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!

Fracking Roosevelt County: The Boom Seeps into the Montana Hi-Line

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The 21st century boom in the Williston Basin has significantly reshaped western North Dakota, and as that region “fills up,” the boom has spread into far eastern Montana, especially along the Hi-Line corridor of U.S. Highway 2 and the historic Great Northern Railway. The photo above is along U.S. 2 on the outskirts of the tiny town of Bainville, the first place of any size you encounter as you travel west along the highway, or railroad, into Roosevelt County.
Bainville, Roosevelt Co (p84 11-14)
When I visited Bainville in early 1984 I recorded a town in decline. True, its 1950s modernist passenger depot was still there, but there had been a steady drop in population for decades. Thirty years later, the remnants of that decline were still there: abandoned brick neoclassical-styled bank; an elevator complex on the verge of collapse.
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But signs of new growth were there as well in 2013. The recently expanded public school was one thing while the large man camp then under construction just east of the town was another–and a project that really concerned local residents since the camp’s population would be larger than the town itself.
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The next town west on the Hi-Line is Culbertson, where the impact of the Williston Basin was even more noticeable. A modern school complex had replaced one that dated to the New Deal. Indeed the New Deal’s once profound impact on Culbertson–a public office building and armory–had been eclipsed not only by the modern school but also a new county office building all shiny and bright.
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The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

New county office building in Culbertson

New county office building in Culbertson


The man camps were already taking available land, even becoming a village in itself between the town’s historic cemetery and the railroad tracks. To capture the burial site of Civil War veteran Marcus A. Denney of the 6th Minnesota Infantry in the foreground and the man camp in the background by the elevators creates a snapshot, literally, of the periods of change in Culbertson over 150 years.
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Truckers and workers flying along U.S. Highway 2 in past decades would have spied the metal sculptures of Lewis and Clark near the local museum–but these iconic figures are no longer what immediately captures your eyes as you speed along the corridor.
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What you notice is everyone lined up for that human fuel that powers the commute between man camp and tracking well: the Frackin’ Java coffee stand. A true sign of the times along the eastern gateway of U.S. 2 in Montana.
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Cut Bank’s Public Art

No doubt readers may doubt that public art and Cut Bank are used in the same sentence, but the use of historical murals to enliven the town’s historic commercial core was the biggest change I experienced from visiting Cut Bank in 1984 and 2015.

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This welcome sign on U.S. Highway 2 in 1984 touted the oil boom that so re-shaped the town and Glacier County generally in the second half of the twentieth century.  Then the town’s penguin, a roadside landmark on U.S. 2,  accepted the commonly heard observation that Cut Bank was the coldest place in all of Montana–its World War II air base always was reporting weather conditions, ensuring that many Americans equated Cut Bank with frozen temps.

2011-mt-glacier-county-cut-bank-028I am speaking instead of the wide range of images and themes that visually interpret the town’s and county’s history. Finding public art murals about the open landscape once dominated by the Blackfeet Indians and the buffalo is not surprising–communities often embrace the deep history of their land.

Glacier Co Cut Bank buffalo and indians mural ruralThat Cut Bank also has a large expressive mural about the Lewis and Clark Expedition is not surprising–murals about Lewis and Clark were installed across several towns during the bicentennial of the expedition in the first decade of this century. East of Cut Bank is Camp Disappointment, one of the more important sites associated with the Corps of Discovery.

Glacier Co Cut Bank L&C muralNor is it surprising to see communities commemorate their homesteading roots, and the importance of agriculture and cattle ranching.

Glacier Co Cut Bank mural homesteaders

Glacier Co Cut Bank cowboys murals 3But I was surprised, pleasantly, by the number of murals that also documented the town’s twentieth century history, whether it is the magnificent steel trestle of the Great Northern Railway just west of the commercial core, or a mural that reminded everyone of the days when the railroad dominated all traffic here.

Glacier Co Cut Bank mural trestle

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The actual trestle along U.S. Highway 2.

img_9162It is this first half of the 20th century feel that the murals interpret–the era that actually built most of the historic buildings you find there today–that I find so impressive and memorable about Cut Bank, be it people on bicycles or what an old service station was like.

