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!

Flathead County’s Many Transformations

img_8057By the late 1980s there was little doubt that a substantial development boom was underway in Flathead County.  In the town near the Flathead Lake, like Bigfork, above, the boom dramatically altered both the density and look of the town.  In the northern half of the county Whitefish suddenly became a sky resort center.  In 1988, during a return visit to Montana, I did not like what I encountered in Flathead County–and thus I stayed away for the next 27 years years, until the early summer of 2015.

Bigfork had changed the most, and was almost unrecognizable to me, only the town plan having some semblance of historic feeling.  Its population had jumped by 200% between 2000 and 2010, and what I recalled as a lakeside village of several hundred was now a large Montana town of over 4,000 residents.

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On the other hand, Somers (1901) is not as changed and older buildings both in use and abandoned speak to its history.  Located on the northwest corner of the lake, it began as a railroad town, a link on the Great Northern Railway spur to Kalispell.  The railroad also supported a large sawmill here, which drove the local economy for decades.  Its closure at the mid-20th century brought change to Somers, one that continues today with the general patterns of growth and development in the lakeside area. One of the largest changes in Somers is the 2015 creation of its railroad heritage center, which also serves as the gateway to a rails to trails project that connects different areas, and railroad corridors, in Flathead County. The heritage center effectively interprets the town’s logging history.

Dell’s Bar is another Somers’ landmark, the type of community tavern/cafe that characterizes small town life in Montana.  Retaining these types of community centers will be crucial to the region’s sense of place and identity in a rapidly changing demographic reality.

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This southern part of Flathead County, between the lake and the sprawl of Kalispell, still has numerous ranches, beautiful working landscapes that deserve special consideration for agriculture was the heart of the Flathead Valley’s history.  Emblematic of that are historic rural institutions, such as the school at Creston and the nearby Eastside Grange.

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Eureka!! It’s a Lincoln County Town

Flathead Co Eureka MT hwy marker

Nestled within the Tobacco Valley of northern Lincoln County is the town of Eureka, which serves as a northern gateway into Montana along U.S. Highway 93.  I first encountered the town in 1982, as I returned from a jaunt into Alberta, and immediately thought here is a classic linear town plan, a landscape created by a spur line of the Great Northern Railway.

Flathead Co Eureka streetscapeAs I would come to find out, on two return trips here in 1984, the town was much more than that, it was a true bordertown between two nations and two cultures.  The two trips came about from, first, a question about a public building’s eligibility for the National Register, and, second, the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, where such obvious landmarks as the National Hotel and Eureka passenger depot were noted.  Thirty

Flathead Co Eureka National Hotel 1907

Flathead Co Eureka GN depot 2years later I was pleased to see the National Hotel in much better condition but dismayed to see the Great Northern passenger station–a classic example of its early 20th century standardized designs–is far worse condition that it had been in 1984.

Flathead Co Eureka GN depotOtherwise, Eureka has done an impressive job of holding together its historic core of downtown one and two-story commercial buildings.  In 1995, owners had the Farmers and Merchants State Bank, built in 1907, placed in the National Register.  Walking the town, however, you see the potential of a historic district of this turn of the 20th century place.

Flathead Co Eureka bank

Oh yeah, what about that second reason for two trips in 1984?  That would be the Eureka Community Hall, one of the last public buildings constructed by the Works Progress Administration in Montana in 1942.

Flathead Co Eureka WPA community hall 2Located on a hill perched over the town, the building was obviously a landmark–but in 1984 it also was just 42 years old, and that meant it needed to have exceptional significance to the local community to merit listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  Eureka had been a logging community, and the depression hit hard.  The new building not only reflected community pride but also local craftsmanship, and it became a

img_8239foundation for community resurgence in the decades to come.  The building was listed in 1985, and was the first to have my name attached to it, working with Sally Steward of the local historical society.  But credit has to go to Pat Bick and especially Marcella Sherfy of the State Historic Preservation Office for urging me to take it on, and to guide me through the maze of the National Register process. Today, it has experienced an adaptive reuse and serves as a rustic log furniture store.

Flathead Co Eureka WPA community hall 4During those visits in 1984 I also held a public meeting in Eureka for the state historic preservation plan, where I learned about the Tobacco Valley Historical Society and its efforts to preserve buildings destined for the chopping block through its museum village on the southern edge of town. Here the community gathered the Great Northern depot (1903) of Rexford, the same town’s 1926 Catholic Church, the Mt. Roberts lookout tower, the Fewkes Store, and a U.S. Forest Service big Creek Cabin from 1926.

