One-hundred miles east of Billings, Montana, lies the town of Forsyth. With a population of just under 2,000 people and a largely-decaying city center, you’d miss it completely if you didn’t veer just slightly off of Interstate 94 and follow the brown signs to the historical markers.
My tour of the town starts at the Rosebud County Museum. There, a retired couple named James and Lavina Hall greet me and tell me about the museum and about Forsyth.
Looking at a map of Montana, the shape of Rosebud County somewhat resembles that of Vermont except it branches off more on the upper left than the upper right. Forsyth is located smack dab in the middle.
The museum features an entire miniature of the town as it looked in the late 1940’s and early 50’s. Constructed by Forsyth High graduate Roy Pabolo, the miniatures are in exquisite detail, right down to the people, cars, and advertising on the store windows. Just about everything represented is gone now, but the courthouse, the high school, and the Roxy Theater still stand.
There’s an extensive library, with memories of the townspeople forever preserved in booklets and albums. An 18-ton giant Avery thirty horsepower steam engine, which lay buried in snow at the foot of a mountain for 50 years before being rescued, is on display for generations to come. There’s washers and shoe shine chairs, a one-room schoolhouse replica, a “country kitchen,” and a 1900’s bedroom.
A music room contains all sorts of instruments because, the display states, “Music was performed largely at home in the early days of settlement, as it was one of the few sources of entertainment.”
German prisoners-of-war were kept at Forsyth during World War II, and an overcoat with the letters “P.W.” is scrawled on its back.
There are pictures and artifacts of the Native American people and culture alongside family portraits of locals; an album of Rosebud County Derby winners; railroad pamphlets and memorabilia from Forsyth’s Centennial festivities; and a little corner dedicated to world champion trick roper George Pitman.
Forsyth was founded by Thomas A. Alexander, who filed a homestead in 1876. He was in the business of selling firewood to steamers and traded part of his land to the Northern Pacific. In 1882 Forsyth became a division point for the railroad.
Town historian C.O. Marcyes noted that before the division point “there was no occasion for a town. What little supplies that were required by the hunters, Indian traders and trappers were either brought in by long freight teams or by steamboats plying along the river.”
Like many towns that once thrived on the railroads, and also those on state highways who lost out to the Interstates, Forsyth has moved on from its glory days – struggling to identify itself anew while at the same time paying homage to its past.
“We used to have clothing stores,” says Lavina. “Now it’s mostly casinos, bars, cafés…” she adds, her voice trailing off wistfully.
Lavina is a third generation Forsyth resident – her mother and grandmother preceded her. It was always more of a ranching town than a railroad town as she tells it, with sugar beets, wheat, and cattle being the main commodities. She graduated from Forsyth High in 1955. The school’s nickname is the Dogies, referring to a term for a motherless calf in a cattle herd. But even as Forsyth is in some ways dropping off the map, there are plenty of historical markers around town to remind you of its past.
The Roxy, for example, debuted in 1930 and it was a real beauty. A plaque out front reads: “Equipped with RCA sound-producing equipment, the new theater boasted red velour curtains, spring cushion seats, Spanish lanterns in the foyer, and six small Spanish balconies in the auditorium itself.”
The Merchant’s Bank Block has a colorful history. Built by Alexander, it served as a bank and a post office in the early years. Legend has it that Hiram Marcyes (father of C.O. Marcyes) blackballed Alexander from the Masons, but Alexander incorporated a hall on the second floor for “the use of secret societies” (i.e. other fraternal organizations). The building would later feature a bowling alley tacked onto the rear, and a hotel among other pursuits.
And the McCuiston Building, once headlined as “Tourist’s Headquarters,” sold Fords, Hudsons, and Franklins. In 1916, a young man lit a match to check the progress on an attendant filling up his gas tank; luckily the fire scarred only the car and not the building or men.
Forsyth is one of many American small towns to have been hit hard by the Interstate. Despite the highway being within a couple of miles, the town is proliferated by decaying or vacant storefronts; yet it also has beautiful murals painted on its fire station, high school banners waving from lamp posts, and an elaborate pot of flowers just outside the library (planted by The Garden Club, which has been around for about a century).
Before exiting, I return to the museum to thank the curators. James served in the Navy. They seem like the very kind of people that make a small town one worth sticking around in, a community of comfort and down-to-earth relationships. As I leave, I just hope Forsyth manages to preserve its sense of history and pride, to impress its footprint on the occasional tourist like me.