Glacier Co Cut Bank theater deco bike mural

img_9173Space matters when you interpret the built environment, and these various murals reflect not only a sense of town pride and identity they also give meaning to buildings and stories long forgotten.

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Flathead County’s Gateway Communities to Glacier

Flathead Co Columbia Falls mural

U.S. Highway 2 east of Kalispell has grown into a four-lane highway (mostly–topography thus far has kept it as a two-lane stretch west of Hungry Horse) designed to move travelers back and forth from Kalispell to Glacier National Park.  In my 1984-85 state historic preservation plan work, I thought of Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse, and Martin

Flathead Co Hungry Horse HuckleberryCity as one large tourism funnel.  After spending a good part of 2006-2007 working with local residents and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park about the heritage and preservation of Gatlinburg, Tennessee–one of the most notorious gateways into any national park–I learned to look deeper than the highway landscape and find some real jewels in each of these Glacier National Park gateway communities.

There is much more than the highway to Columbia Falls, as the three building blocks above indicate, not to mention the lead image of this blog, the town’s Masonic Lodge which has been turned into one huge public art mural about the town’s history as well as its surrounding landscape.  Go to the red brick Bandit’s Bar above, and you soon discover that Columbia Falls has a good sense of itself, and even confidence that it can survive new challenges as its population has soared by over 2,000 residents since the 1980s, totaling over 5,000 today.

Once solely dependent on the Montana Veterans’ Home (1896), which is now a historic district, and then relying on the Weyerhaeuser sawmill for year round employment, Columbia Falls faces a different future now once the mill closed in the summer of 2016, taking away 200 jobs. As the historic business buildings above indicate, historic preservation could be part of that future, as the downtown’s mix of classic Western Commercial blocks mesh with modern takes on Rustic and Contemporary design and are complemented, in turn, by historic churches and the Art Deco-influenced school.

Once you leave the highway, in other words, real jewels of turn of the 20th century to mid-20th century design are in the offing.  In 1984–I never looked that deep.

Flathead Co Hungry Horse 1At Hungry Horse, however, I did leave the highway and explored the marvelous landscape created by the Hungry Horse Dam and Reservoir, a mid-20th century project by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The agency justified the dam as a hydroelectric power project for a growing Flathead County and as a boost to local irrigation.  The irrigation side of the project–the real reason the agency exists–never happened and Hungry Horse today is an electric power and recreational project.

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Flathead Co Hungry Horse Dam 10I appreciated the vastness of the concrete arch dam–the 11th largest concrete dam in the United States–as well as the beauty of Hungry Horse Reservoir, an under-appreciated tourism asset as anyone in Flathead County will tell you.  But again, I let just the size and impact of the dam distract me from some of the details of its construction that, today, are so striking.

Here I am thinking primarily of the contemporary design of the Visitors Center–its stone facade suggesting its connection to the now covered river bluffs but the openness of its interior conveying the ideas of space associated with 1950s design.

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img_8779I am concerned, however, about news in September 2015 that Reclamation has contracted for updates and renovation at the Visitor Center–let’s hope that the classic 1950s look of the property is not sacrificed.

Flathead Co Martin City

 

Martin City is just enough off of U.S. Highway 2–it is situated more on the historic Great Northern Railroad corridor–to miss out on the gateway boom of the last 30 years, although with both the Southfork Saloon and the Deer Lick Saloon it retains its old reputation as a rough-edged place for locals.

For railroad travelers in the first half of the 20th century, West Glacier was THE west gateway into Glacier National Park.  The Great Northern Railway developed both the classic Rustic-styled passenger station and the adjacent Arts and Crafts/Chalet styled Belton Chalet Hotel in 1909-1910, a year before Congress created Glacier National Park.

img_8785Architect Kirtland Cutter of Spokane was the architect and the chalet design was actually just a smaller scale and less adorned version of the Idaho State Exhibition Building that he had designed for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Cutter is one of the major figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Northwest and we will look at another of his buildings for the railroad and Glacier in the next post about Lake McDonald Lodge.

The Cutter buildings for the railroad between 1909-1913 set a design standard for West Glacier to follow, be it through a modern-day visitor center and a post office to the earlier mid-20th century era of the local school and then gas stations and general stores for tourists entering the national park by automobile.