But thirty years later I found new public interpretation not just in the museum village but in the town itself, as Eureka introduced visitors to its history and setting and also told its

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border story of such fascinating people as Joseph Peltier, who built the first dwelling at the town site in 1891, and especially the cross-border entrepreneur Sophie Morigeau, who was trading in the area as early as 1863.

The Peltier log dwellings came within a year of each other, 1891 and 1892, and their size, finish, and log notching speak to the region’s rapid development.  His 1891 low pitched roof, v-notched cabin is typical, throughout the mountain west, of first homes–quickly constructed shelter.  The second house, with its hewn log exterior and crafted corner notching speaks to permanence.  The settler was here to stay in 1892.

Eureka has held its population steady over 30 years, just a few families over 1,000 residents, a sizable achievement considering the change in both railroading and logging over that time.  I think community pride and identity has to be contributors, because you see it everywhere, and I will close with two last examples.  The town’s library and nearby veterans park, and then the magnificent Art Deco-influenced high school–yet another New Deal era contribution to this special gateway town.

 

 

 

The Transformation of Polson

Lake Co Polson courthouse 1935 New deal 1

Polson is the county seat of Lake County, a town that when I visited as part of the state historic preservation plan survey in 1984 had experienced a bit of recent growth, inching closer to 2800 residents after a 20 year period of being in the mid-2000s.  In all, a typical small town Montana county seat, complete with the New Deal era courthouse, c. 1935,

designed in an understated Art Deco style by architect Fred Brinkman. The solid condition and conservation of this landmark was good to see in 2015, as well as the continuation of one of the state’s great roadside architecture landmarks, Burgerville, on U.S. Highway 93 south of the commercial core.

Lake Co Polson BurgervilleBut in the last 30 years, Polson has boomed as a lakeside resort town, with a population of 4700 today compared to the 2800 of the 1980s.  Key landmarks remain but nothing has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since my 1984 visit, even the great New Deal modern courthouse above.

As the collage above shows, the town has historic buildings still serving the community after 100 years of history, with historic businesses, homes, the town gymnasium, and churches among those landmarks.  The Flathead-Poison Historical Museum has operated since the 1960s.  The gymnasium has been a community center for recreation and sports since the mid-20th century.

Lake Co Polson gym

 

Certainly I have my favorites such as the flashy Art Deco style of the Beacon Tire and Garage on the old highway 93 route and especially the historic grandstand of the Lake County Fairgrounds on the outskirts of Polson.

Lake Co Polson fairgrounds 2

img_8685These landmarks need to be treasured because a new Polson is emerging all around town–and could crowd out the places that frame the community’s identity.  Right now there is a balance between old and new, but a tipping point is around the corner.

Those who crowd the farmers market in downtown during the warm weeks of the year need to realize how fragile that small town feel and landscape can be today.

Lake Co Polson farmers market

 

 

 

 

Railroad Towns in the Flathead Reservation

Lake Co NP  trestle Moise road

Northern Pacific Trestle at Moeise

Once the Flathead Reservation was opened to homesteaders in 1904, tribal members were allocated acreage but lost control of much of their land to new development.  The historic Northern Pacific Railroad corridor between Ronan and Dixon, followed roughly today by Montana Highway 212 and U.S. Highway 93 is one way to explore two almost forgotten towns in southern Lake County.

The first north of Dixon is the reservation town of Moiese, created by the federal government in the early 20th century as a “model” town of bungalows with a school.  Several of the standardized design bungalows remain as does the school building, which is no longer in use.

Lake Co Moise schoolMoiese is best known, by far, as the entrance to the National Bison Range, where a general store stands nearby the refuge gate.  Created by Congress in 1908, the refuge took

Lake Co National Bison Range

Lake Co National Bison Rangeadditional land–almost 19,000 acres- from the tribes, without their consent, to create a safe haven for the remaining bison in the region.  A few hundred bison live within its boundaries today.  In 2016 the National Park Service began discussions with the Consolidated Kootenai and Salish Tribe to transfer management of the refuge to the tribe.

Lake Co Charlo elevatorEight miles north of Moiese along the railroad line is the town of Charlo, named in honor of Chief Charlo of the Bitterroot Salish, who was forced from the Bitterroot Valley to move to the reservation in 1891.  Charlo served as head chief of the Bitterroot Salish from 1870-

Lake Co Charlo 11910.  As a railroad town, Charlo is like many along the Northern Pacific, with a brief strip of businesses facing the railroad tracks, marked by the town’s sole grain elevator.  It has a classic rural bar, Tiny’s Tavern, with its brightly painted exterior of concrete block, with brick accents. Built in 1946 by Tiny Browne, it was both a motel and a tavern, and a local museum of items that Tiny thought were interesting.  Browne died in 1977 and his sister, Celeste Fagan, next owned the tavern, managed by Edna Easterly who recalled in a story in the Missoulian of April 20, 2007 that Tiny  “was known as the bank of Charlo. Tiny always carried a lot of money in his pocket and if you needed to cash a check, you went to Tiny.”

