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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

U.S. 89 and the Blackfeet Reservation

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot 032U.S. Highway 89 enters the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on its southern border, heading for its junction with U.S. Highway 2 and the reservation center of Browning.  Before the junction, you cross the historic Two Medicine River, a historic corridor for the Blackfeet.  To the west of the river crossing is a highway historical marker for Coldfeet School, a one-

Glacier Co US 87 school markerroom school (not extant) built for Blackfeet children in 1933 during the New Deal. To the east of the highway river crossing, however, was one of the earliest schools (1889) on the reservation, the Holy Family Catholic

Mission. As the two photos above show, the massive nature of the historic built environment caught my eye like few places in Montana in 1985.  A few years later, I wrote an article titled “Acculturation By Design,” which looked at both Holy Family and St. Peter’s missions in Montana, for the “Great Plains Quarterly.” It discussed how the buildings were part of the

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turn-of-the-century white acculturation process–place Native American children in a structured, industrial-like environment then they could be more easily molded into “farmers.” It didn’t work the way the missionaries predicted and in the 1940s the mission was closed.  Forty years later I wondered about the future of the old dormitories that surrounded the mission chapel.

Glacier Co Holy Family Mission 7 – Version 2This panorama of the mission site today shows that neither of the dormitories remain, although the historic frame barn and mill still stand (to the left) while the chapel is still a dominating element, and has been incorporated into present-day Blackfeet culture. It is in excellent shape.

IMG_9293Another change is that the Blackfeet provide public interpretation of the site, through their own historical markers, which is extended into the adjacent historic cemetery, one of the most somber places in the region.  The old mission is now part of the reservation’s heritage tourism effort.

Glacier Co Holy Family Mission 1Glacier Co Holy Family Mission 6 – Version 2Returning to U.S. 89 and heading northwest, you head to the junction of U.S. Highway 2 and the town of Browning.  The town is a center for reservation education, as shown by the new campus for the Blackfeet Community College.

Glacier Co Browning Blackfeet community collegeHere too is another historic Catholic Church, the Little Flower Catholic Church, built in 1931, from locally available stone in a Gothic Revival style.  The congregation supports a small Catholic school next door.

Glacier Co Browning Little Flower Catholic ChurchThe Browning fairgrounds is an important Blackfeet recreation and cultural center, with this recent installation again providing public interpretation of Blackfeet culture.

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Across the street is the Museum of the Plains Indian, which the Indians Arts and Crafts Board of the U.S. Department of Interior established in 1941.  The museum and craft center was located at the junction of U.S. 2

Glacier Co Browning museum of plains indians 2and U.S. 89, heading north.  It created an appropriate, respectful way for the increasing number of auto tourists headed to Glacier National Park to learn about the Blackfeet in particular and Plains Indian culture in general.  The famous mid-20th century anthropologist, John Ewers, had worked tribes to create the museum’s initial exhibits and collections. In the 21st century, the Blackfeet have developed additional institutions to take advantage of tourism through the nearby Glacier Peaks casino and hotel, a complex that has developed from 2011 to 2015.

Glacier Co Browning casino 1These new buildings are part of a long-term continuum of tourism in Browning, starting with this old concrete tipi, built originally as a gas station in 1934 and now converted into a coffee shop.  And the Blackfeet

Glacier Co Browning tipi 1

Glacier Co BrowningTrading Post is a business found in all sorts of national park gateways–the classic place to get cheap souvenirs and t-shirts of all types, not to mention moccasins and all of the stereotypical material culture of Native American tourism in our country.

