Scobey to Plentywood
By Rick and Susie Graetz
Idyllic prairie town … clean, orderly, and picturesque, describes Scobey. Known as the center of one of Montana’s most productive grain-growing regions; surrounded by low hills and buttes, it occupies a small space in the broad Poplar River Valley. Like so many places in northeast Montana, the town began late in the first decade of the 20th Century, primarily as a result of the railroad and the accompanying homestead era. Early on, two competing railroads–the Great Northern and the Soo Line, running parallel to and seven miles apart from each other, were vying for the abundant agricultural products gathered in the area … at least until the years of drought and depression came along.
Incorporated in 1916, Scobey was named for Major Charles Scobey, a then agent at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Known in its earlier days as “One-eyed Molly’s House of Pleasure,” the distinctive Daniels County Courthouse, built about 1913 on Scobey’s main street, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pioneer Town, a re-creation of an early 1900’s homestead hamlet and one of the finest museums of its kind, is Scobey’s featured attraction. Forty-two original structures, some 100 years old, have been brought to the site. Many, falling into disrepair, were to be torn down; most came from nearby towns such as Whitetail.
To see Pioneer Town and the nearby geography requires a couple days well worth spending.
After finishing up in Scobey, head east on Route 5. It’s only 43 miles to Plentywood, but at the least, take all day to get there.
When the Great Northern and other railroads first came through the northern prairie, sidings and depots were established about every six miles and small communities grew up around them. Most have long since disappeared and others are ghosts of their former selves. First en route, you’ll encounter Madoc and its two grain elevators. You can only imagine eager homesteaders pulling up with their ample wagonloads of harvested wheat.
Next down the road comes Flaxville. At one time, the only crop grown in the area was flax, so the name came easily. First called Boyer, it was located a little more than two miles to the southwest. When the railroad arrived, the place was moved to its current location and the named changed. On the west edge of town, Duck Stamp dollars have helped establish a waterfowl production area. A group of grain elevators, a saloon and an antique store make up much of the local economic development.
From Flaxville take a seven-mile side trip north on County Road 511 to Whitetail, at onetime a stop on the Soo Line.
Between Flaxville and Scobey, the terrain is undulating and wheat fields are prevalent. Beyond Flaxville, you’ll enter a mix of badlands topography, coulees and shallow canyons … cow country. The landscape along the way is quite scenic.
Redstone, east of Flaxville, was established somewhere around 1900. It took its name from the red shale in the area. “Dutch Henry,” a notorious outlaw leader, had one of his camps nearby. The no longer functioning, colorful Westland Oil Co. Service Station and its antique pumps greets your arrival. Just down Main Street, a new post office stands out.
South from Redstone, in the vicinity of Eagle Creek and Eagle Nest Butte, the Wood Mountain and Moose Mountain trails come close to each other. Both of these historic paths lead into Canada. The Moose Route started at Wolf Point and snaked northeast leaving the United States in the area of Port Raymond, north of Plentywood. The Wood Mountain Trail began by Fort Union, near present day Sidney, and crossed the border northwest of Scobey. The Assiniboine and Sioux used both, as did other early day wanderers.
Poke around some of the back roads near Redstone, especially in the badlands of Big Muddy Creek to the north. The Outlaw Trail, named by Butch Cassidy and used to move stolen horses and cattle to Canada, wandered through the coulees of the Big Muddy. Cassidy had a “rest station” in the vicinity.
In the open range days, several cowboys from the nearby Diamond Ranch outfit were attempting to build a buffalo chip fire. The notorious outlaw leader Old Dutch Henry told them, “If you go a couple of miles up this creek, you’ll find plenty wood.”
Beyond Redstone, Hwy 5 eases into the valley of Big Muddy Creek heading east towards Plentywood.
The landscape around these parts hardly indicates that there is wood to be found. In the open range days, several cowboys from the nearby Diamond Ranch outfit were attempting to build a buffalo chip fire. The notorious outlaw leader Old Dutch Henry told them, “If you go a couple of miles up this creek, you’ll find plenty wood.” Following his advice, they found an abundance of fuel and named this creek, that reaches the Big Muddy Creek just west of the present-day town, Plentywood. In1912, the moniker was passed on from the creek to the emerging settlement developed by the railroads and an influx of homesteaders.
Main street is very appealing and compact, with an assortment of businesses that belong in the heart of any community … a drug store, hardware store, clothing shop, cafe, newspaper office, at least one saloon and a couple of banks. The Sheridan County Courthouse is at the head of this commercial thoroughfare. The fairgrounds stand out on the south edge of town.
A collection of early-day memorabilia at the Sheridan County Museum will give you insight into all that came before in this distant part of Montana. You’ll find it by the fairgrounds.
After defeating Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June of 1876, Sitting Bull traveled north, crossed the U.S. border and sought refuge in Canada for five years. Then in July 1891, at the site of present-day Plentywood, he and his Sioux band “surrendered” to the US Army.
This now quiet corner of Montana, between Scobey and Plentywood, hides a very wild and colorful past. Daniels (Scobey) and Sheridan (Plentywood) counties were once part of Valley County. A stock inspector noted in his files that, “Valley County is the most lawless and crookeddest country in the union and the Big Muddy is the worst of it. It has Indians, outlaws, horse and cattle rustlers, bootleggers, homesteaders, baseball rivalries, newspaper wars, political battles, communists and car thieves.”
The Outlaw Trail crossed into Canada north of Plentywood. Rustlers moved their stolen cattle and horses along this passage. Butch Cassidy named the trail and established a rest station in the Big Muddy Valley.
Outlaw enterprises took place in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The latter part of the homestead era and then the roaring ‘20s brought on other activities. The newly arrived “sodbusters” weren’t pleased with either major political party, so they formed the leftist Farmer-Labor Party and held sway in most local elections. It was reported that in 1930, more than 300 folks in Sheridan County voted a full communist ticket. Quite a contrast from the staunch conservatism that prevails today. By 1928, things started to quiet down, and the communists as well as the Klu Klux Klan, which was active for a period, began disappearing.
Today, the future of the area, as well as the present, revolves around agriculture with its roller coaster prices, the Conservation Reserve Program, and unpredictable weather. It’s a part of Montana’s great heritage; when you traverse through, try and picture it 70 to 100 years ago.
East of Plentywood the ecologically important prairie pothole country breaks off from seemingly endless stretches of cultivated land. This is a critical breeding/migrating area for North American wetland and grassland birds. The Nature Conservancy of Montana through their Comertown Pothole Preserve, easements, and cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Service has protected a total of 2,425 acres, allowing endangered species, such as the piping plover, a chance to recover. If the warm season is wet enough, wildflowers cover the green hills and birdsong echoes across the many ponds.
Westby, on the sunrise fringe of this area and once part of North Dakota, is as far as you can go in northeast Montana. This farm village boasts of the state’s most frigid average winter temperature. Far from the range of warming chinook winds, it latches onto cold air from the north and keeps it for a while.
From Plentywood follow Route16 twenty-two miles south to Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge.