Sunday, November 1, 2015

56. Lincoln County

Lincoln County, the northwestern corner of the state, is the leading contender to prove my assertion that county numbers have little (or nothing) to do with the population of the county in 1930.  According to that Census, there were 7,089 residents in Lincoln County, a number which would have given the county number 27, had population been the sole criteria.  Nor was Lincoln County the last county created in Montana.  That distinction goes to Petroleum County (# 55).  Lincoln County, taken from the western end of Flathead County (# 7), became a separate entity on March 9, 1909, with twenty-eight more counties yet to be formed.  In fact, a measure was introduced in the 1999 state legislature to re-number the counties, using current population figures.  This measure failed, but had it succeeded, the 2010 Census would put Lincoln County at number 10, the largest change of all fifty-six counties.

Most US school children could guess at the namesake for the county, even if they had never heard of this remote part of Montana.  Yes, indeed, it was named for President Abraham Lincoln, the man who was President when Montana Territory was created in 1864.  The county is quite mountainous, with the Purcell (or Percell) Mountains in the northwest, the Salish Mountains on the east, and the Cabinet Mountains to the south.  The Kootenai River flows into the county from British Columbia and exits to Idaho where it turns north and returns to British Columbia.  Other rivers include the Yaak and the Fisher, both of which are tributaries of the Kootenai.  Just inside the county's southern line, the Thompson Lakes are the source for the Thompson River which flows south through Sanders County (# 35) to join the Clark Fork River near the town of Thompson Falls.  The heights of the mountain peaks in both the Purcell and Cabinet ranges are such that the scenery is visual confusing.  The lowest point in Montana, less than 2000 feet in elevation, is where the Kootenai River leaves the state just a few miles from the town of Troy.

The Lincoln County Courthouse
Libby, Montana
Taken July 26th, 2009
(If you look at the photo full sized, you'll note that difference in brick where a rather plain new extension was added to a beautifully decorated existing building.)

At the time the county was created, the two main communities in the new county, Libby and Eureka, fought for the chance to be seat.  Libby won, and today it is a charming town of almost 2,700 residents.  It has a dark side though.  Historically the two primary industries in Lincoln County have been timber and mining.  Today the mines and lumber mills are closed, but their legacy lives on.  In 1919, E.N. Alley bought some mining claims about seven miles outside of Libby, and set up the Zonolite Company to mine vermiculite which was used in several different building materials.  In 1963, the W.R. Grace Company bought Alley's firm and continued mining vermiculite.  By this time, many Libby residents had become ill with mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases as the vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with that substance.  One source estimates that while the mine was in operation (it closed in 1990), 80% of the world's supply of vermiculite came from the Libby mine.  Today the mine and the towns of Libby and Troy are part of an EPA superfund cleanup attempt that by 2010 had removed 900,000 cubic yards of contaminated material.  But the work is not done, and Libby residents continue to become ill.  Reams of paper have gone into the various reports on this tragedy, and on the trial against W.R. Grace and Company, who, litigants claim, knew about the danger but kept the mine open for almost thirty years.

Yaak Falls 
Yaak River, northwestern Lincoln County
Taken July 26th, 2009

Today, tourism and recreation are the main industries for Lincoln County.  If Montana is The Last Best Place, as it has been called, then the Yaak is, perhaps, the Last Best Place to Hideout.  The community's website (seems like an oxymoron if you know Yaak), states that "The Yaak offers an excellent and definitely realistic get-away from the hustle and bustle of city environments.  Cell phones don't work here, and internet access is either from satellite or dial-up."   And yet, Time Magazine wrote about the Yaak in 1963.  New York Times best selling author Rick Bass lived in the Yaak for over twenty years, until he moved to Missoula in 2011.  For a while there was even a local newsletter printed in the area under the name The New Yaak Times.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a reference to that publication on line.  I can state that a drive up Secondary road 508, along the Yaak River, will take you through some of the most amazing scenery you can imagine, and I'd even recommend a stop at the Yaak River Tavern and Mercantile while you're at it.  (It is the only place for a hundred miles or so to get a drink or a sandwich).

Kootenai Falls at High Water
Kootenai River, by  U.S. Highway 2, west of Libby MT
Taken April 13th, 2014

If you're not up for a long, leisurely drive through the woods, there is plenty to see in Lincoln County from the two U.S. highways that cross the county.  US 2, the High Line, runs across the county from east to west, and roughly halfway between Libby and Troy you'll pass (or, I hope stop at) a large pullout above the Kootenai Falls.  While you can see some spectacular water from the pullout, take the time and hike down the trail, past all the informative signage, cross the railroad tracks on the pedestrian bridge, and get right down up close and personal with the river itself.  If you've got the courage to do so (I didn't), cross the river on the historic swinging bridge.  Take along a picnic lunch and spend some time in this beautiful setting.  Just don't get too close to the water.  It moves quickly and there are a lot of rocks that you'll hit if you inadvertently find yourself floating downstream.

The other U.S. Highway that crosses the county is the north-south route U.S. 93, which runs from Wickenburg, Arizona to the Canadian border just north of Eureka, Montana, Lincoln County's other incorporated city.    My original thought for a final picture, having written over 56,000 words and having posted nearly 350 photographs from around the state, was to put in a picture of the U.S. Customs Office at the Roosville border crossing, showing us now leaving the United States.  That said, my last two visits to that particular border crossing (coming back into the U.S., I should add) have been a traveler's nightmare, and I don't care to revisit it.  I will add that both times, the agent I dealt with was the same man--someone I hope never to see again.  So I'll close, instead, with this view of the Whitefish Range, looking east from U.S. 93 south of Eureka.  A final reminder that Montana means mountains.

