An end of the century trip to Central Montana

The vast majority of my effort to document and think about the historic landscapes of Montana lie with two time periods, 1984-85 and 2012-16. But in between those two focused periods, other projects at the Western Heritage Center in Billings brought me back to the Big Sky Country. Almost always I found a way to carve out a couple of additional days to get away from the museum and study the many layers of history, and change, in the landscape by taking black and white images as I had in 1984-85. One such trip came in 1999, at the end of the 20th century.

In Billings itself I marveled at the changes that historic preservation was bringing to the Minnesota Avenue district. The creation of an “Internet cafe” (remember those?) in the McCormick Block was a guaranteed stop.

But my real goal was to jet up highways 191 and 80 to end up in Fort Benton. Along the way I had to stop at Moore, one of my favorite Central Montana railroad towns, and home to a evocative set of grain elevators.

Then a stop for lunch at the Geraldine bar and the recently restored Geraldine depot, along a historic spur of the Milwaukee Road. I have always loved a stop in this plains country town and this day was especially memorable as residents showed off what they had accomplished in the restoration. Another historic preservation plus!

Then it was Fort Benton, a National jewel seemingly only appreciated by locals, who faced an often overwhelming task for preserving and finding sustainable new uses for the riverfront buildings.

It was exciting to see the recent goal that the community eagerly discussed in 1984–rebuilding the historic fort.

A new era for public interpretation of the northern fur trade would soon open in the new century: what a change from 1984.

I beat a quick retreat back to the south, following the old Manitoba Road route along the Missouri and US Highway 87 and back via highway 89 to the Yellowstone Valley. I had to pay a quick tribute to Big Timber, and grab a brew at the Big Timber

Bar. The long Main Street in Big Timber was obviously changing–new residents and new businesses. Little did I know how much change would come in the new century.

One last detour came on the drive to see if the absolutely spectacular stone craftsmanship of the Absarokee school remained in place–it did, and still does.

My work in Tennessee had really focused in the late 1990s on historic schools: few matched the distinctive design of Absarokee. I had to see it again.

Like most trips in the 1990s to Billings I ended up in Laurel–I always felt this railroad town had a bigger part in the history of Yellowstone County than

generally accepted. The photos I took in 1999 are now striking– had any place in the valley changed more than Laurel in the 21st century?

Howdy from Terry!

