Roundup Montana: A town with a plan and on the move

One of the most exciting results of my recent work on the historic landscape of Montana is how many residents contact me with developments–both good and bad but mostly good–as they use their past and historic built environments to build new futures for their families and community.  Such an update just arrived last week from Roundup, the seat of Musselshell County.

roundup schoolA resident reported on the towns decision to join the Main Street program and how a community partnership effort had been formed to guide the process, assuring me that the wonderful historic Roundup school would find a new future as a multi-purpose and use facility.  That update has spurred me to share more images from this distinctive Montana town that I have enjoyed visiting for over 30 years.

Roundup stem of TAs I discussed in my earlier large posting on Roundup, it is both a railroad town on the historic mainline of the Milwaukee Road and a highway town, with a four-lane Main Street defining the commercial district. It is less than a hour’s drive north of Billings, Montana’s largest urban area.  But nestled at the junction of U.S. 12 and U.S. 87, Roundup is a totally different world from booming Billings.

Roundup lodgeRoundup store  You see the difference if how false frame stores and lodge buildings from the first years of the town’s beginnings still stand, and how the commercial district is pockmarked with more stately early 20th century brick commercial blocks, whether two stories high or a mere one-story. Yet the architectural details tell you the community had ambitions.  It

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was just that hard times came in the 1920s and stayed awhile, despite the best efforts of New Deal reformers who helped to fund the county’s magnificent Art Deco-inspired Musselshell County Courthouse at the end of the depression decade,

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The bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road in the early 1980s did not help recovery, and it was soon after that I found myself in Roundup for the first time in 1984.

roundup elevatorI found a place then, and still today, that was proud of its past and of its community.  I visited and spoke at the county museum, which was housed in the old Catholic school and included one of county’s first homestead cabins moved to the school grounds. The nearby town park and fairgrounds (covered in an earlier post) helped to highlight just how beautiful the Musselshell River valley was at Roundup.

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Community pride was evident in the well-kept homes of the downtown neighborhood, and I have already posted on the architecturally important modernist Catholic church.

roundup jailThen the public buildings–the school, the courthouse, and even the classically tinged county jail shown above–added to the town’s impressive heritage assets. Of course some buildings I ignored in the 1980s but find compelling today–like in the riverstone lined posts of the modernist Wells Fargo Bank, and the effective and efficient look of city hall.

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Yes when you take a close look at Roundup–the possibilities are there, as the new community partnership effort proves.  I can’t help but encourage this grassroots effort.  Good job Roundup, and I will be there soon enough to grab a float at the A&W and explore how a community moves forward with their impressive past as a foundation.

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Conrad’s railroad corridor

Pondera Co Conrad signConrad, the seat of Pondera County, is a railroad town, although the town’s close proximity to Interstate I-15 means that so many have forgotten the importance of this Great Northern Railway spur line that stretches from Shelby on the main line south to Great Falls.

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img_9361The town’s 1920s Arts and Crafts/ Chalet style Great Northern passenger station, along with grain elevators, serve as a reminder of the railroad’s importance to transporting the grains from neighboring ranches.

2011-mt-pondera-county-conrad-006Facing the depot is a combination symmetrical town, with one story brick buildings, several of them classic western bars, and then a block long T-plan that connects to the historic federal highway U.S. 87.

Pondera Co Conrad

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The Orpheum Theatre (1917-1918) was barely hanging on when I visited in 1985 and then by the end of the century, it appeared that the theatre would never be the center of community life it had been in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Pondera Arts Council then acquired the building, restored, and it is now once again a centerpiece of the community, one of several signs of how Conrad has turned to historic preservation to build new futures out of its pasts.

 

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Chouteau County’s Plains Country Towns

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Thirty years ago geographer John Hudson wrote a series of articles and a book on the topic of “plains country towns,” addressing the landscape patterns he found among the railroad-established towns of the northern plains.  Ever since Hudson’s concept of plains country towns has influenced how I look at the Montana’s small towns.  Even in such river counties as Chouteau County where the Missouri River trade base of Fort Benton has dominated the county’s economy and population since the mid-19th century, you can still find the unmistakeable imprint of the railroad and the grain elevators that mark the presence of a town.

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Earlier in this blog I have discussed Square Butte (above) and Geraldine.  Today I want to review two other small towns, Highwood and Carter.  Highwood is the largest, counting

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just about 175 people in the last census.  Like most plains country towns, it has steadily lost population in the last 50 years.  In fact this weekend’s Great Falls Tribune discussed how the Highwood High School was going to forge a co-op for sports with Geraldine so both schools could continue to have basketball, volley ball and 7-man football, played at this tiny field in Highwood.

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The Highwood School is no doubt the pride and center of this community, a place not often found by travelers nestled as it is in a gulch formed by Highwood Creek along Montana Highway 228.  It began in the 1880s as cattle country but with the coming of the railroad in the 1910s t became an outlet for grains, as its set of tall elevators makes apparent.  A small one-story false front building for the 1912 Highwood Mercantile Company also remains to mark the town’s railroad years.

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Carter has one-third the population of Highwood–only about 50 people in the 2010 census–but is better known to travelers due to its location along U.S. Highway 87 between Great Falls and Fort Benton.  The Rocking K Bar is the roadside landmark but travelers

IMG_9334should turn south and drive down into Carter proper since the town, despite its tiny number of residents, still has many of the community institutions that defined a proper plains country town of 100 years ago.

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First, there is the still operating Carter Elementary School, probably the one institution that keeps the town alive–when country towns lose their school soon everything else goes too.

