses the Little Blackfoot River and then heads into ranch territory.

Powell 3 Little Blackfoot River Bridge US 12 AvonThe bridge is a Pratt pony truss, constructed in 1914 by contractor O.E. Peppard of Missoula, and little altered in the last 100 years. As the National Register nomination notes, the bridge’s camelback trusses are unusual and have not been documented in other Montana bridges from the early 20th century.

IMG_1919Avon has another clearly National Register-worthy building in its 1941 community hall, a late New Deal era building, which has served the community in multiple ways, as a meeting place for the Avon Grange, a polling place, and a place for celebrations of all sorts, including stage presentations and bands.

Avon Community Hall, 1941, probably WPA

Avon Community Hall, New Deal, 1941

Avon Community Hall 1941 New Deal interiorThe Avon School also has a New Deal era affiliation, with the Works Progress Administration. Although remodeled in the decades since, the school still conveys its early 20th century history.

 

Avon School US 12 2Avon even has its early 20th century passenger station for the Northern Pacific Railroad, although it has been moved off the tracks and repurposed for new uses.

IMG_1933In front of the depot is the turn of the 20th century St. Theodore’s Catholic Church.  The historic Avon Community Church incorporates what appears to be a moved one-room school building as a wing to the original sanctuary.

Early railroad era commercial buildings also remain in Avon, with a frame false front building serving both as a business and the community post office.  Birdseye Mercantile is an architecturally impressive stone building, dated c. 1887, that has for a decade housed a quilt business.  It too may be National Register worthy.

Birdseye Mercantile, 1887, AvonAnother important property in Avon, but one I ignored in 1984-85, is the town cemetery, which also helps to document the community’s long history from the 1880s to today.

Avon Cemetery, SE, Powell Co

Avon Cemetery, W, Powell CoHeading west from Avon on U.S. Highway 12 there are various places to stop and enjoy the river valley as it narrows as you approach Garrison.  I always recalled this part fondly, for the beaverslide hay stackers–the first I encountered in Montana in 1981–and they are still there today, connecting the early livestock industry of the valley to the present.

Townsend: A Railroad Town on the Missouri River

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Townsend is a classic Montana crossroads town, with its historic heart, and primary commercial district, centered on the intersection of U.S. Highways 12 and 287.  But a closer look reminds you of the town’s origins as a railroad town, part of the Northern Pacific route, as it moved westward from Bozeman to Helena, Montana, along the valley of the Missouri River.  The town’s layout is a good example of a T-town plan, with Front Street (now U.S. 287) forming the top of the “T” while Broadway (U.S. 12) forming the stem, as shown above.

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Grain elevators and other light industrial and transportation-related buildings the lots between the railroad tracks and Front Street.  At the corner of the highway junction is one of the town’s oldest buildings, the Commercial Hotel of 1889, which still operates today as

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a bar and restaurant.  Historically this large two-story frame building, with hipped roof dormers creating even additional rental space under the roof, would have been an attraction for travelers and business people looking for a place just off the tracks, or later the highway. It is among a handful of late 19th century railroad hotels left in Montana.

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Broadway also had its historic landmarks, especially the neoclassical-styled State Bank of Townsend, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Dating to 1918, the building’s architect was the Albert Mooreman and Company firm from St. Paul, MN. The flanking two-story classical columns root the yellow brick building to its prominent corner lot–the bank’s survival into the twenty-first century is also a rarity in rural Montana.

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Broadway also has its mix of one- and two-story business buildings, from the American Legion and another Montana Mint Bar to the Professional Building of 1911.  Despite its proximity to both Helena and Bozeman, the town has retained its commercial vitality.

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At the end of the commercial district is the Broadwater County Courthouse, a mid-1930s New Deal project that has expanded significantly in the three decades since I carried out the original historic preservation plan survey in 1984-1985.  Its understated Art-Deco styling fits well its highway location.  And as to be expected in a “T-town” plan, its location at the end of Broadway, meaning the end of the stem of the “T” reflected well the comparative power between local government and the corporate power of the railroad.

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Being a resident of Helena from 1981 to 1985, I passed through Townsend many times on my way east since US 12 was a favorite trek.  I noticed these major landmarks and the patterns of railroad town plans but I must admit that I never strayed off of either Front Street or Broadway, and that was a mistake.

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South of Broadway are several valuable late-19th or turn of the century Victorian-styled residences, some of which have found their champions and have been restored while others need that champion to see the potential jewel underneath decades of change.  One historic neighborhood school building–now a Masonic lodge–also remains, along with many different churches, most of which date to the second half of the twentieth century.

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North of Broadway is a notable exception, the Victorian Gothic styled Townsend United Methodist Church, again an important survivor from the town’s opening generation of history.