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To finish, for now, this look at U.S. Highway 89, we will end with spectacular architecture of the St. Mary’s Visitor Center at Glacier National Park, where the historic Going-to-the-Sun Highway junctions with U.S. 89. The center, built in 1964 from designs by Cecil Doty and the architectural firm of Brinkman and Lenon, is one of the state’s best examples of “Mission 66 modernism” associated with the National Park Service.  What I was particularly pleased to encounter in this decade are the new exhibits within the visitor center which finally give the Blackfeet

IMG_0673the primary voice on what the park means, and how visitors can think about it today.  The Native American presence on U.S. Highway 89 today is much more evident, with much more public interpretation, than in my travels 30 years ago.

 

 

Essex Under Fire

For more than a week many have been anxiously following one of the 2015 wildfires along U.S. Highway 2 that threatens the town of Essex adjacent to Glacier National Park.  I must admit a very personal concern because 30 years ago there was not much to Essex, except for its historic Great Northern Railway dormitory and the switching yards, where the railroad could add engines to help trains cross the Logan Pass.  At the state historic preservation office in Helena, I had just worked with Pat Bick and Marcella Sherfy on an exceptional significance statement to place the dormitory, which was not quite 50 years old then but certainly the town would have existed without the presence of the dormitory, in the National Register of Historic Places.

Izaak Walton Inn c. 1985

Izaak Walton Inn c. 1985

Back then travelers wishing to stop there just crossed the tracks, as generations of railroad workers had done, and came into the dormitory, which actually was little changed except the lobby had a desk to greet visitors, and the basement floor became a very nifty bar.

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2011 MT Glacier Park and communities 152Since the mid-1980s, Essex grew as a place as the Izaak Walton Inn grew as a business.  Additional buildings were added to the north side of the tracks, even an old school building was repurposed into a mini-meeting lodge.

2011 MT Glacier Park and communities 137At some point in the 1990s or early 2000s (I didn’t get to Essex between 1995 and 2005) a  pedestrian bridge was installed over the tracks, which suddenly gave you a different perspective on the old dormitory and the railroad tracks that it had served.

2011 MT Glacier Park and communities 133This view of the historic Great Northern main line, looking east toward Logan Pass, became one of my favorite spots in the state.  Here you still had the look and feel of the early 20th century when the railroad created a new engineered landscape through the mountains, and also had modern marketing had taken hold of the railroad’s image, as the vaguely Swiss Chalet look of the dormitory fit well into the entire design aesthetic that the railroad pursued in its Glacier National Park operations.

IMG_9210The Inn now has a busy winter season as skiers come here for lodging, often traveling by Amtrak train.  The business has expanded in many different ways, with even old Great Northern engines being repurposed into overnight lodging.

2011 MT Glacier Park and communities 149 spent a night at the Izaak Walton in May 2015, and now with the serious threat of fire to the entire town I am glad I did.  Thirty years ago, I enjoyed the isolated feel of the place and watching the passing of the occasional train through the night.  In May the train traffic was much heavier–thanks to the region’s overall growth but also the impact of the shale oil

IMG_8968explosion in North Dakota–and the place was not so isolated.  Essex had significantly grown in size.  That’s why the news of the past few days is so distressing.  Not only could the fires take an important Montana landmark, they could also destroy a town that has grown so much in the last 30 years.  Today comes news that the fires had so concerned

2011 MT Glacier Park and communities 131officials of the BNSF Railroad that the company is wetting down its historic avalanche sheds not far from Essex and visible from U.S. Highway 2 at several places.  If luck doesn’t come, a distinctive historic landscape could disappear.

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Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Poplar, Montana

Grain elevators on Great Northern line, 1984

Grain elevators on Great Northern line, 1984

If you arrived in Poplar, Montana, via train, as tens of thousands did 100 years ago, you saw little that made this place seem different than dozens of other northern plains towns.  Grain elevators dominated the skyline; almost as imposing were multi-story hotels–not luxury lodgings but a place to literally land for newly arrived homesteaders or “drummers,” salesmen traveling the line trying to drum up business for industries located in faraway metropolitan centers.

