Billings: heart of the Midland Empire

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The irrigation ditch at Hesper Ranch, where the irrigated empire of eastern Montana began in the late 19th century.

Billings, due to a young energetic staff at the city’s major history museum, the Western Heritage Center, gave me my first opportunities to learn and embrace the amazing landscape of Montana.  In 1982 the museum was finding its way; it was not the community institution that it has become some 30 plus years later.  Board members in 1982 were

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Western Heritage Center (the historic Parmly Billings Library), Billings, in 2006

interested in possibly recreating the old river village of Coulson, of which not a trace was left.  I explored the issue, recommended no, and then suggested that actually the founding and development of the town was a fascinating story–with a cast of characters.  Well, only a few people (Lynda Moss the education director then and David Carroll the exhibit curator) were fascinated with what I found, but I was a convert, and ever since I have been exploring the Midland Empire of Billings and Yellowstone County.

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The Big Ditch, at Eastern Montana College (now MSU Billings)

Irrigation, those man-made slivers of life that slice through eastern Montana, was one important key to the story.  When Frederick Billings, the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, helped to established the “town on paper” called Billings in 1882, he soon discovered that while there was coal in the Bull Mountains to the north there was little land worth his salt for agricultural development, and Billings was nothing if not an energetic, progressive farmer back at his home in Vermont.

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The city’s centennial statue of Frederick Billings, which stood by a parking garage when I began my Billings history work in the 1980s. Due to the good efforts of Lynda Moss and others, it was appropriately moved to the grounds of the historic Parmly Billings Library (Western Heritage Center) over a decade later.

He counted on Benjamin Shuart, the local Congregational minister (who was supported by his wife Julia Billings) to be his man on the ground, checking into the agricultural potential.  Everyone understood that only water would make the ground bloom, so the construction of the Big Ditch began.  It ran through Shuart’s property he managed for the Billings family,

Early dwelling at Hesper Farm, 2011

Early dwelling at Hesper Farm, 2011

known as Hesper Farm.  When Billings lost faith in Shuart, and his own son Parmly unexpectedly passed away, Billings turned to one of his son’s workers, and friends, I. D. O’Donnell, to make his land valuable and to give life to the town that was named for him.  O’Donnell, self taught in the value of land, irrigation engineering, and the possible miracle crop of sugar beets, became the Oracle of Irrigation for not only the Yellowstone Valley but for all of the northern plains.

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O’Donnell expanded the ranch at Hesper Farm and turned into a private demonstration farm for the entire region, a place of beautiful cottonwood trees and modern barns.

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His enthusiasm and connections attracted other investors, and soon caught the attention of the new U.S. Reclamation Service, which made the Huntley Project its second one across the West.  Amazingly the very simple farm-vernacular building that housed the project’s office at Ballatine still stands, a little building that really conveys a huge story of a federal program that transformed a region.

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IMG_1295O’Donnell’s empire depended on others for capital, none no more so dependable that Preston Moss.  Moss also looked to the Midland Empire, and built his grand mansion in pursuit of that dream.  The Moss Mansion became a house museum in 1983.

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Not far away I. D. O’Donnell also had his town house, on a more modest scale but grand as far as many homes in the “new” Billings.  This Queen Anne house, like the Moss Mansion, were listed in the National Register in the 1980s, and the Moss-O’Donnell story

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became better known.  And the legacies extend to places not often thought historic.  That place would be the Billings Sugar Factory, a huge sprawling complex of where town meets farm, ironically located about halfway between downtown Billings and the old Yellowstone River townsite of Coulson.  Sugar beets made the valley bloom, and the landscape still shows those marks today.

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Sidney, Montana, and the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project

The initial success of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation project, along with the homesteading boom of the early 1910s, led to the creation of Richland County in 1914. The new county, so named for the promise of the U.S. Reclamation Service project and the booster rhetoric of the era, used the existing town of Sidney as the county seat.