Lake Co Charlo 3Most important for its architecture, however, is the town’s public school, a wonderful example of Art Deco style from the New Deal decade of the 1930s.

Lake Co Charlo new deal school 2Ronan is a third town along the railroad corridor, named for a former white superintendent of the reservation.  The town’s demographics today are mostly white, with a little more than a quarter Native American population.  Ronan proudly proclaims its existence not only with a gate sign, connecting the business district to the sprawl along U.S. Highway 93 but also a log visitor center and interpretive park on the highway.

Ronan’s commercial area retains classic bars, like the 2nd Chance Bar, and a combination of recreational services that have been lost in too many communities–a bowling alley and movie theatre standing next to each other.

Historic church buildings from the early 20th century include the frame now covered in vinyl Methodist Church and the brick Gothic styled Sacred Heart Catholic Church, with an attached Ranch-style parsonage.  St. Luke’s Community Hospital provides a much needed medical oasis in what is still a rural, agricultural area. Opened in 1953, the hospital is now an oddity–in that it is community owned and still serving its rural population.  The building shown below was constructed c. 2008.

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Lake Co Ronan sacred heart catholic 1

img_7971The facade expresses a confident future, which is needed in today’s uncertain economic climate for rural hospitals across the state. But my favorite building in Ronan speaks to my love for adaptive reuse and mid-20th century modern design.  The town library is an

Lake Co Ronan libraryexquisite example of mid-century modern, and was once a local bank before being converted into the library.

Lake Co Ronan library 2

 

Flathead Lake Landscapes

Lake County, Montana, easy, right?  It’s all about the lake, the Flathead Lake.  It is a lot about the lake, but not a simple story but one that is ancient and 20th century, and one that has changed quickly in the last 30 years.  When I first visited the county in the early 1980s, our concern as preservationists was the boom that engulfed Lake County in the 1970s, a decade when the population grew by over 30% after being fairly stable for the 30

years before that. Lakeside communities had boomed, with the actual town of Lakeside just north of Lake County in Flathead County being a good example of what was going on then, and what has happened after 30 more years of growth. The historic church on U.S. Highway 93 remains as a landmark, along with the roadside Homestead Cafe, which didn’t exist when I was last here in 1985 but was established four years later.  That makes it almost historic in Lakeside terms.

IMG_8661There is a new school and a really different lakefront of businesses, homes, and parks. The town’s population was over 1600 in 2010; it’s now 2700 and counting.

Let’s jump back from Flathead County to Lake County and the southern half of Flathead Lake.  Here the west side is not so booming.  The Big Arm community has restored its historic one-room school, an excellent example of the type with its band of windows,

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which is listed in the National Register and uses it as a community and heritage center.  Here is one rural school not threatened with abandonment and decay.  The Dayton school

shows significant expansion since my last visit–although the historic core is still apparent.  Both towns have lovely views of the lake but have not experienced the boom of Lakeside located farther north on the west side of Flathead Lake.

Lake Co Dayton flathead lakeTo get the full meaning of Flathead Lake, however, you have to consider the lake’s deep time, and its long history with the Salish and Kootenai peoples.  When I surveyed the county in 1984-1985, you came away impressed with the different vision that the tribes had for the region, and what was already happened at Pablo. In 2014, however, I left Lake County was a deeper impression on what the tribes have meant to the lake and vice versa.

IMG_7962The People’s Center at Pablo is part of that lesson as it affords a powerful, lasting introduction to both the history and continuation of tribal traditions.   

lmage from Ft Connah Restoration Society

Then there is the site of Fort Connah south of Ronan on US Highway 93. Here is  1846 log building, part of a Hudson  Bay Company post that operated to 1872.  

Perhaps just as important are the signs along U.S. Highway 93–they weren’t there 30 years ago, and they help today to imprint the region with the names used by the tribes to describe these beautiful, historic places.

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Then there are the wildlife crossings, a design ensuring safety in the eyes of the Montana Department of Transportation, an engineered structure design to show dignity and respect to the animals who were here long before the people in the eyes of the Salish and Kootenai.

Lake Co US 93 animal bridge

These structures, some grand, some you might not even notice, are major changes to the roadsides of Montana.  And you want to see more.Lake Co Pablo elevated walkway 3

Not that the tribes did not make an imprint on the landscapes of Lake County–they were everywhere.  But now with structures like the elevated walkway at Pablo, their physical imprint can’t be missed by residents, and especially tourists.  That is one of the best developments in the Montana landscape over the last 30 years.