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Next comes the tracks, railroad depot, and the grain elevators–while not public institutions they do give the community commercial lifeblood, and as long as the trains roll by there remains an economic reason for Carter to exist.

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The depot has been moved from its original location paralleling the tracks, but this early 20th century standardized designed combination depot for the Great Northern Railway still stands–there were hundreds across the state in my survey of 1984-1985 and one of the more disturbing trends of the new survey of 2013-2015 is how many Great Northern depots are gone, eliminating from the landscape they once dominated.

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Faith too has remained in Carter, with the persistence of the town’s small vernacular styled gable-front little white Methodist church, although in its first generation several congregations had been established here.

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Carter also still has its Community Hall–an institution across the northern plains that defined hope and persistence in the years following the homesteading bust of the 1920s.
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Community halls too were more numerous in 1984-1985 than today–the building in Carter is a significant community link between past and present.

IMG_9330Finally there is the federal presence–marked by a concrete block post office from the last decades of the 20th century.  The threat a few years ago to close hundreds of rural post offices across the region brought new, and necessary, addition to role of post offices as modern community landmarks for plains country towns.

Admittedly, Carter is a place that hundreds roar pass daily as they drive U.S. Highway 87. But with its extant school, depot, brace of elevators, church, community hall, and post office, Carter is a valuable physical document of the plains country towns that once populated eastern Montana, serving as important way stations along the metropolitan corridors of rails and sidings that crisscrossed the west.

Roundup, Montana: 19th Century Trail Crossroads and 20th Century Railroad Town

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Roundup, the seat of Musselshell County, has long been one of my favorite Montana county seats.  The old 19th century cattle trails are one important defining feature of the eastern Montana landscape; another are the railroad lines that crossed the region.  Here at Roundup, a north-south cattle trail crosses the east-west railroad line,  creating a town environment rich in history.

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Locals gathered at the town’s several good historic bars–the Arcade being my favorite–are rich in tales of the chaos and fun of early September 1989 when cowboys and pretend cowboys gathered in mass to recreate the “Great Montana Cattle Drive.”  A monument to that crazy day stands next to Roundup’s outstanding New Deal-era courthouse.  Another sign to that time is much more lonely, on Main Street, the old historic route of the trail (now part of U.S. Highway 87). Are you supposed to stand there for a selfie if you rode in ’89?

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Arcade Bar, Roundup, a real Montana classic

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There are so many Stockman Bars in Montana. The one is Roundup has these two great Art Deco-like windows.

The coming of the Milwaukee Road in 1906-1907 created a new look to Roundup.  Like many Milwaukee towns in Montana, it has a T-plan, with the route of the tracks (the rails

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I was glad to see this light industrial adaptive reuse of the Milwaukee depot–it was abandoned in 1985 and could have been demolished.

have been removed since c. 1985) and the location of the depot forming the top part of the T while the stem of the T is the route of U. S. 87 as it stretches to the north.

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U.S. 87 N (Main Street), Roundup

Earlier posts have discussed the town’s contribution to Montana modernism, St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, and the superb Musselshell County Fairgrounds, one of my favorite in the state (and a public property eligible for the National Register IMHO). Roundup has two National Register properties–its two historic schools.  The St. Benedict Catholic School (c. 1920), designed by Roundup’s own John Grant, is now the Musselshell Valley Museum.

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The town’s historic public school, but in two major sections in 1911 and 1913, was designed by the Billings architectural firm of Link and Haire.   It is an impressive landmark, built from stone taken from the bluffs of the Musselshell River Valley, and one maintained with pride by the community.

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Many historic buildings from the early 20th century line Main Street–naturally many one-story buildings but also commercial blocks of style and substance.  There is also a lot of homes that would contribute to a residential historic district.  Roundup has lost population like almost all eastern Montana towns since 1980 but not by such a severe amount–just over 200 in the last 30 years.  Thus, the town’s historic buildings remain in use and in fairly good condition.

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The historic schools in Roundup have been a great start for heritage efforts in Roundup but this quick overview shows that more can be done, to document and preserve this pivotal place in the Musselshell Valley.

Lewis and Clark and finding the “true Missouri” at Loma, Montana

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During the early weeks of fieldwork in northern Montana in 1984, I certainly had notes and reminders to document sites associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Here was one part of the region’s history that had been given its due by generations of historians, and the brown Pathfinder-themed markers of the Lewis and Clark Trail made the historic route one of the state’s most recognizable heritage assets.  Yet as I left Hill County and moved into Chouteau County, heading toward Fort Benton, there was little to mark the story along the Marias River and the decision that the expedition made regarding the “true” path westward–the Missouri River or the Marias River (the latter they had not expected to encounter).  There was a state highway marker at Loma, but that seemed not enough, considering the importance of the events on the Marias and the high integrity of this historic landscape.

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Opportunities not gained during the Lewis and Clark sesquicentennial in the 1950s were not missed during the bicentennial of the past decade.  As you approach the highlands above Loma, a major new interpretive kiosk not only presents a compelling view of the Marias landscape, it also interprets the significance of the location.

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Here is an example of the partnerships now driving the interpretation of the Lewis and Clark Trail:  the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail of the National Park Service being the most important, bringing a consistency of design and message to the interpretation.

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With these partnerships, working with property owners, in place, visitors can experience such key sites as Decision Point, at the confluence of the Missouri and Marias rivers, where the expedition made the correct choice and followed the “true Missouri” westward.  Loma, rather than being a neglected place in the Lewis and Clark story, now has become a centerpiece of the region’s interpretation, thanks to new visions and new installations in the 21st century.

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