Hill County turned 100 years old today, with the anniversary of Gov. Edwin Norris signing the papers to split the region from Chouteau County.
While much has changed in 100 years, as Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss said Monday, “The more things change, the more they stay the same. ”
The rough-and-tumble county from 100 years ago, formed one year after the decommissioning of a major U. S. Cavalry fort, and building on ranching in the area, homesteaders brought in by James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway, and the railroad itself, still has many of the same elements.
Hill County was created one day before Blaine County’s creation, and just a few years before Liberty County was created by separating some of the land formerly part of Hill and Toole counties.
While the primary industries in the area still include agriculture and the railroad, the population has shifted. A combination of a change in the size of a farm needed to make a living and increased technology allowing fewer to do more has moved people from the rural parts of the county to population centers, sometimes population centers out of Montana.
But much of the work done in Hill County is the same, just with fewer people doing that work. Many are now looking for what can be done to find new jobs and industry in the county.
Growing from a fort and a railway
The evolving political and social climate led to changes early in the history of the county, which has led to much of what life is like here today, even 80 or 90 years later.
In the 1880s and 1890s a major factor was the presence of Fort Assinniboine, created in 1879 to help maintain the peace, protect settlers and prevent conflict between Native American tribes in the area.
Although the fort was decommissioned in 1911, some of the major ranches and businessmen in Havre who helped form the early shape of economics in the county originally came to north-central Montana because of the fort.
The major creator of the shape of life in Hill County, however, was the Great Northern Railway.
Havre, selected to be the county seat of Hill County, grew up around the railway stop built in the location formerly known just as Bullhook Bottoms, the location where the creek Bullhook flowed into the Milk River.
The towns along the Hi-Line — so called because of the northern rail line running through it — mostly grew up as water stops for the railroad, with the high grade leading across the western Montana plains to the Rocky Mountains requiring a stop every five to 10 miles. That lead to the creation of towns, some gone like Burnam, some still in existence such as Kremlin, Gildford, Hingham, Rudyard and Inverness.
Other towns grew up along the route south from the Hi-Line track toward Great Falls and Butte.
James J. Hill, who pushed the Great Northern across the country from Minneapolis to Seattle, also pushed the settlement of the area, promoting homesteading opportunities with the homesteading acts of 1909 and 1912.
A local institution of higher learning and the local hospital
One of the main factors in the present form of Havre — its housing Northern Montana College, now Montana State University-Northern — was later in coming to Hill County, although its creation stemmed from the decommissioning of Fort Assinniboine.
The Montana Legislature in 1913 approved the creation of the Northern Montana Agricultural and Training School on the grounds of the fort, but never appropriated money to actually create the school.
A research center instead was created there in 1915. The Northern Agricultural Research Center of the state college in Bozeman, now Montana State University, has done state-of-the-art research on farming and ranching — the only ag research center in Montana that works on both crops and livestock — in Hill County ever since.
After funding finally was approved, the college was created in Havre in 1929. Originally all classes were taught in Havre High School, then in a building on 3rd Avenue and 7th Street that has since been torn down. A pumping station on the college campus, since torn down, was remodeled and opened as East Hall, with classes held there starting in 1932.
Another major factor of modern life in the county, the major medical center Northern Montana Health Care, also has its roots early in the county’s history.
The modern health care facilities grew out of a joining of two local hospitals, the Sacred Heart Hospital which began operation Feb. 18, 1912, before the creation of the county, and Kennedy Deaconess Hospital, which began operation in August 1926.
Creation of the reservation
A major player in the development of modern Hill County also stems from the decommissioning of Fort Assinniboine.
For decades, the band of Chippewa Native Americans led by Rocky Boy, or Stone Child, and the Canadian Cree band led by Little Bear, had been landless in Montana, although the Cree were periodically taken back to Canada by the soldiers from Fort Assinniboine, then migrated back to the region.
A group of Montanans had been trying to find a location for a permanent settlement of the bands for decades, and after the fort was closed, soon started looking to that area.
In 1916, Congress approved an act creating Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation — and the recreation area that eventually became Beaver Creek Park —with part of what was left of the military reservation.
The reservation has become an integral part of the economy and social life in Hill County. Rocky Boy’s is the only part of the county with a steady growth in population, and supports two school systems, at Rocky Boy and at Box Elder.
Drought and hard times
While the area was promoted as prime farming land by James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway, bringing many settlers to the area — with many of their descendants still living in Hill County and even farming land homesteaded by their grandparents and great-grandparents — hard times soon drove many away.
After good harvests in the first few years of the county’s existence, a drought hit the area. Many homesteaders gave up and left after a few years of the inclement weather, and even many who stayed soon found the 320-acre homesteads — 640 acres for livestock operations — couldn’t raise enough crops to make a living.
Many homesteaders who stuck it out soon worked on ways to purchase land left when neighboring homesteaders departed, with the size of farms progressively growing.
Meanwhile, the towns in the region continued to thrive, building successful businesses and entertainment centers ranging from the major Sanviks department store in Rudyard to multiple farm agricultural implement and supply dealerships in many towns supporting the local farmers and ranchers.
Growth for 50 years — then a slump
The region thrived for decades, with the towns maintaining their businesses and economies, farmers and ranchers continuing to work in the area, and the Great Northern Railway continuing to transport freight and passengers on its flagship train, the Empire Builder.
Especially with work in the natural gas industry, Havre was a particularly thriving community, with its high school growing and upgraded to the top AA class in the early 1970s.
But, with a variety of factors including a decline in gas exploration and development and shrinking rural populations, the total population of the county started to shrink.
Part of the decline deals with agriculture. With increasing technological advances, both in equipment used and in techniques and quality of seeds and livestock, fewer and fewer families were needed to farm the land.
That, coupled with declining family size, drove down the population of the rural parts of the county.
Another issue drove down the amount of land in active production. The federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take land out of production to put it back into natural plant cover both to prevent erosion and as a means of providing plant and wildlife habitat, has been criticized over the years as reducing the number of farmers in the area and for crippling many supporting businesses.
For the last two decades, people have been looking for ways to build the economy and the population of the county, although the last two census records show no significant growth off of the reservation. The work to find ways to create new jobs and industries and bring new people to the region — or bring back people who have left — continues to this day.
The railroad still is a major driver for Hill County. The Great Northern Railway, which then became the Burlington Northern and finally Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, helped create the economy of the region, and with major fueling and diesel shop facilities, continues to employ a large number of county residents.
Montana State University-Northern is a major player in a number of ways. Aside from its economic impact, providing jobs and pumping money into the local economy, it also provides an educational opportunity for local residents — and students from around the world — while also providing a trained work force for local employers.
The hospital and clinic system, which has its origins in the merge of Sacred Heart and Deaconness hospitals in the 1960s, is another top employer in the area while offering medical services in a regional capacity.
While agriculture still is the county’s top industry economically, functioning much the same as it has for decades, some are working on exploring new ways to operate. One focus is on looking into raising crops for alternative fuels and lubricants — Northern houses a major research center on using oil seeds to do that — and another is raising organic crops to access the growing market there.
Tourism has been a growing industry in the region, with a focus on developing and marketing the local attractions ranging from the replicated historic attractions in Havre Beneath the Streets to the Wahkpa Chu’gn Buffalo Jump archaeological site behind the Holiday Village Mall to the remains of Fort Assinniboine just south of the city.