A century ago, things started hopping in Havre


Photo courtesy of Virginia Verkuehlen, "The Hi-Line Collection"

C.C. Wallace delivers coal in Havre. To the right is the corner of the Clack building.

The city of Havre was 18 years old in 1912, but it was just coming into its own.

Telephones were unheard of just a couple of years earlier, but now there were several hundred in the city.

The Havre Power Co. provided electricity to the city, and there were streetlights every couple of blocks or so.

Sacred Heart Hospital opened in 1912. The city's first hospital, it was operated by the Sisters of St. Francis. There were now several doctors in town.

About 5,000 people lived in Havre, way up from earlier years.

The Plaindealer newspaper reported there would be a housing shortage in the city during the coming winters, and James Hill's Great Northern Railroad, which had put the city on the map a few years earlier, announced that Havre would be the central point of Montana railroad operations.

Just one year earlier, Havre High School, which had a record enrollment of 40, formed a basketball team — not yet called the Blue Ponies — that played in a Bozeman tournament. The debut had some problems.

Mothers had to design and sew the uniforms, but there was no collaboration, and the uniforms were all in different colors, most of them without numbers. The team members felt inferior to the rival Fort Benton team, that looked spiffy in their perfectly designed uniforms.

Frank Buttery had opened a store at 3rd Avenue and 2nd Street almost a decade earlier. H. Earl Clack built the first grain elevator in town.

Congregations from several denominations — Catholics, Presbyterians and Lutherans — had churches, and Episcopalians had formed a congregation and were seeking to build a church. North Havre Community Church had just opened.

Two schools opened in 1912 — Devlin and McKinley.

Three prominent residents were building a subdivision from 7th Street north to 13th Street in "the prettiest residential portion of the city."

The first county fair was held late in the year.

The bustling, almost urbane city of Havre was at stark contrast to the city of just a few years earlier.

Grace Homan Duffey wrote later in her life about her first impressions of Havre after arriving here from Minnesota as an 8-year-old in 1908.

Havre was "a town full of wild, drunken cowboys, Indians and long-horn cattle being herded down 1st Street."

In 1912, it was a city on the move.

The last soldiers had left Fort Assinniboine the year before. There was a debate as to what to do with the massive amounts of land the U. S. Army had left behind.

Some favored an Indian boarding school, a proposal backed by the three-year-old Havre Chamber of Commerce.

Some wanted the land cut into parcels and given out to would-be ranchers in a lottery-like fashion.

Others thought an Indians reservation was the way to go. The Plaindealer, a weekly newspaper, opposed that idea in racist diatribe of an editorial.

Havre wasn't the only part of Hill County that was growing.

When the U. S. government gave James Hill the right to build his railroad through northern Montana Indian country, it gave him a 75-foot swath through what is now the Hi-Line. Every so often, he got a 300-foot-by-300 foot parcel to build a station. Thus sprung up what is today Rudyard, Kremlin, Gildford, Hingham and Joplin.

The areas were largely undeveloped for years, but a revision in the Homestead Act changed that.

The land had always been dished out in 180-acre parcels. Homesteaders ate up the land in other parts of the country, but most figured they couldn't make a go of it in frigid northern Montana.

But the law was changed to make the parcels 360 acres in desert areas, and the Hi-Line qualified as a desert. There was quickly a boom in western Hill County.

To provide services to the new farmers and ranchers, businesses sprang up in the towns ranging from Kremlin to Inverness.

Blacksmith shops, implement stores, grocery stores, post offices and weekly newspapers were set up in the towns. Hingham especially was booming.

There were more than 20 post offices of various in Hill County in 1912, and soon there would be 40. At first farmers would have to come into Havre to get mail, but many farmers came into town only two or three times a year. Often more-frequent visitors would pick the mail of their neighbors when they were in Havre and deliver it to them.

Soon, post offices were built in each hamlet. Soon it would be part of the general store. Sometimes the post office and then the town would be named after the person who made the trek to Havre.

So, here is a bustling, fast-growing county. But if you were summoned to jury duty, you had to hike off to Fort Benton. When police arrested someone in Havre, the offender had to be hauled off to Fort Benton to jail or court.

Havre was part of Choteau County, and the county seat was Fort Benton. Not a fun trip, especially in winter. Chouteau County was the largest geographic county in the nation — or second largest, eclipsed only by a county in Texas, depending on who you talked to.

This might have been OK when Havre was a wild cow town next to a military reservation, but folks now felt they deserved a county of their own.

Work began on the process of seceding.

The Havre Promoter, never a newspaper to avoid flowery writing or expressing its opinion in the news columns, proudly told of a meeting held in Joplin.

"The white-winged dove of peace hovered last Saturday over Joplin where there was congregated the representatives of several local towns in the proposed new county of Hill."

The next week in Chester, the newspaper reported, "the most harmonious meeting of its kind ever held in this or any other section of Montana" decided to move forward with creating a new county.

(In our next installment, we tell of the formal creation of Hill and Blaine counties.)


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