Northern Pacific Railway corridor at Sidney, MT

Northern Pacific Railway corridor at Sidney, MT


Sidney was the largest town on the Northern Pacific’s spur that ran up the Lower Yellowstone Valley. The historic grain elevators along the tracks testify to generations of agricultural products shipped from the town, although today the incessant freight traffic serving the booming oil fields of the nearby Williston Basin overwhelm the earlier agricultural focus.
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But the oil boom has not overwhelmed the city’s traditional agriculture-based economy, yet. The reason why is the persistence of two institutions that both received an economic shot-in-the-arm in 2002. First was the former Holly Sugar refinery that came to Sidney in the mid-1920s. Sidney Sugars Inc. took over the plant in 2002 and sugar beets by the thousands of tons are still processed here. The second key institution that speaks to the primacy of agriculture in Richland County is the USDA’s Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory, located just north of town. USDA established the center in the 1950s; the current complex dates to 2002, following a reorganization of its program two years earlier. One section of the unit stays focused on the center’s original program to support agriculture in the Lower Yellowstone project through research to enhance the productivity and profitability of dry land irrigated farming. The laboratory’s second focus studies how to better maintain weed and pest control through biological solutions rather than an over-reliance on chemicals.
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The Richland County Courthouse, which was undergoing a massive renovation when I visited a year ago, spoke to the hopes and dreams of Sidney in the early 20th century. This neoclassical monument stood above all buildings in the town–save for the grain elevators. Another important building was the post office, a New Deal era project of Colonial Revival design that featured one of the handful of Montana post office murals, a depiction of the Yellowstone River landscape before the railroads and irrigation project by J. K. Ralston. This building since 1984 had been converted into county offices.
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The 1930s also added two new buildings that have served the town’s youth ever since. Most prominent was the Sidney High School, now middle school, completed in the mid-1930s. A second was the log-construction Boy Scout Lodge, finished in 1932.
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The town also retains several examples of 1920s domestic architecture, speaking to the impact of the sugar beet industry on its fortunes. Despite the on-going oil boom, these historic homes confer a bit of stability to a rapidly expanding area.
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When I visited in 1984 the town proudly hosted a lecture about the state preservation plan at its brand new MonDak Heritage Center. The museum’s creators and leaders spoke with pride about how their history nor town would not disappear–the center was among the most impressive Eastern Montana history institutions of the time.
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Little had changed over the past 30 years when I visited in 2013. The center had an over-flowing library and archives. Its art exhibits still celebrated J. K. Ralston. And its history exhibits still followed the model, set earlier by the Montana Historical Society in Helena in the 1970s, of a recreated frontier town, with period rooms, businesses, churches, and homesteading shacks.
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The MonDak Heritage Center was a comfortable step back into time–not only for the persistence of museum interpretation from 30 years ago but also from the realization that despite the rapid change all around them, some in Sidney still retained that earlier sense of self, of ranchers making do and building a community out of the demanding environment of the Lower Yellowstone.

The Lower Yellowstone Project

Irrigation ditch at Intake, MT

Irrigation ditch at Intake, MT


Established by the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, the U.S. Reclamation Service moved early to transform the northern plains of Montana. The Lower Yelllowstone Project dates to 1904-1905, and the diversion dam and ditch established at Intake, north of Glendive, the seat of Dawson County, is the best single place to see the engineered landscape of the U.S. Reclamation Service.
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The dam, shown above, diverts water from the Yellowstone River into the big ditch, see below, which in turns waters thousands of acres of ranches in Dawson and Richland counties.
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Intake itself was initially a town of promise, as the two historic elevators suggest, but the spur line built from the Northern Pacific Railway at Glendive north to Sidney. But there is nothing left there now but the recreation area on the Yellowstone River.
Intake elevators

Intake elevators

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A much more successful story happened to the north at the town of Savage in Richland County. Here you cannot escape the ditch as it winds through the town. But residents also have established their own local museum about their community and the irrigation project, centered on the historic Breezy Flats school.
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Savage still has its high school, built by the New Deal in Art Deco style in the late 1930s, and new churches speak to recent growth. Like other Richland County towns, rapid growth as exploration of the Williston Basin could transform this little town that the railroad and federal irrigation projects built. That time has not arrived here yet–but at Sidney the county seat, the transformation is well underway. That story is next.
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Football field at Savage

Football field at Savage

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.

Backdrops to Montana History: The Irrigation Ditch

Coming to Montana in 1981 from the wet, humid South, I thought little of irrigation as a moving force in history.  To my mind, irrigation was about sprinklers keeping suburban lawns nice and green in the summer.  I cared little for that, and thought no more about it.

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Milk River system, Tampico, Valley County

Realizing that irrigation had shaped the history of the United States was another of those primary contributions living and working in Montana brought to my understanding of history.  In the 1984-85 historic preservation survey of the state, I noted a few key systems and thought about their significance.  But in the time since, I came to understand irrigation as one of the key components of an engineered landscape, that literally reshaped the state and made towns, cities, and ranches possible in the early 20th century.

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Big Hole Valley

Early Montana settlers, especially the pioneering irrigator I.D. O’Donnell of Billings,  understood by the turn of the century that there would never be enough water to make Montana an agricultural paradise.  Men could not conquer nature–but they could build a machine that could harness it, even replace it.

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This irrigation effort in Valier took advantage of the 1894 Carey Act.

So with the financial assistance of the federal government, first with the Carey Act of 1894 and then the vastly more important Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, the transformation of Montana through irrigation took place in the first third of the 20th century. 

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The U.S. Reclamation Service Office at Ballatine, Yellowstone County.  Championed by I.D. O’Donnell, the Huntley project was the second USRS project in the nation.

The engineered landscape represented by irrigation is everywhere in Montana.  I will pick up this theme in later postings but end today with another image that evokes the impact, even beauty, of the man-made streams that crisscross the state.

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Madison County, along Montana Highway 249