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Twin Bridges, Montana

Saving a piece of Montana's history
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard

November, 2003

Nick Novich of the fair board poses inside the Pavilion Building on the Madison County Fairgrounds in Twin Bridges recently. The county is in its fifth year of an eight-year effort to upgrade the fairgrounds. Photo: Perry Backus / The Montana Standard

In 1887, people called it "The Park." 
The nearly 50 acres were once part of the Lott and Seidensticker family homesteads on the edge of what was to become Twin Bridges. At that time, ranchers, townsfolk and others decided to hold a "harvest home barbecue." Two years later, the event became the first Madison County fair.

The community joined forces again in 1894 to build the Jeffers Building locals call it simply the square building. More than a century later, residents of Madison County still meet at the site to talk about crops, kids and critters. That is one tradition that Madison County residents want to maintain.

Five years ago, they decided to save the seven historic buildings on the fairgrounds and began looking for ways to put the rest of the area to good use. Through grants, private donations and hard work from volunteers, that's what they've done.

Now in the fifth year of an eight-year project to turn the fairgrounds into a multi-use facility, the county has secured more than $55,000 in grants to renovate historic buildings, expand parking and improve infrastructure.

And that doesn't include the thousands of dollars in grants and donations to develop two baseball diamonds and a soccer field in the back of the property. Nor does it take into account the more than $21,000 that has been raised so far to establish a Madison County Lewis and Clark Interpretive Park at the entrance of the fairgrounds. 

"The whole idea started after we took a hard look at how the fairgrounds were being used," said Madison County fair board member Nick Novich.

"Other than when the Madison County Fair was in session, it just seemed to sit there. A lot of buildings were going downhill ... we decided back then we needed to decide where we were going with this project."

"We all agreed that there certainly must be a better use for this facility than just for the fair that comes around just once a year," Novich said.

The fair board has done just that. Opening the facility at a minimal cost ($75 a day for either the round or square buildings or $300 a day for the entire fairgrounds), the facility is being used nearly every weekend through the spring, summer and fall.

People have responded.

"It used to be that you could make a reservation almost anytime to use these buildings," said Novich. "Now you'd better be calling two or three months in advance from April to October."

The buildings offer more than a place where people can meet. They are also a piece of history that's quickly disappearing.

"This place has some unbelievable architecture that you rarely find at fairgrounds anymore," said Madison County grant writer Kim Miller. "We've been told it maybe the only fairgrounds with the original log buildings left in the state. Most of those original buildings have been replaced with metal buildings."

There are seven log structures, most constructed around 1936 under the Works Progress Administration, that are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Tosten Stenberg, known for his log structures in Yellowstone National Park, directed construction of the buildings, including the centerpiece Pavilion Building (locally called the "round building").

"It's (the Pavilion Building) is the flagship of the fairgrounds. People are taken back when they walk through the door," said Novich. "In fact, I'm taken back every time I walk into it."

Just down the asphalt walkway another popular project completed recently at the fairgrounds are the sheep and cow barns. Both were suffering a bit from old age. Last year the sheep barn was leaning so much that it was shut down until specialists had a chance to shore it up.

After they finished that work, local volunteers cleaned the interior.

"There were tons of little kids in here shoveling out the place," said Miller. "Their parents were up on ladders working away. It was a neat scene."

People are willing to work to ensure that this piece of local history isn't lost, said Miller.

"There was a huge discussion about whether we should just let the sheep barn fall over and then put up a metal building in its place," Miller said. "People decided this was a piece of our history and we should try to save it."

"It would be a tragedy to lose any of these buildings," she said.

The fair board and county commission have prioritized fairgrounds' projects. The top priority is putting new roofs on the Pavilion building, sheep and cow barns. Next is stabilizing the historic grandstands.

Madison County will need help to fund those projects, said Miller.

"Madison County can't do all this work on its own," she said. "We just can't afford it."

Copyright Perry Backus and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.


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