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Townsend also had a set of interesting bungalows from c. 1920 on U.S. 12 as it moves east of the courthouse.  These are made of concrete block, shaped to mimic stone masonry.  It was a popular technique to give a house a solid, permanent look, and you tend to find it more in the west than in the east.  Of course, Townsend was not far from the major concrete works at Trident–a topic for a later posting.

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Last but not least Townsend, and Broadwater County, has an active historical society and local museum, established during the American Bicentennial in 1976–and expanding ever since at its location behind the county courthouse.

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Meagher County: Crossroads between East and West Montana

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Meagher County Courthouse, White Sulphur Springs, 2007. One of the best New Deal era courthouses in the state.

Meagher County has been a place that I drive through rather constantly.  If you take U.S. Highway 12 east/west or U.S. Highway 89 north/south–both are important historic roads–you pass through this county where the central plains meet the mountains of the west.  The county seat of White Sulphur Springs is near the crossroads of the two federal highways, and home to one of the great roadside cafes of the state, what we always called the Eat Cafe, since the only marker it had was a large sign saying “Eat.”

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And the old historic bar, the Bucka-Roo Bar , was not a bad place either to grab a beer on a hot, dry day.  It is not the only commercial building of note.  The town has both the

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classic Victorian era commercial block but also the 1960s modernist 1960s gas station.

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The Wellman Block, now home to Red Ants Pants, was built in 1911 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Red Ants Pants is the sponsor of an annual Americana music festival outside of the town that ranks as the highlight of the summer in this part of the state.  Next door to the Wellman Block is the historic Strand Theatre.

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The reason I came to White Sulphur Springs in 1984 was none of these places–it was to visit the local historic house museum, a granite stone Romanesque styled house known as The Castle.  It was rather amazing to everyone in preservation back then that a tiny town

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had tackled the tough task of preserving a historic house as a local museum–especially one so far away from the interstate visitor.  Byron Sherman had the house constructed in 1892, with rock taken from the nearby Castle Mountains.  This stockman wanted to show that livestock could pay, and pay well out in the wilds of central Montana.  It has been a tough go for The Castle over the last 30 years.  The local historical society built a new storage building adjacent to the house but the house itself doesn’t get enough visitors.  The town’s major landmark in 1984, it seems almost an afterthought today.

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That neglect is really no fault of the house, its story, or its keepers.  It is the reality after a nearby ranch house–famous in 1984 but closed to visitors, even someone as intrepid as me, back then.  Of course I am speaking of the Bair Ranch, east of White Sulphur Springs in Martinsdale.  Its story comes in the next post.

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Harlowton: Lost Landmarks in a Milwaukee Road Town he

IMG_9748Harlowton is my favorite of Montana’s Milwaukee Road towns.  Its roots lay with the vision of Richard Harlow to build an independent central Montana railroad.  When the Milwaukee Road assumed control of Harlow’s mini-empire, it turned Harlowton into one of the line’s key division points, the place where steam engines switched to electric power for the journey up and over the Rocky Mountains.

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Fischer Park with Milwaukee Road electric engine, Harlowton, 2006

When I surveyed the town in 1984, I did so with the blessing and insight of Lon Johnson, then the historic architect of the Montana State Historic Preservation Office.  Harlowton was a special case for Lon, especially the dream of restoring and reopening the magnificent State Theatre (1917), a hallmark of its days when Milwaukee passenger traffic promised so much for this small plains town.

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Before the restoration could take place, however, the theatre caught fire in 1997 and plans were set aside until 2011 when a new effort to restore the building occurred, but a second fire in 2012 again stopped progress.  The photos above from 2013 show that the hulk of the 1917 theatre remain but with the declining local population, renewal of the theatre will be difficult.

Milwaukee Road depot and offices, Harlowton, 2006

Milwaukee Road depot and offices, Harlowton, 2006

My great interest in Harlowton centered on the Milwaukee Road and its works.  In 1984, the company’s bankruptcy was only a few years old.  Down at the tracks, there was still the railroad line, the depot, the roundhouse, and other buildings.  I considered these remnants, especially in the local context, as extremely significant.  Afterwards, locals and the SHPO agreed and the Milwaukee Road depot historic district was created.  Over the next 25 years, I would stop by Harlowton periodically to monitor the district, and noted with approval how the depot had been repaired.  The roundhouse, unfortunately, was lost.

Harlowton depot and offices in 2013

Harlowton depot and offices in 2013

Looking north from the depot, on the bluffs of the Musselshell River overlooking the railroad tracks, stood a third key landmark, the Graves Hotel.  My colleague Lon Johnson also had

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Harlowton, from the railroad depot, 2006

been a big fan of this Queen Anne-styled stone railroad hotel, with the stone carved from the nearby bluffs.  I too fell in love with the Graves, staying here periodically in the 1980s.