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Gateway Hotel, Poplar MT

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Poplar Hotel, Poplar MT

 

 

 

 

 

But if you move north away from the tracks and toward the modern-day U.S. Highway 2, a different, distinct world is found, in the historic buildings of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  Near the Montana Highway Historical Marker telling the reservation’s story is a historic jail building from the late 19th century–the town’s most identifiable historic landmark in my 1984 work and today.

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Next to the jail was a new arts and crafts shop, aimed at travelers along U.S. Highway 2, part of a significantly expanded presence for the Fort Peck Community College.

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Indeed, the new college buildings are among the most attractive institutional buildings that you can find along the eastern end of U.S. Highway 2 in Montana.  Their bold colors and dramatic placement along the highway demonstrates the importance of education for the future of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

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North of the new buildings are many historic buildings associated with the reservation’s development in the early 20th century.  Some are abandoned and in poor repair but most are in use, still serving the tribes in the 21st century.

This building was a museum in 1984; now that activity has moved to the highway, better to attract visitors

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No doubt as to my favorite new building in Poplar in 2013:  The Perculator.  Not only a classing roadside building, but they also made great coffee–perfect for a long day of fieldwork in the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Wolf Point on the Hi-Line

Great Northern corridor along U.S. in Roosevelt County

Great Northern Railway corridor along U.S. 2 in Roosevelt County

When I encountered the northern prairie of Roosevelt County in 1984, it was difficult to tear your eyes from the omnipresent tracks of the Great Northern Railway.  The trains roared past regularly, and the tracks defined space and town location throughout this stretch of U.S. Highway 2.  So when I arrived in Wolf Point, the seat of Roosevelt County, I immediately looked for the depot, and came away disappointed.  Here, for northeast Montana, was a large town: certainly I would

Wolf Point depot, Roosevelt  County

Wolf Point depot, Roosevelt County

find more than the standard-issue Great Northern design.  It was different but nothing as I expected.  No grand architectural statement–rather a modernist building with little ornament or aesthetics to it, except here was what the railroad had become in the second half of the 20th century–a functional transportation system not the town builder and landmark of the turn of the century.

IMG_7737 But as I explored the town in 1984, and visited it again in 2013, I found several places worth considering in this small county seat of 2621 in 2010.  First was the impact of the New Deal.  Roosevelt County–named for TR not FDR–received one of the most striking modernist courthouses in the state, courtesy of the Work Projects Administration.

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Encountering such a gleaming landmark of the federal imprint on the region startled me, but also started me looking much more carefully at the impact of federal projects on the region, a research interest that culminated in an essay titled “The New Deal Landscape of the Northern Plains” for the Great Plains Quarterly.

Wolf Point, like almost every Hi-Line town, had suffered from population decline.  The town’s heyday came in 1960 with a population of 3585, which had dropped by 500 by 1980, and another 400 since then.  Yet Main Street was alive, not dead, but dilapidated with later day “improvements” marring historic commercial facades.

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Yet the town retained its historic movie theater, and had recently expanded a local history museum that has a remarkable array of objects.  Wolf Point in the 2010 census was about 1/2 Native American in population; the most impressive building added to the town since 1984 was the Fort Peck Community College.

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Wolf Point also had hoped to become the final landing spot for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame.  It was a worthy contender not just for its open plains, but the Wolf Point Rodeo is among the state’s oldest, and the historic fairgrounds continue to host the “Wild Horse Stampede” every summer.

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Smack in the middle of U.S. 2 is another monument to the Montana Cowboy, and a symbol of the hopes that the Hall of Fame would land in Wolf Point.  This bronze statue titled Homage was executed by Floyd DeWitt and given to the town by the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.

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To travelers along U.S. 2 Wolf Point may be considered as one or two blinks and that it is, but the history here is deeper, and strongly felt.  Yes it has the rails and the elevators to define the horizontal and the vertical but its landmarks continue to say:  we’re here and we matter.

