Montana, Glory of the West

Welcome to Montana, Glory of the West

The Welcome to Montana SignWelcome to Montana


In 1946, my parents, who had never been west of Columbus Ohio moved to western Montana, a place they immediately decided was “home.” Three years later, I was born, in Billings Deaconess Hospital. I’ve lived most of my life in the Treasure State, a place I dearly love.  I truly believe that the state song is right in saying “Montana, Montana, Glory of the West.”

Montana, Montana,
Glory of the West.
Of all the states from coast to coast
You’re easily the best.
Montana, Montana,
Where skies are always blue.
Montana, I love you!
–The Montana State Song

A Dream of mine–now realized

In the late 1980s, I was traveling through Judith Basin County, in the central part of the state, and saw the county court house in Stanford. I was impressed that such a sparsely populated place could afford to build such a fine structure, and I began noticing other court houses as I traveled. All the court houses I found were impressive in their own way, and I began thinking of creating a coffee-table book of the fifty-six county court houses in Montana. 

My dream was to have this finished in time for the statehood centennial in 1989, but I had neither the time nor the money to pursue that dream. Now, twenty-one years later, I have completed my photographic survey of the state’s court houses, and it is my great pleasure to share them with you.

The Montana State Capitol, Glory of the West
The Montana State Capitol, Helena, Montana

Montana, Glory of the West — One Really Big State

Recently I read that there are 12,000 miles of highway within Montana’s borders. I can’t say that I’ve covered all 12,000, but were I a betting man, I’d wager that I’ve now seen more of Montana than most people–more than even most Montanans. There are four highways and one Amtrak line that cross the state from east to west. * I’ve seen the state from all five, and there are very few miles on any of them that I haven’t traversed. The same is true of the five federal highways that cross the state north to south, and beyond these are the numerous state highways and secondary roads, and more than a few dirt roads. I feel like the guy in the song who sings “I’ve been everywhere, man!”

Montana is a large state, 4th in area after Alaska, Texas, and California. It is as far from the Idaho state line on I-90 to the North Dakota state line (on I-94) as it is from Washington DC to Chicago (695 miles across Montana, as opposed to 700 miles DC to Chicago). In the western part of the state, cities are roughly 100 miles apart. In the eastern part of the state, towns can be that distant. You see a lot of country side when you drive across Montana.

The Bitterroot Flower, a Montana Glory of the West
Montana’s State Flower, the Bitterroot (Lewisia Rediviva)

Civic Pride

As I worked on the court house project, I began to question our civic involvement. It becomes obvious, as we look at most of these buildings, that the people responsible for building them believed in government. They were proud of their local government, and wanted to show their pride in what has been called an “edifice complex.” I wonder where and when we lost that civic pride? These days it seems that we hear over and over that government is the problem. I don’t believe that the people who built these magnificent buildings felt that way, and I fear we have lost something crucial in our national psyche.


The Big Sky--Rosebud County Farmland
The Big Sky, Rosebud County, Montana

The Counties and their Numbers

Finally,  I wanted to do more than just showcase buildings. What I did was a photo essay on Montana’s fifty-six counties. There is one blog post/chapter per county. I have arranged them using the Montana county numbering system. In 1934, Montana developed the system it still uses for license plates. Each county has its own number, and while you will hear that these numbers are based on the 1930 census, I don’t believe that’s accurate. For example, Lincoln County, which holds number 56 out of 56, was not the most recently created county.  Nor was it ever the smallest county in population. Today, in fact, if the numbers were redistributed according to current population, Lincoln County would be in 10th place. What I consider a more likely explanation is that the county number reflects the political influence a county had in the 1934 legislature.

Childhood Memories

When I was growing up, Montana children memorized the county numbers, usually learning both the county name and its seat. Adults carried business cards with the county numbers printed on the back. When you saw a car with a number 1 license, you knew that car came from Butte, or at least from Silver Bow County. If it had a 49, it was from Livingston, or Park County. As I noted above, Montana still uses the county number system, but with the increasing popularity of vanity or affinity plates, neither of which shows a county number, I wonder if children still memorize them.

St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park
St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park

An Invitation

If you’d care to come along, you’re welcome. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the view out the window. If you feel yourself getting carsick, feel free to take a break or even get off the bus entirely. It’s your choice.

Montana Factoids

Population (2019) – 1,068,778
Size – 145,556 sq mi.
Capital – Helena
Largest City – Billings
Highest Elevation – 12,850 ft
Lowest Elevation – 1,800 ft

My Montana, Glory of the West Blog

Listed below are Montana’s fifty-six counties in order of their license plate county number.  Click on any county name to see my blog post about that county.

1. Silver Bow 2. Cascade 3. Yellowstone 4. Missoula
5. Lewis & Clark 6. Gallatin 7. Flathead 8. Fergus
9. Powder River 10. Carbon 11. Phillips 12. Hill
13. Ravalli 14. Custer 15. Lake 16. Dawson
17. Roosevelt 18. Beaverhead 19. Chouteau 20. Valley
21. Toole 22. Big Horn 23. Musselshell 24. Blaine
25. Madison 26. Pondera 27. Richland 28. Powell
29. Rosebud 30. Deer Lodge 31. Teton 32. Stillwater
33. Treasure 34. Sheridan 35. Sanders 36. Judith Basin
37. Daniels 38. Glacier 39. Fallon 40. Sweet Grass
41. McCone 42. Carter 43. Broadwater 44. Wheatland
45. Prairie 46. Granite 47. Meagher 48. Liberty
49. Park 50. Garfield 51. Jefferson 52. Wibaux
53. Golden Valley 54. Mineral 55. Petroleum 56. Lincoln

One final note:

Having finished my Montana Counties Blog, I’ve moved on to our neighboring states. If you’re interested in what I’m doing with Idaho, check out that page on this website. Similarly, if Washington State interests you, I have a page for that state as well.