Graves Hotel, Harlowton, MT, 1984

Graves Hotel, Harlowton, MT, 1984

When I visited in 2006, however, the Graves looked good–from a recent repainting of its late Victorian detailing–but it was closed, and so it has remained ever since.  I do not

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pretend to have the answers on how do you maintain a large three-story National Register hotel that is miles from an interstate and located instead on a little-used-by-tourists route

Graves Hotel in 2013

Graves Hotel in 2013

(U.S. Highway 12), but even if the hotel can come partially back to life, it would be a real tourism boost to Harlowton.

It’s not like the local residents aren’t in the game and trying.  The county museum, the Upper Musselshell Valley Museum, continues to grow its profile along Central Avenue.  The buildings made of locally quarried stone, with late Victorian cornices, harken to the turn of the 20th century when Harlowton held such promise with the Milwaukee Road’s arrival.

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The Harlo Theatre remains in business too, and is a throwback to small town theaters, and a rare survivor in today’s home entertainment world.  Plus it is a cool building.

IMG_1592 copyDespite missing out on the interstate, losing a railroad, and dropping a lot of population, there is still something to Harlowton that makes me return, trip after trip.  More on that something in the next blog.

Montana’s Golden Valley–County, that is

MR line in Musselshell Valley (p84 25-30)

Abandoned Milwaukee Road corridor along U.S. Highway 12, Golden Valley County, MT, 1984

Golden Valley County, Montana, established with much local fanfare and excitement in 1920, was one of the last counties created in Montana.  Today, with just over 1100 residents, it remains one of the county’s smallest in population.  Yet, like other places along U.S. Highway 12, it has been a favorite jaunt of mine since 1982.  The highway connects with Montana 3, which roughly parallels an old stagecoach route, and Highway 3 going south takes you directly to downtown Billings.  Thus, beginning with my many projects with the Western Heritage Center in Billings in 1982, I quickly found out that taking U.S. 12 between Helena and Billings not only cut off miles from the journey but was always more scenic and more interesting due to the remnants of roadside architecture and bits of the Milwaukee Road corridor that followed the Musselshell River in this county.

Golden Valley Co, near Cushman (p84 27-9)

U.S. 12 and Milwaukee Road routes along Musselshell River, Cushman, MT, 1984

As you leave Billings and head north of Montana 3, this state road intersects with U.S. 12 at Lavina, one of the county’s two incorporated towns, and a place that has held steady in population since 1980 (probably due to its location and proximity to Billings).  The Adams Hotel, built in 1908 with a year of the railroad’s arrival, struck me immediately–a huge two-story Colonial Revival style building–in 1984 in the middle of nowhere.  But the Adams,

Adams Hotel, Lavina, Golden Valley Co (26-26)

listed in the National Register of Historic Places, spoke to the town founders’ hopes for the future–and the need for a large hotel for all of the traveling businessmen, and homesteaders, the Milwaukee planned to attract to the area.  As the image above shows, in 1984 the Adams needed a friend–someone who would take on a huge frame building and find a new life for it.  In the next decade that friend came and the Adams came back to life, as the 2006 digital image below shows.

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The next decade has not been so kind.  Owners have placed a clock in the cornice, eliminating the original dating of the building, plus brass lanterns have appeared on the second floor and it needs painting and repairs.  But the building is still open, and in use, and those are huge steps toward compared to 30 years ago.

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The town’s general store, Slayton Mercantile, which is also on the National Register, is doing better, and has become one of my frequent stops in the region.  This two-story brick commercial building also spoke to town’s hope for a bright future in the second decade of the 20th century.  Travelers along the road, and the town’s steady population, keep it in business today.

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2007

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2007

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2013

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2013

The historic two-story with full basement yellow brick Lavina Public School is not on the National Register but this early 20th century building is another key landmark.  Its exterior architectural features speak to the restrained styles of public architecture often found in the region. Another community landmark is the joint United Methodist and Lutheran church of Lavina–the two congregations share this Gothic-styled early 20th century building to sustain it and themselves as viable congregations.

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The fate of beautiful rural churches is not a happy story throughout the northern plains, but Golden Valley County has done better than many.  Another of its early 20th century churches, the Lutheran Church at Barber, needed help in the early 1980s when I first surveyed it.  Local residents in the last 30 years restored the building, opening it for services, and listed it in the National Register.  The original open bell tower has been covered and a handicap ramp for attendees have been added–steps that have helped to keep the building part of the county’s otherwise disappearing historic landscape.

Grace Lutheran Church, Barber NR (p84 27-29)

Barber Community Church, Golden Valley County, MT, 1984

Ryegate is the county seat and an important crossroads for ranchers and travelers.  Its population too has remained relatively steady since the end of the Milwaukee Road in 1980–273 then and 245 in 2010.  It was never a big place, with the largest population coming in 1920 when the county began, 405 residents.  The historic grain elevators

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speak to the importance of the railroad, and highway, while the landmark Ryegate Bar has served thirsty locals and travelers for decades.  Today it is most famous for its annual testicle festival–a new tradition launched since the survey of 1984-1985.