Terry overview
Terry, the seat of Prairie County, has long been one of my favorite places in the Yellowstone Valley. Stuck between the much larger, and more famed, Yellowstone towns of Miles City (to the west) and Glendive (to the east), Terry has somehow developed and kept its own identity as a western place, and landscape, that still speaks strongly to the patterns that transformed the region over the last 150 years: railroads, homesteading, cattle, and town building.
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In 1984 I focused on the railroad imprint on the town, which began in the early 1880s as Northern Pacific officials understood the need for a railroad stop at place near the confluence between the Yellowstone and Powder rivers.
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In 2013, however, the depot was gone from the tracks but not the town. It had been moved to become part of the solid Prairie County Museum, a local institution that was still quite new when I first visited in 1984. Located in the town’s most prominent neoclassical bank building from the 1910s, the museum was a place where I held a public meeting about the preservation plan process and found a community totally engaged with its past.
Terry bank
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The museum highlights agriculture and ranching, and includes the Evelyn Cameron Gallery, which displays and celebrates the life and contributions of this important western photographer. One change I noted last year was the creation of the Evelyn Cameron Heritage Center, on Laudre Avenue just a few yards away from the museum, which is at the crossroads of Laudre and Logan Avenues.
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That crossroads was another pattern in Terry’s landscape that caught my eye. Most Northern Pacific towns, originally, were symmetrical plans, with a long line of commercial buildings flanking one side of the tracks and grain elevators and warehouses on the other side. Terry, however, had a classic T-town plan, with the tracks creating the top of the T and then a main commercial artery, in this case Logan Avenue, serving as the stem of the “T.”
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Why was Terry different? It is the impact of the Milwaukee Road as it built through the valley in 1906-1907. In 1984 there was still a second set of tracks, and a few scattered commercial buildings, to the north of the Northern Pacific mainline. Today two buildings remain along with the roadbed that marks this second period of Terry’s growth.
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Just west of the “downtown” you can find the one still thriving institution associated with the Milwaukee Road impact on Terry: the Prairie County Fairgrounds, which once faced the Milwaukee’s main line. (I have discussed the fairgrounds in an earlier post.)
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Another wave of change came to Terry in the 1920s as U.S. Highway 10 gave the town another transportation pattern. The highway’s crossroads with the original T-plan commercial artery is marked by a still extant somewhat Art Deco-styled brick gas station/ auto dealership.
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The most recognized roadside landmark is the Kempton Hotel, a true rarity now for this section of the Yellowstone Valley as those rambling montage of buildings that once constituted places of rest and relaxation along the nation’s highways have largely disappeared from the landscape.
Then, just yards away, is another rambling montage of historic buildings, the schools of Prairie County, ranging from the large stately multi-story brick buildings of the early 20th century to more restrained modern buildings of the second half of the century.
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At the edge of town are three different properties, all related to the need for highway transportation. The Dizzy Diner is a classic 1950s drive-in while the crumbling Terry drive-in also speaks to past patterns in popular culture. Then the Prairie County Grazing District Stockyards connects the present to the past traditions of stock raising in this region.
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Certainly the biggest change is Terry from 1984 and 2013 was the transformation of the county courthouse. In 1984 I was shocked that there was only an unadorned concrete block building for the courthouse, and I have shared images of that building across the country. Well the concrete block building on Logan Avenue is gone, replaced by a much larger, still unadorned building for local government.
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Terry’s population has dropped by a third since my first encounter with the town in the early 1980s. But new public investment, and a still commercially relevant “downtown” speaks volumes to the residents’ commitment and faith in this small yet significant Yellowstone valley town.

The Yellowstone and Missouri Confluence

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In the Montana survey work of 1984, there were few places I was more excited about visiting than the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, on the border between North Dakota and Richland County, Montana. I had been working with the Western Heritage Center of Billings for a year on an exhibit, “Yellowstone: River of Life,” that would finally (to my mind) begin to refocus attention on the largely ignored history of the Yellowstone Valley. The story had many beginning points, but certainly where the Yellowstone emptied into the Missouri was one of the most important. This area had long been a Native American landmark. For the early Canadian and American traders, it was a crucial crossroads for the northern plains fur trade. The American Fur Company established Fort Union as its largest post in the region–and the site of the fort was still there, but little else, as the images above from 1984 indicate. Paul Hedren of the National Park Service promised me there was more to come–that the post would be rebuilt and its significant story told.
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When I returned to this spot in 1988, I found that Paul’s promise had already met with success. The Bourgeoise House–the post headquarters and residence of the fort’s administrator (or Bourgeoise) had been rebuilt, finally suggesting the commanding size of the fort. The stockade and the rest of the site awaited a similar reconstruction.
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Twenty-five years later, I returned to Fort Union and explored a fully rebuilt site that finally was starting to receive the visitor count it always deserved: due to the Williston Basin oil boom. Williston, North Dakota, was gaining population as never before, and significant numbers of new residents were also reshaping Sidney, the seat of Richland County.
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The reconstructed fort included a strong physical presence for the Native Americans who were the crucial economic actors for the post’s success. Without the reciprocity in relations and trade between the northern plains peoples and the American traders, the post would not have survived nor prospered.
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More could be done with the size and massing of this Palladian inspired classical styled dwelling–actually a rather late example of this architectural style but somehow a sensible design considering how the post was really on the far edge of the American empire. It would be decades later, after the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1980s, that a dwelling with such architectural pretension would appear in the Yellowstone country.
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More could be said with additional reconstructed spaces and exhibits about the fur traders’ on Native Americans in the fur trade era from 1830 to 1868, but the fort as it exists in 2013 certainly conveys more to the public than the displays I found in 1984. Few places in the yellowstone Valley had changed more than Fort Union between 1984 and 2014.
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