Harmon’s Histories: Geraldine hailed as center of “An Empire of Wealth’
The town of Geraldine sits roughly in the middle of the state of Montana. In 1913, it literally sprang up out of nowhere as a “railroad town,” an expected stop for the expanding Milwaukee line.
The treasurer of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, F. G. Ranney, bought the townsite and the vice-president of the Milwaukee Land Company, A. L. Flewelling, purchased a half section of land adjacent to the town.
Consequently, the name of the community reflected the Milwaukee line, although no one seems certain whether it was named for railroad director William Rockefeller’s wife, Almira Geraldine Rockefeller, or his daughter, Ethel Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge.
In any event, within two months (even before the rails were laid), the fledgling town already had a bank, livery, bars, land dealers, contractors, and its own newspaper, the Geraldine Review.
The newspaper was a booster for the town, featuring in its first issue the banner headline: “Center of An Empire of Wealth: Geraldine Trade Center Of Immense Territory.”
Editor and Publisher G. E. Shawler wrote: “There is nothing like knowing a good thing when you see it. … Here is a country worth tying to and here is a point where a trade center of considerable importance will spring up and flourish.”
With thousands of acres of grassy hills, the region was well known for its cattle and sheep industry.
“In this section, the landscape is made up of a succession of benches, interspersed by valleys and draws, a rich, slightly rolling prairie stretching away for miles, with the Highwood range to the west and south and the Bear Paw and Little Rockies to the east and north; and here and there solitary buttes standing like sentinels over the pastoral scenes.”
When the Milwaukee’s F. G. Ranney made the townsite lots available, nearly $50,000 was netted almost immediately. Within weeks, about two-thirds of the lots were sold.
The Winchell Springs Land company, which owned adjacent land, quickly announced plans to construct a dam and reservoir in order to “pipe the water to the town.”
The Geraldine Review reported, “The soil of the Geraldine territory is exceedingly fertile, a clay loam of from two to six feet in depth, resting upon a subsoil of clay.”
That made for quite a grain crop around Geraldine in late summer 1913. It was “estimated that there were about 1 ½ million bushels” being harvested.
But with no railroad yet, the question was: Where to store it? Some farmers began building granaries while “others stacked the grain on the ground.”
Building elevators took considerable resources, but it seemed better than “hauling (the harvest) overland 28 miles.” At least the grain was in place, “ready for business the minute the railroad was able to haul grain.”
Meantime, a couple of Fort Benton businessmen were in Geraldine in mid-August following up on their plans for a general merchandise store and a lumber yard.
The mercantile was nearly finished – just awaiting shelving and stocking. The lumber and coal business would follow soon.
Both businessmen were well-known in the region. W. R. Leet was the “senior member of the firm Leet & Bergeson,” and also happened to be a county commissioner. W. C. Poulsson, in addition to his business interests, was a “member of the lower branch of the state legislature.”
A week or two later, the post office inspector from Great Falls and the postmaster from Fort Benton arrived in Geraldine for a look-around.
They indicated the town would definitely get a post office, but it could take a month or more.
The first train finally arrived in Geraldine on the afternoon of Friday, November 14, 1913, to the delight of local residents. The newspaper reported the town was “fortunate in acquiring such a splendid railroad system, and we are fortune that we are residents of such a fertile section which may now be developed to its capacity.”
With the railroad and the commerce it brought, the town continued to grow over the next four years. The last Geraldine Review newspaper archived at the State Historical Society was dated December 27, 1917, and the main local headline was, once again, “A Good Old Building Year.”
Among the major buildings constructed in 1917 were the new school ($25,000) and a new mill ($27,000).
By 1920, Geraldine had a population of 354. Today, residents number just over 200.
While the community never rivaled Great Falls or Fort Benton in size, it still can claim its place in Montana history as the “Center of An Empire of Wealth: A Trade Center Of An Immense Territory,” and the home of the Orange-Black-and-White Geraldine “Tigers!”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.