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Two buildings from the county’s beginnings are a one-story brick Classical style bank building, which like so many in the region closed its doors during the homesteader bust and the Great Depression, and the Golden Valley County Courthouse, appropriately the town’s most imposing building.

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Ryegate also has its acknowledged historic sites:  a town project in 1976 marked the area’s association with Chief Joseph’s 1877 trek across eastern Montana while on the

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town’s eastern border the Sims-Garfield Ranch, a rambling assortment of vernacular-styled log and stone outbuildings and two vernacular style residences is the only town property listed in the National Register. Nestled between U.S. Highway 12 and the rocky bluffs of the Musselshell River, it is evocative of the county’s roots as a ranching landscape, a place of work and pride that survives today.

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Musselshell school and the Musselshell Valley

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Traveling west of U.S. 12 along the Musselshell River Valley, I eagerly sought out the town of Musselshell, assuming that the 30 years since my last visit had not been kind to the small country town.  I hope that the iconic 1913 school–a gleaming yellow brick landmark–was still there.  It had survived, as the photo above attests, although students no longer attend classes there.  Musselshell School closed as an education institution over 10 years ago, but a group of determined community-minded residents formed the Friends of Musselshell School and saved the building, turning it into community center for the western end of the county.  When I visited in 2013–new work to the building was evident, including newly installed windows, courtesy of a $10,000 grant from PPL Montana Community Fund.

Handel store, c. 1912, and Musselshell overview

Handel store, c. 1912, and Musselshell overview

Musselshell prospered in its first decade of existence, after the arrival of the Milwaukee Road, and has been in decline, really, ever since.  But it retains both the historic high school and elementary school (which is now headquarters for the volunteer fire department), along with early 20th century churches, community institutions for a vanishing population.

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Community Bible Church, Musselshell

Vanishing as well is the story told by the area’s mid-20th century irrigation project, the Delphia-Melstone Canals, built in 1950 and 1953 by the State of Montana.  The diversion dam at Musselshell was the project’s largest at 182 feet.

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Somehow Musselshell has been able to hang on to its tiny false-front post office, a reminder of the community’s persistence along a railroad that has disappeared and a highway that receives so few travelers today.

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Moving and Saving Historic Buildings in the Montana Plains

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Vananda School, northern Rosebud County. I took this image during the preservation work of 1984.

When I met with residents in Rosebud County in 1984, few places in the county captivated me more than Vananda, one of the county’s Milwaukee Road towns along U.S. Highway 12.  Vananda in 1984 had a few scattered buildings and structures, but two landmarks, a small one-story Classical Revival bank, and the three-story Vananda school. The school in particular spoke to the hopes of the settlers who flooded into the region after the Milwaukee came through in 1907-1908.  In 1917, when Louis Wahl, a Forsyth contractor, built the bank, Vananda like many other homestead towns thought a bright future awaited.  But when the bust came in the 1920s, followed by the Great Depression in the 1930s, people disappeared from here even quicker than they had arrived.

In the years since, I have stopped at Vananda several times, seeing if the buildings still stood as silent sentinels to the homesteading past. The school and the bank survived

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My favorite image of Vananda, taken in 1998.

the 1990s.  In fact, the Montana State Historic Preservation Office had listed the Vananda historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, part of a countywide effort to designate local landmarks at that time.

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Vananda historic district, 2013

When I next visited Vananda in 2013, fifteen years had passed.  Imagine my disappointment in finding only the school, and it was looking even more worse for the wear.  This was the same year that the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Montana’s rural schools as one of its most threatened properties in the nation.  One can hope that that designation will eventually bring help and preservation to the school.

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What had happened to the bank?  I found out about 17 miles later when I came into Forsyth, and stopped at something new, at the town’s most prominent crossroads, at Main and 10th Avenue.  It was the Vananda State Bank, moved to that location in 2002-2003.

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The abandoned building was now an insurance building, and an important contributor to town’s historic environment, especially since its corner lot was further enlivened by a mural of the Yellowstone River, “Autumn on the Yellowstone,” by local artist Bob Watts, who has several different murals located throughout town. No. moving the bank to Forsyth and restoring it there, rather than Vananda, is not historic preservation in its purest form.  But it is preservation nonetheless in my opinion.  The historic marker in front of the building tells its story, and there is an active heritage tourism infrastructure in Forsyth, with multiple historic districts, a recently expanded county museum, and a Historic Forsyth walking/driving tour you can download from the Internet.  The bank and the story of Vananda remain active contributors to Rosebud County, fulfilling some of that promise first proclaimed in 1917.