Lake Co Pablo elevated walkway 1 – Version 2

Missoula County’s country towns

IMG_8038Missoula County has grown, a lot, since my state historic preservation plan work in 1984-1985, especially in the county seat of Missoula and surrounding suburbs.  Yet Missoula County still has several spectacular rural drives, like Montana Highway 83 above at Condon, along with distinctive country towns.  This post will share some of my favorites.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon roadsideIMG_8033

Let’s just stay at Condon.  The Swan Valley Centre–it was just a general store back in the day–still operates, providing for locals and in the summer the tourists who are flocking to Seeley Lake or passing through on the way to Glacier National Park or Flathead Lake.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon community club

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon community club 2The Condon Community Center and adjacent Swan Valley Community Library serve as additional hubs for those living along the lakes and mountains of northeast Missoula County.  Both buildings are excellent examples of mid-20th century Rustic style–a look that, in different variations, dominates the Highway 35 corridor.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon USFS work center

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon USFS work center 1Condon is also the base for the Condon Work Center, home to the Great Northern Fire Crew, of the Flathead National Forest.  Here you can take a mile-long Swan Ecosystem Trail and learn of the diversity of life in this national forest region.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Seeley LakeSouth of Condon on Montana Highway 83 is Seeley Lake–a place that certainly has boomed in the last 30 years–witness the improved highway, new businesses, and population that has increased over 60 percent since my last visit in 1992.  Yet it still had places rooted in the community’s earlier history such as the Sullivan Memorial Community Hall–a good example of mid-20th century Rustic style.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Seeley Lake community hallAnd it had added one of my favorite bits of roadside architecture in this part of Montana: the Chicken Coop Restaurant as well as opening a new Seeley Lake Historical Museum and Chamber of Commerce office at a spectacular highway location just outside of town.

Let’s stay in the mountains but go northwest of Missoula to the historic Ninemile Remount Depot of the U.S. Forest Service.  In earlier posts I have praised the historic preservation work of the Forest Service at various places across Montana–30 years ago it might have been like pulling teeth to have forest service managers to recognize the many heritage assets under their jurisdiction but no more.  The Forest Service has done right by many of its National Register historic places, with Ninemile Depot being a particularly good example. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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In 1984 too few of us were focused on resources coming from the New Deal era.  When I was at Ninemile in 1984 I was looking for the historic school house–and was pleased 30 years later to find that it stood, and had been converted into a residence.

Missoula Co Ninemile schoolI don’t recall even thinking about the forest service facility, but here was an entire complex devoted to the forest service’s use of mules and horses before the days of the ATV that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The remount depot is an interesting

mix of restrained Colonial Revival styled offices and residences combined with a early 20th century functional aesthetic for the various barns and work buildings, which could have come straight from the USDA’s standardized plans for farm buildings of that time.

If you want to explore how the New Deal transformed the Montana landscape, the Ninemile Remount Depot is a must stop.  It has a museum about what has and still happens here and campgrounds are located nearby in the national forest.

Missoula Co Frenchtown RR corridor

Frenchtown is a Milwaukee Road railroad town closer to Missoula and the city’s sprawl to the northwest has impacted the town, as evident from the new school complex. When I visited in 1984 the town was a paper mill town.  Waldorf Paper Products Company opened the mill in 1957, but a successor company, Smurfit-Stone, closed the mill in 2010.  At that time the town had experienced a significant population boom, having grown from 883 in 2000 to over 1800 in 2010.

Missoula Co Frenchtown school 2The name Frenchtown dates to 1868 and is a reference to a number of French Canadians who moved here in the early settlement period.  A National Register-listed church, the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church (1884) marks that first generation of settlers.  Its classical-tinged cupola has long been the town’s most famous landmark.

Missoula Co Frenchtown St John Baptist Catholic NR 3The Milwaukee Road built through here in 1907-1908 and there remains a handful of historic business buildings from the time of the Milwaukee boom. There is one landmark

Missoula Co Frenchtown 6

from the paper mill days that I recall from my work in 1984–because I stopped here for a break back then: the Alcan Bar–and note the “F” for Frenchtown on the hill behind it.

Missoula Co Frenchtown 7

Evaro is also northwest of Missoula, more north than west along U.S. Highway 93.  The highway’s four-lane expansion has changed so much of the roadside landscape between this place and Hamilton far to the south.  Yet Evaro still has its c. 1930 one-room school, which is now the community center, helping to preserve this historic building. And its has

IMG_7827another roadside landmark–the Bucksnort Bar, just further evidence to add to the Chicken Coop and the Alcan that you won’t go hungry if you explore the small towns of Missoula County.