The melancholic sky of 10 heading home. It was a quick trip back, and I made good time. Began the morning at the Village Inn for breakfast, which wasn’t very good - but I love their font choices. Someone came up and glad-handed my dad, some old business contact or Bison booster; my dad suddenly sheds 20 years in these interchanges. Not that he’s old and desultory before, but it’s like the guy who was sitting at Perkins when I was ten and someone came up to say hello.

Back on the road, listening to an audio book, then the usual 5-part Johnny Dollar as I approached home. It’s a tradition. I leave the fifth part for later, perhaps the evening. This one involved a suspicious death in a small Montana town.

Like, say, Sentinal Butte.


Sorry. Now the last of our sojourn stories: the photo album.

We’ve mislaid some family pictures. Lots of them, it seems - from the mid-60s, when I’m fat and bespectacled, sister is tiny, Mom is in her middle 40s and stylish. I don’t know where they went. But he did have a battered, leather-bound album with pictures from 1911 and 1912, and I’ve no idea how long it had been sitting on the bookshelf, undisturbed. He’s only lived in the house since 2004, but I’d never noticed it before. It was on top of some other books, as if it had been recently removed, or had somehow summoned the spirits of everyone inside and leaped up in a last desperate bid for attention.

Does that matter? In a sense, of course, no; everyone’s a grain of sugar in the warm river of time. But this is all there is of these people.

My dad’s the last guy on the planet who could identify the people in the book.

They weren’t even his relates; the women were my mother’s aunts, and her father made an appearance as well.


My grandfather Victor, natty man, farmer, tobacco fiend. The older I get the more I look like him.

Antique stores abound with these pictures - tiny images of overdressed people squinting in a yard somewhere. But these pictures had names and places, and as my dad paged through the book (its appearance was news to him as well) he deduced it was the work of my Great Grand-Aunt Lillie, who had lit out for the frontier around 1911 on her own to teach school in the town of Sentinel Butte, North Dakota.

The town still exists. It is not exactly a going concern. Then:

"Sentinal Butte on a Busy Day," she wrote above the picture. Below: "Brownie Sale." That may explain the streamers.

Not a trace remains of those buildings. As for the houses . . .


Maybe. There are vacant blocks. Only about 60 people live there now.

But. Once upon a time. In the middle of nothing and nowhere, they built a little civilization, including a proud sturdy school to impart the lessons to the young:

After a while, they built a bigger one:

Lillie was a school teacher:

Caption: "The Gilbert Women."

Did the young one get out? Did she stay there her whole life?

From the town's history site:

The first permanent building in Sentinel Butte was the residence of Henry Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert had worked for the railroad  as an engineer, having driven the first locomotive to pass through the area. The house was built of railroad ties, bridge  piling, rough lumber and soil. It was located near the south edge of the southeast quarter of Section 19, 140-104. In 1884  it became the post office with Mr. Gilbert as postmaster.

At its peak, the town had 40 businesses and as many as 800 people, but over the years drought and smal-sized homesteads leached away at the population. Fire and time ate the emptied town.

But that was yet to come.

This picture fascinated me, because it’s a casual forenoon on a day of rest. Everyone’s on the porch, talking and smoking. The columns on the porch are nicely turned, suggesting a local craftsman, or perhaps something ordered from the Wish Book.


That's not Sentinal Butte. Too many trees. The shooter is back in the Red River Valley, at the home farm. I zoomed in on the magazine, wondering if I could find out what it was - and was jolted.

That's my Grandfather reading the magazine.

One more: the Grandaunt climbed up the mountain to perch on the rock overlooking the town. There are other shots of the womenfolk doing this; seems to have been required.

The women are all described as Miss. It was 1911, and they lit out for the territories, alone.





Three thousand souls - and that seems drastically insufficient for the architecture you’re about to see.

The population peaked at 4800 in the 50s, but that still seems scant.

This, of course, could be anywhere.

The tree, which of course brought back downtown shoppers by the multitudes, and the old ornamental lighting fixture, which means someone’s thinking about “a historic district.” Bricked up lower floors, painted over. But it’s not a picture that says decay.

Let’s go around the corner:

I’ve researched what this means, and came up with nothing particularly interesting. In short, I don’t think that’s the Maritzky Building.


This is. You know, the Clarborne Hotel and Clinic.


It’s a museum now, well-reviewed; concerns itself with local history. And if that makes you think of family trips wandering around an underpopulated place, keeping your voice down, pushing buttons on “interactive” exhibits, well, I hope that’s a pleasant memory. It is for me.

Wikipedia: “The museum claims the oldest compressed bale of cotton in existence in the United States. This cotton display is believed to have been baled about 1930.” Oh.

An unusual modernization, but intriguing:


Looks as if it slants out, like the cover of some enormous electric razor.

Hoorah! A few still exist.

As regular readers to this site know, I love the old grocery store chains, mostly because I’m not required to shop in 1965. I prefer the variety of items you get in a modern store - but I still love the old signage and Muzak.

None of which you’ll find here, probably.

Yes, there’s your downtown overhaul. Empty spot where the tree used to be. .


Pavers heaved up for maximum tripping power.

Hard to read, this one; The awning doesn’t seem to match the black-mirror tiles. The inset was a window? A bigger sign? Where are the old windows?

Another post-war rehab separating the second floor from the first with extreme prejudice:


Something was Limited, but we’ll never know from here.

A nuclear blast in 1890 left shadows of the citizens forever burned into the side of the building:


Oh, this was a beaut:

ding ding

Either take it all off or leave it alone. This looks like a skin condition:


Not the most stirring of murals, but its heart is in the right place.

Of course, the bank. Which is banky.

You expect the tiny trash can to say "answer me these questions three" before it'll let you pass.

Finally: the courthouse. One of the few pre-Civil War courthouses remaining.


It’s the center of town, and the square around it . . . seems to drowse in the heat like a cliched dog in a cliched movie where deep-seated tensions are about to simmer to the top.


Well, that was a lot, no? Makes up for last week, I hope. See you around.


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