The Whitefish Range
Northeastern Lincoln County
Taken July 26th, 2009

Saturday, August 8, 2015

55. Petroleum County

Looking at things objectively, there is little reason today for Petroleum County to exist.  Created on February 25, 1925 when the Montana State Legislature approved chopping off the eastern end of Fergus County (# 8), Petroleum County today has roughly 500 residents spread over 1,674 square miles of rolling plains.  It is the smallest county by population in the state of Montana, and the seventh smallest nationally.  When I stopped at the Court House in Winnett, the County Seat, I asked if there was any movement for the county to be reabsorbed into Fergus.  I was told "Absolutely not."  How five hundred people pay for a county government I have no idea. The woman I spoke with in the Court House told me that there are only four full-time employees, but even so.  Now I have to say, I don't know which four she was counting as county employees, but the county's web page lists ten people in addition to the three county commissioners.  Of course, many of those ten could be part-time employees.

Petroleum County is so named for the oil fields that were discovered in the Cat Creek area in 1920. Bounded on the north by the Missouri River and on the east by the Musselshell River, the southern and western boundaries are those straight lines we associate with man made distinctions, the southern line being the continuation of the division between Fergus (# 8) and Musselshell (# 23) counties that preceded the creation of Petroleum County.

The Petroleum County Community Library states that it is "Dedicated to the preservation of local history," and to that end the folks who serve as library staff and volunteers have collected and saved the local newspaper (The Winnett Times) back to 1921, and in 1979 began a project of collecting oral histories from the eldest residents of the county.  In 1985 the project changed to one where questionnaires were used to collect information from county residents, which information was then condensed into a book Pages of Time--History of Petroleum County, from which I have gratefully taken much of the information in this post.

The Petroleum County Court House
Winnett, Montana
Taken March 26th, 2010

Located slightly south and west of the county's center, Winnett is both the largest community and the seat of the county.  Walter John Winnett (WJ), a Canadian rancher, was captured by the Sioux and eventually adopted into the tribe.  He started ranching in Montana Territory in 1879, and built his ranch home in 1900.  In 1910, he built a store and petitioned the US government for a post office.  That marks the "official" birth of the town of Winnett, although it wasn't until 1913 that the Milwaukee Land Company, an adjunct of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (The Milwaukee Road), secured land from rancher Winnett and platted a township which the company named for the rancher.  The town grew rapidly, with many businesses located in the downtown area, and in 1917, WJ began construction of a two story sandstone building that became known as the Winnett Block.  Originally housing a bank, a restaurant, the newspaper's printing shop, a lumber/hardware store with business offices on the second floor, by 1929 the building had become the county's Court House, as seen above.  Today, Winnett counts 182 residents (2010 U.S. Census), down from an all time high of 408 in 1950.  The three schools that make up the Public School system for the county have a total of 12 teachers (including one librarian) and 103 students in grades K-12.  All three schools (elementary, junior high and high school) are on the same block in town. is usually good about listing all the churches in a county, but the site for Petroleum County says only that there is one Roman Catholic Church with 158 members in 2010 and the balance of county residents, 336 in number, being unchurched.  I wonder how the members of the United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church and First Lutheran Church, all of which appear in the page for Winnett feel about that.

The Rural Petroleum County Landscape
Taken March 26th, 2010

Pages of Time divides its story into eleven chapters, based on historic post offices and the communities that they served.  It shows 19 post offices that existed once upon a time, but of those, only three communities remain today.  Cat Creek, where were located the oil fields that give the county its name, lies in the eastern part of the county, near the Musselshell River north of Highway 200.  The wells were abandoned in 1975, although new exploration has focused on natural gas and several new wells have been drilled, introducing fracking to the area. The Cat Creek area has also been known as Frantz, Frantzville, and Shay.  Curiously, for a place with such an important part in the county's history, it does not appear on my 1994 Montana Atlas and Gazetteer.

Flatwillow is an unincorporated community in southern Petroleum County, not far from the Musselshell County line.  While it does appear on the maps, its post office, which opened in 1883, six years prior to Montana's statehood, has been closed since 1946.  Teigen, on Highway 200 near the Fergus County line, is another unincorporated community whose Post Office closed in 1983.  If you're so inclined, however, you can use a Zip Code, 59084, to address any mail you have for Teigen.  I suppose such mail will be delivered out of Winnett, Zip Code 59087.  Other communities that might have been include Petrolia, Hoyleville, Ashley, Blakeslee, and Dovetail, all little more than dreams of the people who homesteaded the area in the early days of statehood.

An Abandoned Home or Business?
Winnett, Montana
Taken March 26th, 2010

Recreational opportunities include War Horse National Wildlife Refuge in the northwestern part of the county.  Part of the Charles M. Russell Complex, War Horse is comprised of three separate units that cover some 3,200 acres. Each of the three units has its own lake, with Wild Horse and War Horse Lakes being two of the largest bodies of water in the county.  Petrolia Lake, a dammed reservoir southeast of Winnett, is featured in several fishing oriented websites.  The site Hook and Bullet says this:  Whether you're fly-fishing, spinning, or baitcasting your chances of getting a bite here are good.  On the other hand, has a lot of reports, all from 2007, about poor fishing conditions, presumably from ice fishing for perch.  The northern extent of the county lies within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri and Musselshell Rivers.  The Crooked Creek Campground, 52 miles northeast of Winnett, has a boat ramp, which may or may not be usable due to fluctuating water levels in the Fort Peck Reservoir.  It also has twenty campsites each with picnic table and fire pit, potable water, and a swimming area. says that the drive is a "beautiful scenic drive," and I'll take their word for it, as I personally have not been on that road.  I'm saving that for my next trip to Petroleum County.