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Dinosaurs on the Roadside

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One of the most fun discoveries I made along the U.S. Highway 2 roadside in Valley County was the Buck Samuelson “zoo” just west of Glasgow.  No dinosaurs hunting mountain sheep roamed the high plains when I traveled this region in 1984, and again in 1988, but they are there now, thanks to this self-taught sculptor.

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Samuelson began adding the sculptures to the roadside in the early to mid-1990s, just as the region’s latest dinosaur touring craze took off.  Now there is a small zoo of creatures overlooking the road, and railroad tracks, adding a bit of whimsy, but also a strong dose of patriotism to the mix.  Who still thinks that roadside art–so famous in stretches of U.S. 2 to the east in North Dakota and Minnesota–is not a Hi-Line tradition?

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New Deal Transformations: A Hot Springs in Phillips County, Montana

 In 1922 the Bowdoin Oil and Gas Company was drilling on land about 4 miles north of U.S. Highway 2 and the tracks on the Great Northern Railway, on the high benchlands north of the Milk River. They struck not oil but “a flow of warm sulphur water,” estimated at 24,000 barrels per day. The oilmen didn’t need a hot spring and moved on. But local citizens in Phillips County thought long and hard about harnessing that natural resource, which was just east of the Nelson Reservoir of the Milk River Irrigation Project of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

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By the mid-1920s local residents, led by the Malta Commercial Club, developed a plan–known as the “Malta Plan,” that involved the federal purchase of submarginal land in order to enhance conservation and also to gather greatly scattered ranchers into central locations in order to address land erosion and settlement patterns. As summarized by Bernie Alt and Glenn Mueller in their “Evolution of the National Grasslands”:  “The gist of the plan was that the Federal Government would take options to buy or buy outright land from farmers and ranches who could not continue to operate as in the past because of low prices, drought, erosion of land, and other reasons.  Any of the individuals who desired would then be resettled in the Milk River Valley.”  The Malta Plan became the proverbial first step towards not only the later Resettlement Administration (1935-37) but its successor the Farm Security Administration and then the National Grasslands. Re-purchase and then re-seeding in grass of abandoned homestead land was the big picture, and Phillips County was front and center in this national experiment from the 1930s on.

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But this story focuses on what changing federal land policy meant for one place in the county–Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs–that is now being re-energized and restored by determined property owners. When I visited the hot springs in 1984, I did not consider it much of a place. The buildings needed work; everything looked dated, worn. I did not dig deeper–and just assumed that there was not much a story here. Matters looked maybe even worse when I visited in 2013–the place was closed, abandoned, and seemed to have little hope. Local residents told me great stories of the springs’ best days. Those seemed to be gone forever.

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Then I noticed a small hipped roof open-structure which was certainly there in 1984–but my eyes had not been trained by viewing hundreds of New Deal-era structures to notice it. Here was existing truth in the ground that spoke strongly to the larger story of the New Deal transformation of Montana’s plains.

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The structure covered Public Water Reserve No. 141, federally established in 1931 by executive order from President Herbert Hoover to protect the hot springs. In 1932, the federal government transferred the well to the Saco Post #79 of the American Legion for development of recreation uses. By the mid-1930s, the American Legion Health Pool was open, and the tradition of the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs was underway. The New Deal guidebook for Montana encouraged visitors to go to the Health Pool for its recreational and “curative” waters and the Legion sold postcards like the one below.

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In the second half of the 20th century, the American Legion transferred the property to private owners, who expanded operations and launched the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs, so named for a sacred rock that stood down on U.S. Highway 2.

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What happened to the well? It is still there, with bronze markers explaining how this spot is part of the Resettlement Administration’s Land Utilization program–what became known as the Malta Subsistence Homesteads project centered around Wagner between Malta and Dodson. When I traveled Montana in 1984, I did not give enough attention to federal law, water rights, and the impact of the Reclamation Bureau.  You cannot miss the impact as you travel U.S. 2 between Chinook and Saco.

