Friday, July 20, 2012
I was born and raised in Lewistown, Montana. This small community is located in central Montana between the cities of Billings and Great Falls. It is located at the exact geographical center of the state of Montana, and at the turn of the last century was a thriving commercial and manufacturing center of the Judith Basin. It is the county seat of Fergus County and has an impressive county court house located on Main Street.
The current population is over 5,000, but it peaked back in 1920 at around 14,000 and has been dropping ever since. As transportation improved, Lewistown became less important as a commercial hub. Since the 1950’s the loss of manufacturing such as the brick plant or commercial enterprises such as the Eddy’s bakery are typical of trends in the US of consolidation and improved transportation and less dependence on smaller cities.
I recently attended an “All Sixties” high school reunion that included the graduating classes from 1960 to 1969 of both the Fergus County High School and St. Leos Catholic High School. About four hundred former classmates and some spouses attended and it was great fun reconnecting with old childhood friends and memories.
My wife Linda, along with my brother and sister, trekked all over town reliving old adventures and inspecting the places where our youth had been spent. We walked by the big mansions on Boulevard Street and read the historical sign describing the “Silk Stocking” district. This small collection of half a dozen homes represented an earlier time for Lewistown.
The seven large residences that comprise Lewistown’s mansion, hence “silk stocking,” district were built during the city’s period of greatest prosperity, from 1904 to 1919. In this small neighborhood, central Montana’s major entrepreneurs, whose fortunes represent historic area resource development, built their homes. In 1904, J. T. Wunderlin, a partner in the Barnes-King gold mine at Kendall and an organizer of the Empire Bank and Trust of Lewistown, built his home here. Rancher George Wiedeman built his home in 1905, better able to follow his interests in the Montana Hardware Company and the Lewistown Brick and Tile Company. In the following years, homes were also built by Weymouth D. Symmes, owner of Power Mercantile and a Lewistown mayor; by John Waite, pioneer sheep rancher, banker, and state senator; by department store owner E. C. Swietzer; by rancher-businessman Fred Warren; and by banker T. T. Taylor.
Note the variety of styles—Roman Revival, Shingle style, Arts and Crafts, and Georgian. They attest to the exuberance of this special era in Lewistown’s history.
The dates that these homes were built coincide with the dates on most of the large brick and stone buildings that line Main Street. Typical of most western cities and towns, Main Street is lined with three and four story masonry buildings built in the dozen or so years following the turn of the 20th century. In Lewistown, as in many small towns, local stone and brick was used.
Stone buildings constructed by skilled Croatian stonemasons are intrinsic to Lewistown’s unique personality. Here are many fine illustrations of Croatian building traditions imported by immigrants who settled in Lewistown. These Old World artisans accomplished all phases of the masonry work themselves: extracting the stone from Big Spring Quarry, then rough cutting, transporting, shaping, and finally laying each finished piece in place. Simple arched windows, single-piece downsloped windowsills, and walls of graduated coursed cut stone are crafted with the hands of a skilled master.
Lewistown received electric service in1893, but within a decade the demand for more power had increased with the population. Big Spring Creek was an ideal source for hydroelectric power. In 1903, the Citizen’s Electric Company built the main powerhouse, which produced 450 kilowatts of electricity for the city of Lewistown. The Upper Spring Creek Power Plant, in operation until 1928, extends over a deep eddy that was once the outlet for the water that drove the water wheel. Power generating equipment occupied the main floor, while the upper level served as living quarters for the operators.
Around 1900 Lewistown experienced the beginning of a population boom that extended to 1917. When the Catholic population reached a peak in 1915-16, the need for a new Catholic church became critical. The resident pastor, Reverend Victor J. Van den Broeck, and his building committee chose the well-known firm of Link and Haire to design the new church. Work on the new church began in July 1915. Bishop Mathias Lenihan of Great Falls dedicated the new structure on November 12, 1916. The design of St. Leo’s Catholic Church incorporates a blend of Italian Early Christian and Romanesque styling on a Roman cross plan. The campanile, or bell tower, rises to a height of 95 feet. Blind arcading, exterior buttressing, rose windows, and intricate brickwork with terra cotta highlights complement the integrity and nobility of this magnificent building.
In the dark days following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress appropriated massive defense appropriations. The US Army selected Great Falls, Montana, as the site of a major air base. Concurrent with its construction were satellite airfields at Cut Bank, Glasgow, and Lewistown.
On October 28, 1942, the first Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses roared over Lewistown’s Main Street with their bomb bays open, buzzed the treetops, and landed at the Lewistown Airfield. Crews trained day and night combining navigation, bombing, and gunnery practice. The men familiarized themselves with all aspects of the B-17 and trained with the top secret Norden bombsight, a computerized aiming device that reportedly could “put bombs in a pickle barrel.”
After one to three months of instruction, aircrews then flew directly to join the air war in Europe. Nearly 1,000 GIs trained at the Lewistown Airfield. They became a welcome part of the community, married local girls, and won the hearts of the townspeople.
Many never came home. B-17s carried 4,000 pounds of bombs and served in every World War II combat zone, but casualties among bomber squadrons were horrific. A single mission over Germany in October 1942 claimed 60 B-17s and 600 lives.
The Lewistown Satellite Airfield was deactivated after eleven months of service. As the US Department of Defense systematically removes “temporary” World War II buildings, this Airfield is a rarity and its intact Norden bombsight storage shelter is the only known identifiable example remaining in the United States.
Built in 1936, the Lewistown Civic Center was home to dances, basketball games, and dozens of other recreational activities. It was on the dance floor of the Civic Center that my father first met my mother. He was stationed in Lewistown for a short time training at the base flying B-17 bombers. After serving in the air war over Europe based in England and then flying over the Himalayas to China from India in C-46s, he returned to Lewistown to marry my mom. He went to work as an air traffic controller and we lived in Alabama, Florida, and Wyoming before he ultimately settled in Lewistown to raise his family.
He built our first home on Ridgelawn and worked as a partner with my grandfather until 1966. After the death of my grandparents that year, dad sold all of his property and went back to work for the F.A.A. He finally retired from air traffic control in the 90’s.
I've called Colorado home since 1974, but I'm always proud to claim my Montana heritage. After four generations in Lewistown, there is no one left there. We've all moved on to other states. My sister still lives in Montana, but the rest of the family has moved to Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state. But Lewistown will always be home.