Tableland Southeast of Winnett
Winnett, Montana
Taken March 26th, 2010

In closing, I post below the poem, written by Marjorie W. King, that the Petroleum County Community Library has on its home page.  While the words could apply to just about anywhere in Montana, they speak volumes to me about the love of a people for their home.
Petroleum County is March, roaring in like a lion, lambing sheds full of bleating sheep, two-year-old heifers waiting impatiently unsure of the stirrings within them, and old cows seeking shelter in the willows.  It is soft spring winds with the smell of damp sage. V's of honking geese and meadowlarks who sing as though they alone had discovered spring.  It is the taste of fresh rhubarb and new-grown asparagus.  It is seeding and branding and watching the sky for June rains.  It is hope.
 Petroleum County is cloudless broad skies and new-mown hay, and black rolling thunderclouds shaking fingers of lightning at those who dare to venture forth.  It is August and dry hot winds that wither the grass with dust devils teasing and skipping away.  It is fear--fear of prairie fires and drought and grasshoppers and debt.  It is utter discouragement. 
Petroleum County is bountiful harvests and fat lambs and calves.  It is chokecherry syrup and bright orange pumpkins and huge harvest moons.  It is the first snowfall quietly covering the harshness of the landscape.  It is long evenings and howling coyotes and northern lights.  It is nights filled with millions of stars, and galaxies for those who search for them.  It is acceptance of life.
Petroleum County is wind and blizzards, and worry for man and beast alike.  It is the unmistakable blue of chinook clouds.  It is everything that is beautiful.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

54. Mineral County

As might be expected in a county named Mineral, mining has a rich history in this small county on the Montana/Idaho state line.  On August 7, 1914, a portion of Missoula County (# 4) straddling the Clark Fork and St. Regis river canyons in the Bitterroot Mountains became the new Mineral County, with Superior, the largest town being named County Seat. The Milwaukee Road played an important part in the history of the county, both for the good and the bad.  When the railroad first came through these canyons, Alberton at the eastern end of the county became a division point on the line, and the town was even named for the President of the railroad, Albert J. Earling. (Note that Roberta Carkeek Cheney, in her Names on the Face of Montana, claims the town was named for a family of early settlers, the Alberts.)  Further west, a guest at the Superior Hotel in Superior asked permission and placed the first ever Gideon Bibles in the rooms of the hotel.  I have read that he was passing through town on a passenger train, but I can't confirm that.  Haugan, in the county's West End, was a railroad town, as was Taft, "The wickedest city in America."  Today, Haugan is little more than the 50,000 Silver Dollar Bar, and Taft is just an exit from Interstate 90.  The Milwaukee Road ceased operations in the west in 1979, and most of the railbed ended up in the hands of private individuals.  In western Mineral County, the roadbed is used as a hiking/biking trail, and the wonderful series of tunnels and trestles from the Montana line west into Idaho has been turned into the Route of the Hiawatha Trail, a bike ride I highly recommend.

To the best of my knowledge, Lewis and Clark never made it to what is now Mineral County, but Lieutenant John Mullan did.  Given the task of connecting the head of river transportation on the Missouri at Fort Benton to the administrative capital of Washington Territory at Fort Walla Walla, John Mullan reached this area in the 1850s.  In 1859, he returned with a crew of military and civilian laborers to build the 640 mile road that to this day bears his name.  The Mineral County Museum in Superior has a significant display honoring Mullan and his work, and as History Link, the People's History Library says, "It is a tribute to his skill and vision that freeway I-90 follows his route almost to the foot through its most rugged stretches."

The Mineral County Court House
Superior, Montana
October 17th, 2009

The lure of gold brought miners to the mountainsides of the area in the 1860s, and in 1869, one settler called his home Superior City, after his hometown in Wisconsin.  The Post Office was established in 1871, and the rest is history.  Today the town straddles the Clark Fork River, with the old Mullan Road to the north and Interstate 90 and the Burlington Northern Railroad to the south, both running parallel to the river.  The town hosts the county fair and rodeo every August and is home to the only hospital in the county, the Mineral Community Hospital.  The old school house is a fixture on River Street, the main commercial street in town, and while it no longer serves as a school, it does provide a type of community center for the town and is home, every June, to the Old Schoolhouse Rocks Car Show, one of western Montana's larger car shows.

Alberton is the only town east of Superior, and sits right at the Missoula County (# 4) line.  Ten of the county's sixteen locations on the National Register of Historic Places are in or near Alberton, including the Alberton School built in 1919 and still in service, the Alberton United Methodist Church, the Milwaukee Railroad Depot, and several homes.  The Natural Pier Bridge across the Clark Fork River is also on the National Register.  Wikipedia says this about the bridge:  "Built in 1917 by the Lord Construction Company of Missoula, Montana, it is one of only a few remaining bridges of its type [a steel Warren through truss bridge] in the state, and of those it is the only one that incorporates a natural feature in its design."   Of course what I find most interesting about Alberton is the Montana Valley Book Store, an emporium claiming over 100,000 used books, and a place I never tire of visiting.  It's "open 9-7 everyday all year."