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Blaine County spawned the landmark Supreme Court decision on federal water rights of Winters v U.S. (1908). Phillips County spawned the first federal resettlement project and the “Malta Plan.” Historian Joseph Kinsey Howard in 1946 remarked: “So many federal agencies have had their ambitious fingers in the Malta pie that few even among project officials can be quite sure of all of them.”

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Today there is little but the transformed landscape itself to mark how these two rural places shaped national law. The next period of the hot springs’ history is being written right now. Michelle Lefdahl Simpson (a Phillips County native) and her husband Dennis are restoring the place–a process you can follow on the Facebook page for Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs. Michelle Simpson told the Phillips County News in May 2014: “When I was little and we would head to the Sleeping Buffalo, we would travel the approximately 20 miles from Whitewater on the gravel roads,” Michelle said. “I would be sitting in the back seat with my siblings waiting to see that big blue slide come out of literally nowhere and all I could think about was getting my wrist band on and racing up to the top. For me, it was as if our parents took us to Disney-land or something.”  Here’s to the Simpsons for stepping forward to reclaim a forgotten 20th century Montana landmark.

Milk River Project Towns: Dodson, Vandalia, and Tampico

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The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Project is one of its largest and most significant in Montana; it was one of the agency’s first five projects carried out under the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. I have already briefly mentioned the project in regards to Fresno Dam outside of Havre. Now let’s consider the project and its impact on three much smaller villages: Dodson in Phillips County and Vandalia and Tampico in Valley County. All three were once major stops along U.S. 2, but a later re-routing of the highway bypassed Tampico and Vandalia, and not much is left decades later but the canals and ditches of this massive irrigation system.

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Original U.S. 2 route between Vandalia and Tampico (to right is Great Northern roadbed)

The Bureau launched the Milk River Project in the first decade of the 20th century but due to disputes over who controlled the water (the Winters case) along with international negotiations with Canada since the Milk River basin passes through both nations, serious construction did not begin until the century’s second decade. The project area encompassed 120,000 acres, with 219 miles of canals, and hundreds more of secondary laterals and ditches. The water begins at Lake Shelburne at Glacier National Park, flows through the St. Mary Canal to the Milk River where then water is stored at Fresno Reservoir outside of Havre and then at the Nelson Reservoir between Malta and Saco.

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Dobson developed as a major base for the Bureau. Nearby here was a major diversion dam, and bureau officials established a regional headquarters at Dobson in the 1910s.

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This impact of the federal agency is still reflected in the impressive two-story brick high school, the magnificent Phillips County Fairgrounds (discussed earlier in this blog), and the fact that such a small town has impressed contemporary styled churches from the 1950s. I was very impressed with the quality of the town’s built environment, considering its size, when I visited here in 1984.

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But in the mid-1990s the Bureau left Dobson for a more centralized regional office in Billings, hundreds of miles to the south. Dobson’s emptiness was shocking in 2013–even the iconic (and once very good) Cowboy Bar had shuttered its doors.

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Dodson now is entering the same fate suffered by its neighbors to the east, Vandalia and Tampico. Although trains still rumble by on the former Great Northern route, these two towns lost their highway connection when U.S. was re-routed to the north. Ever since they are slowly ebbing away. Vandalia was another location of a Bureau diversion dam on the river along with a historic steel bridge from 1911. The dam remains but the bridge is gone.

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In 1984 I loved the historic Vandalia school (1912) and had a good conversation with folks there–the school was closed but now it was a post office and still very much a community center, competing with the bar next door. Now both businesses are closed.

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Tampico lays just south of both a major canal and the railroad tracks. A scattering of buildings marks its existence.

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The water still flows through the Milk River project but the towns it once nurtured are becoming fainter with each passing year. But it is not without promise:  later we will visit the Nelson Reservoir and what is happening at Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs.  Next is Malta, the seat of Phillips County.