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!

Yellowstone Gateways: Gardiner

HPIM0597.JPGThe most popular Montana gateway into Yellowstone National Park is at Gardiner, in the southern tip of Park County.  Here is where the Northern Pacific Railway stopped its trains, at a Rustic styled passenger station long ago demolished, and travelers passed through the gate above–designed by architect Robert Reamer–and started their journey into the park.

img_2966By the mid-20th century, Gardiner had become a highway town, the place in-between the beautiful drive through the Paradise Valley on U.S. Highway 89 (now a local paved road)

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to the northern edge of the national park boundary.  Here at Gardiner, there are two rather distinct zones of tourism development.  On the north side of the Yellowstone River along U.S. 89 is a mid to late 20th century roadside landscape, including such classic bits of roadside architecture as the Hillcrest Motel and Cabins, the Jim Bridger Motor Lodge, and the Absaroka Lodge as well as a plethora of other visitor services

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On the south side river, closest to the park entrance, is an earlier layer of commercial development, ranging from the turn of the 20th century to the early years of the 21st century.  A major change in the last 30 years is how this section of town has been remodeled and rebuilt (such as the modern Rustic style of the Yellowstone Association building below) with a wholly new streetscape and road plan installed c. 2015.

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Yet, mixed in with all of tourism businesses, are community institutions that have served local residents for decades.  My favorite is the Gardiner Community Center, built in 1910 as an opera house but transformed into a community building by the Fraternal Order of Eagles when it took over the building’s management in 1928.  The building has served the community as a school, with basketball games in the large open hall, and then for many other community functions and as home to the local WFW chapter.  The Greater Gardiner Community Center acquired this landmark in 2015 and is developing plans for its restoration and revitalization, good news indeed.

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Another key community institution with Gardiner’s trademark stonework comes from the second half of the 20th century, St. Williams Catholic Church.

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Recent and on-going local efforts to re-energize the historic town should meet with success, for there are significant historic commercial buildings, dwellings, and public buildings on both sides of the Yellowstone River.

img_2957The plan to develop a new Gardiner library at the old Northern Pacific depot site at part of the Gardiner Gateway Project is particularly promising, giving the town a new community anchor but also reconnecting it to the railroad landscape it was once part of. Something indeed to look for when I next visit this Yellowstone Gateway.

 

 

Augusta, more than just a rodeo

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot Augusta 005My friends in the environs of Helena have been surprised that after 300 something posts I had yet to say anything about Augusta, a crossroads town in northern Lewis and Clark County along U.S. Highway 287, during my revisit of the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan. They knew that I loved the open range drive to Augusta, whether approaching from U.S. 287 or U.S. Highway 89.

Teton Co US 89 to gilman and AugustaThen, the various businesses and bars along Main Street represented not just a favorite place in rural Lewis and Clark County, but also document a classic western town with great roadside architecture such as the Wagon Wheel Motel.

The annual rodeo in Augusta is one of the state’s best, but Augusta is worth much more than just a summer visit during rodeo season.  When I returned in 2014 I found one key building missing–the historic Great Northern Railway passenger station, shown below from a 1984 image.

Created with GIMPAugusta began as a crossroads town for neighboring ranches; the later extension of a railroad spur to nearby Gilman spurred competition between the two towns.  But Augusta Teton Co US 89 August and Gilman hwy marker 1won that battle–today not much outside of the Montana Highway Historical marker, a steel bridge, and a disappearing railroad corridor remains of Gilman.

Augusta has several significant properties, starting with its historic high school building, a bit of neoclassicism on the northern plains.

img_9066But I like the football field almost as much as the historic school–could a more neighborhood setting even be imagined?

Lewis & Clark County Augusta football field 1Then there are historic commercial buildings from the early 20th century–several with National Register qualities, especially the F. M. Mack General Merchandise store–a frame building with paired bracketed cornice.

img_9073Over 300 people call Augusta home today, a slight increase since my work 30 years ago.  The community not only has kept the historic buildings noted above, residents also have opened the Augusta Area Museum–heritage is clearly part of the town’s future.

Lewis & Clark County Augusta museum

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.

Glacier Co Browning fairgrounds sculpture 3

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.

 

 

Choteau to the Blackfeet Reservation on U.S. 89

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pondera Co Valier civic center

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

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

Teton Co Bynum school 1

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

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Choteau, U.S. Highway 89 Crossroads

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

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

 

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

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

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

Teton Co Choteau theater 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading North on Montana’s U.S. 89

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

 

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

Teton Co Greenfields irrigation district W US 89

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

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

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

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

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

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

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