The Natural Pier Bridge
Alberton, Montana
January 3rd, 2010

A bit west of the mid point on I-90's traverse of the county, the Clark Fork River makes an abrupt turn to the northeast, and flows into Sanders County (# 35) where it turns west again to flow out of Montana and into Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho's northern panhandle.  At the first bend, the St. Regis River, which has been draining Mineral County's West End flows into the Clark Fork.  The town that grew up at this confluence is St. Regis, named by Father DeSmet for the Jesuit Saint, Regis de Borgia (one of those Borgias).  Well, actually, there was never a St. Regis de Borgia, at least according to the web site devoted stamps and postmarks honoring St. Francis Borgia, the third General Superior of the Jesuits.  Father DeSmet apparently conflated St. John Francis Regis, S.J., and St. Francis (de) Borgia, S.J., one of the great grandchildren of Pope Alexander VI, and grand nephew of Lucretia Borgia.  The things you learn.  Apparently, while the Pope may be infallible, at least speaking ex cathedra, Father DeSmet wasn't.  As the first Montana town of any size that you encounter driving east on I-90, St. Regis has developed quite a shopping center for restaurants, tourist souvenirs, and antiques.

Abandoned Mine Sheds
Sloway Region (between Superior and St. Regis), Montana
March 19th, 2015

From Henderson west you are in what Mineral County calls the West End.  Henderson had a post office from 1904 until 1930, when mail was sent to De Borgia, the next "town" west.  I believe De Borgia still has a post office.  Its zip code is 59830.  But the De Borgia school, another building on the National Register, has been closed as a school since 1958.  Today it serves as a community center for the West End.  A couple of miles west of De Borgia is Haugan, another place named for a Milwaukee Road officer.  Calling it a town would be pushing things, but it is home to Lincoln's 50,000 Silver Dollar Bar, a place well worth a visit if you need tourist kitch, a bowl of soup, or a look at more silver dollars than you have probably ever seen in one place.  Oh hell, if you've ever seen 50,000 silver dollars anywhere else, I'd be surprised.  Next door to the bar is the Savenac Historic Nursery, at one time one of the USDA's largest tree nurseries, supplying over 12 million seedlings annually for the Forest Service.

Savenac Historic Nursery
Haugan, Montana
April 7th, 2015

Traveling another six miles west will bring you to Saltese, population sixteen.  Named for a Nez PercĂ© chief who lived in the area, Saltese was a mining town and rest stop for people on the Mullan Road.  From here on, it's all uphill traveling west.  Cheney says that the town kept its jail open for weary hobos.  Unfortunately, the Old Montana Bar and Grill, the largest building in Saltese, is currently closed.  And five miles west of Saltese, you'll see Exit 5, Taft Area.  Don Spritzer, in his Roadside History of Montana, refers to Taft as the Wickedest City in America.  Built by the Milwaukee Road when they were blasting tunnels through the mountains, Taft sported a good number of saloons and bawdy houses, none of which survived the 1910 fires that devastated western Montana and northern Idaho.  The Taft Hotel stayed open for tourists on U.S. Highway 10, but was torn down when Interstate 90 replaced the original highway through this area.  Finally Exit 0 will take you to the Lookout Pass Ski Area on the Montana/Idaho border.  In the summer, you can buy your tickets to the Hiawatha Trail at the ski resort.  In short, there's a lot to see and do in Mineral County.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

53. Golden Valley County

Born at the height of the homesteading boom (October 4th, 1920), Golden Valley County with its chamber of commerce name promised rich harvests, presumably of golden wheat, but the climate didn't live up to the farmers' needs, and the county's population has dropped fairly consistently since its first census in the county's tenth year, 1930.  1980 and 2000 both showed an increase over the previous count, but the 2013 estimate of 859 residents is the lowest yet for this county that measures 30 miles wide by 50 miles tall.  Nestled between the Snowy Mountains in the north and the Big Coulee in the south, the "Valley" follows the Musselshell River as it flows west to east across the center of the county, parallel to US Highway 12 and the old Milwaukee Road rail line.  Today there are only two unincorporated communities in the county, Ryegate, the County Seat, and Lavina, seventeen miles to the east, where Montana Highway 3 meets US 12.  The county's official website lists several books, including one, Ghost Towns of Golden Valley County, Montana, that apparently documents sixteen ghost towns in the county, but that book is out of print and currently unavailable. One wonders what the county fathers were thinking back in 1920.  Most of the county is roughly rectangular in shape and was taken from the western section of Musselshell County (# 23), but there is one small square of land that sticks down in the southwestern end of the county which came from Sweet Grass County (# 40).  At its largest extent, this appendage measures twelve miles by twelve miles and is both west and, for the most part, south of the rest of the county.  There must have been some reason to add this odd bit of land, but I have no idea what that might be.  The county's own website divides the county into two sections, ranchland north of the Musselshell and farmland to the south.  The site states:
The northern part of the county is predominately stock country and is liberally sprinkled with sagebrush and grease-wood from the river to the base of the Snowy Mountains. At one time during the homestead days, much of the land was broken by plow and farmed.  The ground proved to be nonproductive as farm land.  It does provide excellent range-land.  Many large sheep and cattle ranches occupied this area at one time, but now most of the sheep enterprises have turned to cattle ranching.   
South of the Musselshell river much of the bench land is farmed.  Wheat is the main grain crop along with oats and barley.  There is also an abundance of range land here as well.  Six miles south of Ryegate is the Big Coulee.  This wide open valley surrounded by sandstone rims drew many settlers to the area.

