Montana’s Legacy of Unique Banks

By Mark Hotz

For this month, I thought I’d take you way off the beaten path to a couple of towns in a state I have never covered before – Montana. The Big Sky State is chock full of small towns and obscure banks, and I found a couple of interesting ones to visit and record. So let’s go!

Our first stop will be at tiny Valier, a town in north central Montana’s Podera County, with a current population of around 500. Located on State Route 44 and situated on the shore of scenic Lake Frances, Valier is 15 miles from Interstate 15, which connects to Great Falls, around 60 miles south, or the Canadian border at Alberta, around 50 miles north.

The town was named for Peter Valier, who supervised construction of the Montana Western Railway’s railroad line between Valier and Conrad, the county seat of Pondera County. The population has remained rather static, with around 700 people in 1920 and 500 now. Originally, the entire area was part of the 7 Block Ranch, which encompassed 200,000 acres. Started in 1886 by the Conrad Brothers, the ranch was one of the largest in Montana. In 1909, it was purchased by the Cargill family of Wisconsin for the then-unheard-of sum of $1,000,000.

Water was a big problem on a ranch of this size, so in 1909 the 7 Block sold 1,000 head of cattle to finance the creation of Lake Frances, created for irrigation and not recreation, though today it is a big draw to the Valier area. The town of Valier was created that same year. Soon enough, it sported a large hotel, theaters, fraternal lodges, a horse racing track and a national bank.

The First National Bank of Valier was organized in July 1909 and received charter #9520. It lasted until late in 1933, when it was closed by the receiver. It was a rather small bank, with a total circulation of just $87,000. These included Series of 1902 Blue Seals and small size notes, all in $10 and $20 denominations. Naturally, this is a very rare bank, with just a single large and three small notes reported. I have included a photo of the sole large size note which was sold some years back in a Heritage Auction.

Here is a very rare small size $20 note issued by the First National Bank of Valier, Mont. Notes from this town rarely are available in the marketplace. (Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions)

The construction of the First National Bank of Valier building began in 1910 and, once completed, was a substantial building challenged only by the Valier Hotel for the most substantial in town. I have included a vintage photo of the bank nearing completion. The building still stands in Valier today. In the modern photo, it appears to be empty but undergoing some renovations. The town of Valier today is popular for its camping, fishing and other recreational possibilities.

Top: The old First National Bank of Ismay, Mont., building as it appeared when the town was bustling. It has long since been demolished. Center: A vintage postcard view shows Ismay circa 1900. The bank building is not visible in this view. Bottom: This modern bird’s-eye view shows what is left of Ismay today. It is hard to imagine from this photo what a bustling town Ismay was when its population was around 500.

Our next stop is a virtual ghost town that once had a population of over 500 and a large and impressive national bank. Today, so little remains it is hard to believe this was once a bustling community. I am referring to Ismay, a town in Custer County in far eastern Montana. With a 2010 census population of just 19, Ismay is the smallest incorporated town in the state.

The town’s name is an amalgamation of Isabella and May, the names of the daughters of Albert J. Earling, division superintendent (later president) of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway. A century ago, 500 people lived in the Ismay city limits and supported two banks (one national, one state), Ford and Chevy dealerships, a drugstore, and two mercantiles that sold everything from underwear to plows.

Wooden signs on vacant lots identify their locations: the Brackett Hotel, the Farmer and Stockgrowers’ State Bank, Wilson Chevrolet. One of the old businesses, Ryan Clothing, Millinery and Maternity, still stands, although it’s been abandoned for decades. The town was a big cattle shipping depot and was kind of a wild place, referred to locally as Little Chicago for violence. The Ismay School was built in 1909. In 1937, a large gym and auditorium were added; their remains can be seen in a field.

The First National Bank of Ismay received charter #9103 in April of 1908. It issued a total of $144,000 that consisted of all three types of Series 1902 notes as well as small size notes of the $5 denomination only. Two large and six small notes are reported, though these rarely turn up for sale. I was able to secure a photo of one of the small size notes to accompany this article.

This large size $20 note is the only large size note reported from the First National Bank of Ismay, Mont. The town, once bustling, is a virtual ghost town today, with little remaining from its heyday.

Ismay’s bank building was very impressive, as the vintage photo will show. It gives one an idea of how substantial Ismay was at one time. However, railroad traffic faltered, and in the 1930s U.S. Route 12 was built 10 miles south of town, so Ismay slowly began to die. It was only connected to US Route 12 by the still dirt State Route 320. Residents moved on, and few came to replace them.

In 1993, Ismay had one last breath. A Kansas City radio station was looking for a small Montana town to rename itself “Joe, Montana” in honor of the NFL star’s trade from San Francisco to Kansas City. Ismay agreed and for a while got a little fame as Joe, Mont. But that faded out, too, leaving Ismay with little to show other than a new community center.

Today, very little remains in Ismay. I have included a panorama view of the town. The national bank building is long gone, as are most of the other vintage buildings. It’s hard to imagine why anyone lives in Ismay, but they do.

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