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This blog has never hidden the fact, however, that my favorite Glacier gateway in Flathead County is miles to the east along U.S. Highway 2 at the old railroad town of Essex, where the railroad still maintains facilities to help push freight trains over the Continental Divide.  The Izaak Walton Inn was one of the first National Register assignments given to

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me by State Historic Preservation Officer Marcella Sherfy–find the facts, she asked, to show that this three story bunk house, railroad offices, and local post merited exceptional significance for the National Register.  Luckily I did find those facts and shaped that argument–the owners then converted a forgotten building into a memorable historical experience. Rarely do I miss a chance to spend even a few minutes here, to watch and hear the noise of the passing trains coming from the east or from the west and to catch a sunset high in the mountains of Flathead County.

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The rural side of Flathead County

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As I traveled Flathead County in 2015 certainly my attention was on the growth and change in Kalispell, Bigfork, and Whitefish, and the suburban sprawl that was increasingly connecting those towns.  But I also looked for rural institutions and places–did places such as the Smith Valley Grange on U. S. Highway 2 west of Kalispell still stand–was it still a grange meeting hall?

img_8843The answer was yes, to both questions.  Here is an early 20th century log building landmark on a highway where the traffic seems to never end.  It is also along the corridor of a new recreational system–the Great Northern Rails to Trails linear park that uses an old railroad corridor to connect the city to the country in Flathead County.

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Flathead co US 2 W of Kalispell ranchThe trail allows bikers to see the rural landscape, still dotted with family farms, of the Smith Valley as it stretches west to Kila, where the old Cottage Inn has been converted in the last few years into the Kila Pub, complete with the Arts and Crafts/Tudor theme associated with the railroad corridor.

To the southeast of Kalispell is another rural corridor, defined by Montana Highway 206 which is a connector between U.S. Highway 2 at Columbia Falls and Bigfork.  No doubt some ranches have given way to development, but open vistas and historic barns still serve as reminders of the agricultural traditions of the county.

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img_8762To the north of Kalispell and Whitefish U.S. Highway 93 takes you past the ski developments into a thick forested area, managed in part as the Stillwater State Forest.

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In 1984 I noted the state forest headquarters, an interesting array of 1930s log and frame functional buildings.  The headquarters is now part of the National Register of Historic Places, as the Stillwater State Forest Ranger Station.  The distinctive log buildings date

img_8188from the 1920s into the 1960s.  While several are from the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s, state ranger Pete De Groat built his log residence in 1928 in the Rustic Style.  Stillwater was Montana’s first state forest.

Olney is a Great Northern railroad town that has lost its depot sometime ago but it still has its historic school building, a historic post office (that has closed in favor of a new standardized designed building, and its storefronts facing the tracks in symmetrical plan. While only 13 miles north of Whitefish, this rural railroad outpost seems many miles away.

 

 

 

 

Lincoln County’s Gateway Towns

Lincoln Co Troy 5I love Montana town signs, and Troy, deep in the state’s logging country, has one of the best.  The sign lures to a city park nestled along the Kootenai River.  The focus point is a

historic Great Northern depot, which has been moved to the park.  There is also an interpretive trail, part of a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, that tells the story of the Callahan boom, which mining and logging combined to lure investors and residents to the area.  It is a story arc that the forest service follows at other sites in a region the service describes as the Callahan Creek Historic Mining and Logging District. It is a very useful perspective on the town’s history, and not one that I pursued in 1984 when I explored this part of Lincoln County in the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan.  I paid attention to the historic railroad corridor–Troy (1892) after all was on

Lincoln Co Troy RR corridor

Lincoln Co Troy facing RR

Lincoln Co Troy bar facing RRthe Great Northern’s main line, and I documented the few historic buildings left facing the railroad tracks today.  The Home Bar (c. 1914) and the Club Bar were institutions then, and remain so today.  The Kootenai State Bank building still stands but has experienced a major change to its facade–made better in part by the American flag painted over some of the frame addition.