The Golden Valley County Court House
Ryegate, Montana
September 8th, 2007

Ryegate got its start as a station on the Milwaukee Road.  Emmy-Lou Garfield, writing about the Sims Garfield Ranch has this to say:
The town of Ryegate was originally part of Sim's hay field. When the railroad purchased the right of way they had to set aside a town site every so many miles and name it. They set aside a siding for the railroad and a town site. Sims had a large field of rye there, so they named it Ryegate.
The most notable geologic feature in the Ryegate area is the three-mile long sandstone rimrocks, once the shore of an ancient lake.  The rims are home to marine fossils and pictographs.  South of Ryegate, in the Big Coulee Valley, John Murphy's cattle ranch, the 79 Ranch, was a prominent part of the community in the days before Golden Valley County was formed.  The county's website has an excellent article on the ranch written by Albie Gordon in 1971.  Don Spritzer, in his Roadside History of Montana, says that "At its peak in the early 1890s, the 79 shipped seven trainloads of cattle to the Chicago Stockyards each year."  p 311.

Grain Elevator along the non-existent tracks
Ryegate, Montana
April 22nd, 2011

Thomas C. Power, Montana's first U.S. Senator, built his fortune controlling shipping and freight from Fort Benton in Chouteau County (# 19).  When the Northern Pacific Railroad came to Billings, Power got the idea of running a stage line between Billings and Fort Benton, the first north-south mail service in Montana Territory.  Forty miles north of Billings he ran into a natural road block, the Musselshell River. At the site of a good ford, Power and his associates built a stage station, stables, a bunk house and, most importantly, a saloon.  The first postmaster was Walter Burke who named the new community for an old sweetheart, Lavina.  While to my eyes, Ryegate seems to be little more than a wide spot in the road, Lavina looks to be a place that has some history.  Three of the five Golden Valley County locations listed on the National Register of Historic Places are in Lavina, including the Adams Hotel, once considered one of two luxury hotels along the Milwaukee Road, the Lavina State Bank, and the Slayton Mercantile Company.

The United Methodist Church
Lavina, Montana
April 22nd, 2011

Some of my own, most vivid childhood memories center on Lavina.  I have talked in the past of the different churches my father served as interim pastor while on assignment at Rocky Mountain College in Billings.  One of the parishes he served in this manner was the Methodist Church's yoked parish of Ryegate and Lavina.  Memories come back to me of attending Memorial Day services, complete with twenty-one gun salutes, at the cemetery in Lavina.  I remember my mother baking my large panda bear because the bear, and I, had apparently come into contact with a Lavina child with pink eye.  And most vivid is my first experience riding what we then called an English racing bike--one with three speeds and hand brakes.  I had never used anything other than coaster brakes, the kind where you press back on the pedals to stop the bike.  The bike I was riding around the block in Lavina didn't have coaster brakes.  As I was pedaling along, I realized that I was about to ride into the middle of Montana Highway 3.  I tried to stop, but all I succeeded in doing was getting the pedals to turn backwards.  This did nothing to stop the bike.  All I could see was getting crushed by traffic as I sailed into the intersection.  I don't remember what finally happened. I probably fell down.  What didn't happen was an accident in the middle of the highway.  That much I do know.

Other communities have come and gone around Golden Valley County.  West of Ryegate, almost to the Wheatland County (# 44) line, is Barber, truly a wide spot in the road.  North of Ryegate, Montana Secondary 238, also known as the Rothiemay Road, will take you past Franklin which first had a post office from 1889 to 1902, then again from 1910 to 1953.  Beyond Franklin lies Rothiemay, although you'll be hard pressed to find it on a map.  Rothiemay had a post office in the early days of the 20th Century.  Cushman, between Ryegate and Lavina, got its post office in 1909, and as of 1970, that post office was still functioning, according to Roberta Carkeek Cheney in Names on the Face of Montana.  Today, however, the zip code for Cushman is more properly used with Lavina addresses, as is the case for Belmont, some five miles south. Cheney says that the post office in Belmont was established in 1892 and closed in 1965.  The last time I was in Golden Valley County, April 22nd, 2011, we were driving through a blizzard.  Most of my photographs from that trip are hazy, blurry, out-of-focus.  I was able to grab this one whimsical sign, an indication that at least one country craftsman has an entrepreneurial bent.  Makes me think of Kathy Lee Bates in the movie Rat Race.  "Should have bought a squirrel."

Sign along Highway 12
Ryegate, Montana
April 22nd, 2011

Monday, March 23, 2015

52. Wibaux County

There are two county names in Montana that out-of-staters (and some Montanans) routinely mispronounce.  The other one is Meagher County (# 47).  There are two counties in Montana where the county seat bears the same name as the county itself.  The other is Missoula (# 4).  Roberta Carkeek Chaney, in her book Names on the Face of Montana, felt obliged to indicate the pronunciation of Wibaux both for the county and for the town.  As she says, "Wibaux (pronounced Wee-bo)" with long marks over both ees and the o.  If Meagher County was named for some renegade Irishman who ended up becoming a territorial governor of Montana, Wibaux, both town and county, were named for a French immigrant who became one of the wealthiest cattle barons in Montana history, Pierre Wibaux.  Chaney says that Wibaux was a French Huguenot (which she spells without the second "u," but it's hard for me to accept that when one of the National Historic Places in Wibaux County is the Roman Catholic Church, St. Peter's, which history tells us was built at the request of Wibaux's father.  I just can't picture a Huguenot building a Catholic church.

Situated on the North Dakota state line, Wibaux County is one of the smallest in area in eastern Montana.  Driving across the county on Interstate 94, it's less than twenty miles from the North Dakota line to the point where you enter Dawson County (# 16) on the west.  North to south, from the Richland County (# 27) line to the Fallon County (#39) line, you'll cross roughly 53 miles of Wibaux County, giving the county a total land area of 890 square miles.  The 2010 US Census counted 1,017 people in the county, the lowest number ever counted there, and one third of what the 1920 Census showed.  The 2013 estimate, however, showed a 10% increase, bringing the count up to 1.121.  Even by Montana standards, this is a low population for a county.  The county was created on August 17, 1914, with land taken from Dawson County, although some references say that land came from Fallon and Richland Counties as well.  While numerous small towns have, at some point, existed in Wibaux County, today the seat is the county's only incorporated town, and indeed, every address in the county bears the same zip code, 59353, since the whole county is served out of the Post Office in the seat.

