Headwaters Heritage Museum: Before We Turn 41
February 8, 2023
In the late seventies, historical-minded members of the Three Forks community got together and formed the Headwaters Area Historical Society, which was then a chapter of the Gallatin County Historical Society. They elected Lyle K. Williams as the first President. Lyle was in his late seventies and nearly blind at the time. The former owner of the Three Forks Herald and an author, Lyle had visions of a museum in Three Forks and had put much effort in trying to get one started. Today, we know his vision is realized.
Forty years ago, the newly formed independent Three Forks Area Historical Society purchased the museum building, and every year we celebrate the strength of our non-profit organization and the anniversary of this purchase.
But the building had a life before it became the home of the Headwaters Heritage Museum. Chartered in April 1910 and certified by the state auditor that June, Three Valleys State Bank opened on July 11th, 1910. But the bank did not start its business in this building. Three Valleys State Bank opened on the corner of Birch and Main Street where the Iron Horse Café is today. City founder John Quincy Adams was the major financial backer of the bank. After just eight days of being open, the bank purchased Lot 1 of Block 16 of the Three Forks Original Townsite for a new bank building, at the southwest corner of Main and Cedar.
Construction began in November 1910, and the bank opened just four months later on February 10, 1911. It's interesting to note that the foundation of the building was originally built for a structure taller than the current two stories. And, the original front entrance into the building was on the south side rather than in the center.
There were professional offices upstairs for a number of years. The kitchen room was originally the office of attorney E. W. Wullenwaber; Dr. John Symonds, a dentist, was in the schoolroom; and Dr. Clinton Hoy occupied the blacksmith room. The Willow Creek room was formerly the office of attorney H.P. Samuell, and then it was the City Library for a time before becoming the office of Dr. Stentz, another dentist.
Three Valleys State Bank prospered for a time until it closed its doors in 1918. The doors were reopened by the American National Bank of Three Forks shortly after, but that bank failed in 1923.
On June 27, 1925, at 6:21 PM, an earthquake, centered a little southeast of Lombard, was felt by the whole state, but Three Forks, Manhattan, Logan, and Deer Park were hit the hardest. In Three Forks, the old elementary school, the Methodist Church, the Avery Garage, and the bank building were damaged. The cornice of the west end of the north face is missing.
From 1923 to 1960, the building was the home to a variety of businesses, including Adams Realty, the office of Police Judge Siffert, the Climbing Arrow Ranch office, Montana Power Company, Bacon and Kilgore Insurance, and Ward Gaskins, who had an office upstairs while he was planning the construction of the talc plant. From 1943 to 1946, there were apartments upstairs and a connecting door to the building to the south, now the Plaza Bar. In the mid-1950s, the stairs to the second floor were condemned and removed.
The building once again housed a bank when Security Bank of Three Forks opened its doors on November 4, 1960. Security Bank operated here for nearly twenty years until they moved to their new location two blocks south.
In 1981, officers of the Security Bank offered their former building to the still budding Historical Society. According to long-time Society member Dave Miller,
The following February the papers were signed and a fundraising drive began. The entire community of Three Forks, surrounding towns and cities, and many former residents contributed to the effort. A small grant from the Montana Arts Council was awarded to help in the effort. On May 19, 1983, a generous donation was received that completed the payment of $35,000 for the building. Donations and memberships continued, and the entire building was renovated in a short time.
Donations and loans of historical artifacts, display cases, photos, and documents soon filled the entire available space of each room as it was completed. The first floor of the museum was opened for public viewing in July 1982. In August 1983, the upstairs level was completed and opened to the public (after the stairs were rebuilt).
Two examples of the dedication of our volunteers during those early years are exemplified by Ruth and Boots Myers. Not only did Boots auction off his pants during a fundraiser, but he had to live for two years without a kitchen table as Ruth worked on the Headwaters Heritage History book. The book many of us call "the Bible," was published in 1982 by our Historical Society.
In 2005, Marcia Fairhurst submitted a nomination to put the Three Valleys State Bank building on the National Register of Historic Places, and the plaque was unveiled during that year's rodeo weekend.
The Society continues to add value to the community through its projects and presence. Those of us who live here sometimes are somewhat desensitized to Sacajawea Park, the Founder's Mural, the Caboose, and now the Railroad and Trident Heritage Center. But newcomers and former residents see these accomplishments with fresh eyes and appreciation. Added to our physical projects are our three publications, Headwaters Heritage History; Selected Papers of the 2010 Fur Trade Symposium; and The Sacajawea, The History of the Sacajawea Hotel, which allow our gift shop patrons to take a bit of history with them wherever they go.
We must always remind ourselves that the purpose of this Society and museum is to preserve and make available for study and research the history and culture of the area. This building, with its Romanesque arches, rusticated sandstone, and thick masonry walls, symbolizes this museum's and this Society's ability to endure. Thank you to the volunteers and this community for their help in fulfilling our mission.