Petroleum County (Montana) Court House

Bryan D. Spellman

Plains, United States

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Petroleum County, just east of the geographical center of Montana, is the least populated county in the state. With an estimated population of 436 in 2008, that figure is down 11.6% from the 2000 census number of 493. With an area of 1,654 square miles, even in 2000 there were just 3/10s of a person per square mile. On Montana license plates, it is number 55 (out of 56).

Rural Electrification didn’t reach parts of Petroleum County until 1957, and telephone service in the late 1960s.

While photographing the court house, I asked the young woman in the Clerk and Recorder’s Office how so few people managed to pay for county operations. She replied that it’s hard, but that even counting the Sheriff’s Office, there were only four county employees. Note in the photo that almost all the upper story windows are boarded over.

On a different on-line photo album site, I read that there was a move to disestablish Petroleum County and have the land annexed back into Fergus County, from which Petroleum County was formed in 1924. When I asked my young informant about this, she replied that she knew nothing of such a move. Surely the Clerk and Recorder would know if such a plan were in the wind.

For people interested in the history of frontier lands, such as Petroleum County, there is a wonderful book available as a PDF file on-line. Pages of Time: A History of Petroleum County, Montana is a great read. I’d like to quote from the Introduction:

“_Petroleum County is March roaring in like a lion, lambing sheds full of bleating sheep, two-year-old heifers waiting impatiently in corrals unsure of the stirrings within them, and old cows seeking shelter in the willows. It is soft spring winds with the smell of damp sage. V’s of honking geese, and meadowlarks who sing as though they alone discovered spring. It is the taste of fresh rhubarb and new-grown asparagus. It is seeding and branding and watching the sky for June rains. It is hope._

“_Petroleum County is cloudless broad skies and new-mown hay, and black rolling thunderclouds shaking fingers of lightning at those who dare to venture forth. It is August and dry hot winds that wither the grass with dust devils teasing and skipping away. It is fear — fear of prairie fires and drought and grasshoppers and debt. It is utter discouragement._

“_Petroleum County is bountiful harvests and fat lambs and calves. It is chokecherry syrup and bright orange pumpkins and huge harvest moons. It is the first snowfall quietly covering the harshness of the landscape. It is long evenings and howling coyotes and northern lights. It is nights filled with millions of stars, and galaxies for those who search for them. It is acceptance of life._

Petroleum County is wind and blizzards, and worry for man and beast alike. It is the unmistakable blue of chinook clouds. It is everything that is beautiful.

The quote is “signed” mwk, which I can only assume means Marjorie W. King, one of the Petroleum County Library Trustees at the time the book was written (1989). While the sentiments expressed could pertain to much of rural Montana, and in fact, all of Montana is rural, the fact remains that someone (Ms. King?) took the time and effort to put pen to paper and write about her home in a beautiful way. The young woman in the court house told me that there is an effort afoot to publish a new edition of this book. If you’d like to assist financially in this project, I’d suggest writing to the Clerk and Recorder, Petroleum County, Winnett MT 59084, USA.

Taken in Winnett Montana, March 26, 2010.

Nikon D80 DSLR, Nikkor 16-85 mm wide angle/tele/zoom lens set at 22 mm.

ISO 125, f /9.5, 1/180 second.

Finished in Photoshop CS4.

desktop tablet-landscape content-width tablet-portrait workstream-4-across phone-landscape phone-portrait
desktop tablet-landscape content-width tablet-portrait workstream-4-across phone-landscape phone-portrait

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