The Wibaux County Courthouse
Built 1953
Photo taken October 7th, 2009
Wibaux, Montana

The town of Wibaux was originally named Keith, or possibly Beaver, then Mingusville.  It sits on Beaver Creek which runs the length of the county, north to south, and whose water attracted early day settlers to the area.  Chaney says that Keith had its post office established in 1882, but that the name was changed to Mingusville in 1884, and finally to Wibaux in 1895.  I'm not sure who Keith was, but Mingusville got its name from Minnie and Gus Grisy, early day settlers.  The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Wibaux's ranch hands surrounded the town, essentially laying siege to it, until the town agreed to take the rancher's name--the one it still holds.  Another story, which definitely sounds apocryphal but clearly isn't, concerns our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, who out for a ride, found himself in a bar in Mingusville.  The National Park Service's website for Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota quotes the man himself:

“It was late in the evening when I reached the place. I heard one or two shots in the bar-room as I came up, and I disliked going in. But there was nowhere else to go, and it was a cold night. Inside the room were several men, who, including the bartender, were wearing the kind of smile worn by men who are making believe to like what they don’t like. A shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. He had evidently been shooting at the clock, which had two or three holes in its face. 
…As soon as he saw me he hailed me as ‘Four Eyes,’ in reference to my spectacles, and said, ‘Four Eyes is going to treat.’ I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down, thinking to escape notice. He followed me, however, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive, and he stood leaning over me, a gun in each hand, using very foul language… In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I said, ‘Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got to,’ and rose, looking past him. 
As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then again with my right. He fired the guns, but I do not know whether this was merely a convulsive action of his hands, or whether he was trying to shoot at me. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head… if he had moved I was about to drop on my knees; but he was senseless. I took away his guns, and the other people in the room, who were now loud in their denunciation of him, hustled him out and put him in the shed.”
Downtown Wibaux, Montana
Taken October 7th, 2009

My own history with Wibaux goes back to my childhood, when my Methodist Minister father was serving as Vice-President at Rocky Mountain College.  He was often called to fill in for churches needing temporary pastors, and one of the churches he served in this way was the Methodist church in Wibaux.  I don't remember much about the church itself (I was seven at the time), but I do remember those long drives across eastern Montana every week.  Today, with Interstate 94 to follow, it's 250 miles from Billings to Wibaux.  In those days, we followed U.S. Highway 10 along the Yellowstone River at a much slower pace than today.

The Wibaux United Methodist Church
Taken October 7th, 2009
Wibaux, Montana

Roughly half the population of the county lives in the town of Wibaux.  The rest of the county's people are ranchers and farmers, with 40% of the men and 9% of the women engaged in agriculture, according to  The average size farm is 2,492 acres and livestock or poultry accounts for over 61% of the total agricultural market value in the county.  But should you be traveling through this part of the state, by all means get off I-94 at exit 241 if only to visit the Beaver Creek Brewery.  The only microbrewery on a 600 mile stretch between Billings and Fargo (according to the Craft Beer website), Beaver Creek Brewery can provide you with not only great home-crafted beer, but also their own root beer, and bread made from the brewing process's spent grain.  As they say on their website, if you're going to succeed in a town as small as Wibaux, you have to offer something for everyone.

Wibaux County Landscape
Off MT Highway 7
Taken August 26th, 2011

Sunday, March 15, 2015

51. Jefferson County

Twenty-six counties in the United States are named, directly or indirectly, for President Thomas Jefferson.  Only George Washington has more counties named for him (31).  Of the twenty-six, three are only indirectly named for the third President.  Montana's is one of those three, being named for the Jefferson River, one of the three rivers that come together to form the Missouri at Three Forks.  The Jefferson River, of course, was named for the President, and it flows north from the confluence of the Beaverhead, Ruby and Big Horn Rivers near the town of Twin Bridges (Madison County, #25) till it turns east, forming the boundary between Jefferson County and Madison County.  Eventually, the river joins with the Madison and then with the Gallatin to form the mighty Missouri.  The rivers are named for three men vitally important to the Corps of Discovery, AKA the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Jefferson was, of course, the President who bought the Louisiana territory from France.  Madison was his Secretary of State and successor as President.  And Albert Gallatin, probably the least famous of the three, was the Secretary of the Treasury who wrote all the checks.  All three have counties named for them in Montana, or rather, there are counties named for the rivers named for the three men.