img_8425The Troy Jail, above, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and it remains the only building so listed in the town today.  D.E. Crissey, a local contractor, built it out of concrete in 1924 during Troy’s boom from 1916 to 1926 when its population jumped from 300 to 1300.  The Snowstorm mine, which produced lead, zinc, and silver, started to serve the demand for raw materials during World War I.  The mine soon turned what had been a small railroad town into a mining camp best known for its brothels and bars.  Then in the early 1920s the Great Northern decided to build a division point here, further booming the town. The Sandpoint Pole and Lumber Company began its logging business in 1923, and Troy suddenly was the largest town in the county

Lincoln Co Troy school 4

Perhaps the most impressive landmark left in the wake of the Troy boom is the public school, with the impressive central block flanked by classroom wings and a gymnasium built in later decades.  Home to the Troy Trojans, the soldier statue in front of the school is also a public art landmark in Lincoln County.

Troy thus was much more than just a gateway into Montana from U.S. Highway 2–it was once a mining center, but one that went broke fast as the mines played out in the 1920s, the Great Northern closed its roundhouse, and the Great Depression hit in the 1930s.

Lincoln Co Troy mural

In 1984 as I traveled from Troy via Montana State Highway 508 to Yaak, the only “town” left in the state’s far northwest corner, you could still encounter key mining properties along the Yaak River, such as this concentrator at Sylvanite.

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The Keystone Mill was barely hanging on to the side of the mountain then, now it is nowhere to be seen.  Montana 508 has instead become a gateway to some of the some of the most open, untouched high mountain landscape, one that meanders back and forth with the river, bridges, and, perhaps most importantly, bars.

That would be the Dirty Shame Saloon–another institution that some back in the city thought that perhaps I should avoid.  Glad I did not.  Had a great meal there in 1984, and even though the bar’s dining area has been extended, it still had that vibe, of both a local place but also another remnant of the old logging and mining days along the Yaak.

Lincoln Co Yaak dirty Shame saloon 1

Yaak by way of local paths and trails is a gateway too, between Idaho and Montana and Montana and British Columbia.  More to the point it is a gateway between what was and what still is within the Montana landscape.

Lincoln Co Yaak store/bar

Yaak’s general store, service station, lodging, and whatever else you need is another throwback place, and can be found on the web as the Yaak River Tavern and Mercantile.  You haven’t “done” Montana if you don’t make it to Yaak.

 

U.S. 2 & Kootenai Falls in Lincoln County

Lincoln Co Libby US 2 east of Libby ranches 2U.S. Highway 2 enters northwest Montana in Lincoln County and from there the federal highway stretches eastward through the towns of Troy and Libby with vast rural stretches along the way to Kalispell.  Paralleling the highway is the historic route of the Great Northern Railway, which brought timber and mining industries to this corner of Montana.

img_8355Before you encounter the towns, however, there is a spot that is among my favorite in the state, and a place that I discussed in some depth in the book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History:  Kootenai Falls.

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Kootenai Falls, 1984 image.

The river and the falls were a natural dividing line between the Upper and Lower Kootenai Indians.  Both groups shared the falls and considered it sacred.  David Thompson, the North West Company fur trader, visited the falls during own of his sojourns from Canada into northwest Montana in the early 19th century and left an early description. But in 1984 it took some dedication to gaze upon this most sacred and beautiful landscape.  There was sort of a pull-off from the highway and then you meandered across the forest, carefully crossing the Great Northern tracks, to then find a good vantage point.

Today there is the 135-acre Kooteenai Falls Park, one of the best improvements in Montana’s heritage development over the last 30 years.  Not only is access to the falls much safer but public interpretation explains the site’s vital importance to Native American peoples who were here long before the railroad, the logger, the miners, and the town builders.

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Lincoln Co US 2 Kootenai Falls 29The falls is spectacular, no matter what time of the year you visit.  But do stop and consider the mountains and bluffs that surround it.  The entire landscape is what mattered to the Native Americans as they navigated through the area, or took vision quests at isolated places, or stopped to fish along the banks or hunt the wild game who also came to the falls for nourishment.

img_8363  There are few less untouched places than Kootenai Falls.  The county park provides access and information.  It is then up to you to explore, stop, and think about how humans have interacted with this places, taking aways thoughts and messages that we can only guess at, for thousands of years.