With the creation of Montana Territory in 1864, governmental functions had to be met, which included county structures.  Montana created nine counties, one of which was never actually organized and which held most of the land in the state.  Big Horn County was pretty much everything east of a line drawn north to south through the center of the state, and it never had a seat or organized county government.  Of the remaining eight counties, Jefferson was next to smallest.  (Only Edgerton County, later Lewis and Clark County, #5, was smaller.)  A stage stop on the way from Fort Benton to Virginia City, Jefferson City, was named seat.  In time, Radersburg (now in neighboring Broadwater County #43) took honors as the seat, but by 1884 the die was cast, and the seat moved to Boulder, another Fort Benton to Virginia City stage stop, and there it remains to this day.  In 1888, county voters approved a $40,000 bond issue to build a courthouse, hiring architect John Paulsen who designed a Richarsonian Romanesque structure of brick and stone with a high gabled roof.  This building remains one of the most visually interesting courthouses in Montana and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Jefferson County Courthouse
Boulder, Montana
February 21st, 2010

Boulder, named for the large rocks that lay across the landscape, was originally called Boulder Valley, but lost the second word in 1871.  In 1892, the new State of Montana set aside land and began the process of building the Montana School for the Deaf, Blind and "Backward Feeble Minded Children."  Today the place is called the Montana Developmental Center, and is considered to be the most expensive institution in the state.  The Missoulian reported in 2012 that with 50 residents and 250 employees, the daily cost of housing and treating patients was in excess of $770.   According to the state's official website, "The purpose of the Montana Developmental Center is to provide treatment to people with serious intellectual disabilities who have been determined by a court to pose an imminent risk of serious harm to self or others." Standards did not used to be so strict.  A childhood friend of mine from Laurel, diagnosed with cerebral palsy, spent a good bit of his life at Boulder, no doubt considered one of the backward feeble minded children.

Boulder Hot Springs and Hotel
Boulder, Montana
February 21st, 2010

Another institution on the outskirts of Boulder is the Boulder Hot Springs.  The springs themselves were known to area Native Americans as a spot to relax and, perhaps, heal. In 1863 James Riley, a prospector, built the first structure on the site.  In the 150+ years since, the place has certainly had its ups and downs.  With an outdoor pool, indoor steam rooms and hot plunges segregated by gender, hotel rooms and a restaurant, the place is open today and ready for business.  I recall many wonderful weekends spent at what we then called The Diamond S.

Roughly ten miles east of Boulder is the mining town of Basin.  Gold brought prospectors to the rocky landscape just east of the Continental Divide, and business brought the railroad.  Both the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific served this small town, each with its own station and warehouse.  The two main mines were the Katy and the Hope, both long closed.  A mining engineer, Max Atwater, came up from Butte to run a zinc extraction plant in the small community.  Weavers will recognize that name, for Max's wife was Mary Meigs Atwater, arguably the mother of modern handweaving in the United States.  For eighteen years, from 1993 through 2011, Basin was home to the Montana Artists Refuge which hosted events across the artistic spectrum.  They have a Facebook page, but nothing has been posted since the Refuge closed its doors in October 2011.   Starting in the 1960s and continuing to this day, the mines have attracted a world-wide tourist trade looking for pain relief.  Whether you believe that radon is dangerous or not, you won't keep folk from coming to Basin to visit the Merry Widow Mine.  Visitors claim relief from a wide variety of ailments, and their testimonials bring more visitors every year.  Basin is also home to Montana's first gay rights organization.  When a group of friends and I met to form Out in Montana in the early 1980s, we followed the trail of the Montana Lesbian Coalition which got its start when a lesbian mom living in Basin, ran for school board and caused all hell to break loose.

The Headwaters of the Boulder River
West of Basin, Montana
February 21st, 2010

Jefferson County is one of three counties in Montana to be served by two Interstate highways.  Interstate 15 runs north to south through the county, connecting Basin and Boulder to the larger cities of Butte and Helena.  Interstate 90 runs across the southern edge of the county, past the town of Whitehall, the only incorporated town in the county other than Boulder.  Whitehall got its start as yet another stage stop on the way to Virginia City, and the stage stopped at a large white house on the ranch owned by E.G. Brooke.  Brooke called his home the White Hall, and the name stuck, although in 1877 the Post Office changed it to one word.  Although the town sits at the east end of Homestake Pass, the 6,329 foot pass where I-90 crosses the Continental Divide, Whitehall has long been considered a suburb of Butte, west of the pass.  Veteran NBC newsman Chet Huntley told of how he grew up in Whitehall, graduating from Whitehall High in 1929.  He reported that many of his classmates spent their summers working in the mines in Butte.  Visitors driving by on I-90 will notice two things near the community.  East of town, on the flats before the road rises to cross the mountains, there are a number of homes with large detached buildings beside them.  There are also windsocks visible.  This is the Jeffco Air Park, a planned subdivision aimed directly at those commuters who have their own plane.  I don't think it really caught on as there are, as I recall, at most a half dozen homes with hangars.  Also at Whitehall, visitors will note a large smokestack south of the Interstate near the railroad tracks.  This was the proposed site of a sugar beet factory which never got built. The soil was good for beet growth, but the weather didn't cooperate.  Such is often the case in Montana.

Looking South from Interstate 90
Near Whitehall, Montana
February 14th, 2010

The northern end of Jefferson County is home to several small communities, Clancy, Elkhorn, Jefferson City, and Montana City, all with their histories built upon mining.  What has kept these communities from becoming ghost towns (and to be honest, Elkhorn is a ghost town today, having been abandonned in 1970), is their proximity to the state capital, Helena.  In the 1970s, Jefferson County was the fastest growing county in the state as government employees moved across the county line for lower taxes and more elbow room.  Today Clancy remains one of Helena's most important suburbs with over 1600 residents in the 2010 census.  The county as a whole has almost tripled in population since 1950.  The 2013 estimate counts 11,512 in a county that covers 1,659 square miles.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

50. Garfield County

The state of Montana added seven counties in February and March, 1919.  Along with Treasure (# 33), Garfield County came into being on February 7th of that year.  Prior to that date, what is now Garfield County had been part of Dawson County (# 16) which covered much of eastern Montana at the time.  Bordered by the Missouri River on the north, Garfield County's area of 4,847 square miles coupled with its 2010 US Census count of 1,206 residents, makes it the least densely populated county in Montana, and the third least densely populated county in the U.S. outside of Alaska.  One of the nicknames for the area is The Big Dry (from Big Dry Creek which flows through the county), and the lack of population has led some out-of-state conservationists to suggest that the county would better serve as a wildlife preserve, returning the land to pre-white settlement conditions.  Not surprisingly, most county residents oppose this plan.  Of course, Frank Popper's plan for a Buffalo Commons covers much more than just Garfield County, extending to portions of ten states in the Great Plains region.  Politically speaking, Garfield is probably most famous for being the home of the Montana Freemen, an anti government group whose fraudulent banking practices drew the attention of the FBI.  In 1996, an 81 day standoff between the FBI and the Freemen ended with the group surrendering to government forces.  Of course, there are always at least two sides to any story, and one view is that the Freemen were law abiding citizens unfairly targeted by the FBI.

The Garfield County Courthouse
(Formerly the Garfield County Hospital)
Jordan, Montana
Taken March 26th, 2010

The only incorporated town in the county is Jordan, the county seat.  First settled in 1896 as a cow town, Jordan got its post office in 1899, a post office run by Arthur Jordan.  According to Cheney's Names on the Face of Montana, Jordan suggested the name for the community, but did not name it for himself.  Rather he suggested the name of a friend of his in Miles City, a man also named Jordan.  Writing for the historical collection Garfield County: The Golden Years, Grace Walker says "When we came to Jordan, it was a small town."  Of course, with a 2010 population count of 343, most people would say it is still a small town.  In the same volume, Vivienne Nault Schrank uses the term "tiny."  She remembers asking her mother, "Is this really it, just two houses and three people?"  That was in April, 1913, and other than their own "cherry red HUDSON car," Vivienne saw no other automobiles in town.  The drive from Miles City, some eighty-three miles away had taken them two full days.

Jordan has the only high school in the county, a high school that into the 1990s had a co-ed dormitory for those students who couldn't get home over night.  With a total student body of fifty-six, Garfield County High School serves an area almost as large as the state of Connecticut.  A friend of mine taught English there for several years.  He had great experiences, and apparently was much appreciated.  It's hard to find people these days who want to live out in the middle of nowhere.  As another friend, Bill McRae who grew up on a cattle ranch in Garfield County and has written several guide books for Moon Handbooks puts it in his book Montana, "No one comes to Jordan ... because of its interesting history or architecture."  He goes on to describe Jordan thus:
The most isolated county seat in the continental U.S., Jordan is 175 miles from the nearest major airport, 85 miles from the nearest bus line, and 115 miles from the nearest [passenger] train line.  (McRae, Montana, p. 381)
The first time I visited Jordan back around 1980, I found the water unfit to drink.  Heavily alkaline in nature, a glass of water in a restaurant was just not potable.  Nor was the coffee made with that water.  In 2010, when I stopped in Jordan for lunch, I was studiously avoiding the water glass set before me until the woman seated at the next table spilled hers all over the table and floor, with a good bit splashing on me.  I was amazed that anyone would even attempt to drink the stuff until I figured out what the sign out in front meant.  "New RO."  RO?   Oh, Reverse Osmosis.  The restaurant had put in a water purification system that meant the water, coffee and ice tea actually tasted like something.  Imagine my surprise at finding that you can buy machines to turn your water alkaline.  Fortunately, in Jordan, at least one restaurant is going the other way.

Traffic Congestion in Garfield County
Montana Highway 200
Taken March 26th, 2010

That first trip also included camping overnight at Hell Creek Campground on the shores of Fort Peck Reservoir.  Hell Creek State Park, one of Montana's fifty-four state parks, is twelve miles north of Jordan over a road so bad that even the state parks information site says it will take you a half hour to drive.  Personally, unless they've improved the road considerably in the last twenty years, I think that is an optimistic estimate.  Don't get me wrong, the park is in a beautiful setting, and if you're into playing in the water or fishing for walleye, by all means go visit.  But make sure your tent is securely tied down.  All night long I felt as if we were going to blow into the lake at any minute.

One other thing before we leave Jordan.  When I was there in 2010, I searched for some time looking for the county court house.  Eventually I ended up in front of a rather odd looking building off a back street.  I've seen lots of court houses over the years, and this building did not look like one, yet every bit of information I had said I was in the right place.  I finally went inside and asked.  Yep, this building, originally built as a hospital, was now serving the legal needs of the county.  Apparently, the old court house, a white frame building, had burned down.  Bluehiways3y has a picture of it on Flickr.  You can see it here.

Some Garfield County Residents Getting Their Exercise
Eastern Garfield County
March 26th, 2010

Today, Jordan is the only incorporated town in the county (and it was only incorporated in 1951).  But believe it or not, back in 1919, there was a competition for the honor of being seat of the new county.  Cheney reports that some thirty "settlements" with post offices existed within the boundaries of the new county.  Today there are just four outside of Jordan.  Brusett lies off the main roads, but has a post office that was first established in 1916.  Prior to that, folks got their mail in Bruce, down the road a piece.  Cohagen is on MT Highway 59, the road to Miles City, in the southeastern corner of the county.  Its post office was first opened in 1905, but even in 1948, local students wrote "Cohagen today is one of Garfield County's many little has-been towns."  (Cheney, Names on the Face of Montana, p 47)  Mosby and Sand Springs are both on MT Highway 200 in the western portion of the county.  The former got its post office in 1904 and lost it in 1983.  The latter, with a population of around 90, saw its post office doors open for the first time in 1911.  I have been through Cohagen, Mosby and Sand Springs, but I really don't recall anything about any of them.

The Big Dry
Central Garfield County
March 26th, 2010