Except for the hubbub of Cabin Fever Days in February and the upsurge in traffic during the summer and hunting seasons, Martin City is a bastion of peace and quiet these days.
The town’s two bars, the Southfork Saloon and Deer Lick Saloon, anchor a lazy main drag that once sported a movie theater, two grocery stores, a pair of sporting goods stores, shoe store, butcher shop and all kinds of other businesses — including a brothel.
The inventory of Martin City businesses is much smaller now.
Since 1968 Judy Johnson has operated a dog-grooming parlor at the top of Sugar Hill, the incline on Central Avenue where the popular barstool ski races are staged during Cabin Fever Days. Along U.S. 2 near the entrance to Martin City, Moser Cabinets has been turning out custom woodwork since 1971.
Another Martin City mainstay is Abbott Valley Homestead, a network of vacation rentals operated by the Foley family.
The Lietz Fire Hall is home to Martin City’s volunteer fire department. And Lion Hill Baptist Church calls Martin City home.
Martin City was one of several boom towns that sprang up in the 1940s, and it owes its existence to the construction of Hungry Horse Dam on the South Fork of the Flathead River.
While the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation pushed the appropriations bill for the dam through Congress in 1947, “Martin City’s population swelling in anticipation of the coming boom,” according to Montana Place Names. “Montana author Joseph Kinsey Howard remarked, ‘On and around the dam site a group of boom-towns living solely on beer and hope have sprung up.’”
Well over 2,500 people worked on the dam or helped clear timber from the hillsides of what would become Hungry Horse Reservoir. Roughly 90 million board feet of timber were cleared to accommodate the 45-mile-long stretch of the manmade reservoir that supplies the water for the dam that generates hydroelectric power. At 564 feet high, Hungry Horse Dam is one of the largest concrete arch dams in the U.S. and its morning-glory spillway is the highest in the world, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Dam workers and their families settled in towns such as Martin City and Hungry Horse, and businesses rushed in to supply their every need.
Martin City’s boom-town bustle is long gone, but the stories that linger are intriguing.
That home at the top of Sugar Hill where Johnson has operated her pet-grooming business for 50 years was once owned and occupied by Glessie Lydston, known affectionately as Mabel during the town’s heyday. She was the madam who ran the Martin City brothel.
“I knew Mabel as a little girl,” Johnson recalled. “She was a very gracious, lovely woman who helped people who were down and out.
“On Christmas Eve Mabel paid for all the kids in town to go to a movie,” Johnson said. “The story has been told that she paid for peewee baseball uniforms, too. It didn’t say ‘Mabel’s’ on the shirts, though.”
Karen Lietz, another longtime Martin City residents, also remembers Mabel and the house of ill repute she ran during the dam construction years.
“Mabel was such a lady, you wouldn’t have known (she ran a brothel),” Lietz said. “She told all her girls, ‘when you’re in public you act like a lady.’”
Lietz remembers working her shift at an eatery called The Fountain one day when Mabel asked her if she’d be embarrassed if she came in and had breakfast.
“I told her it was fine,” Lietz recalled.
Doyle Foley, manager of Abbott Valley Homestead just east of Martin City, said he recalls seeing his first movie — a Bob Hope flick — at the theater in Martin City in the early 1960s.
There was a Texaco filling station on one street corner in Martin City’s early days, and plenty of bars, Foley said. He particularly recalls the Club Bar that served up tasty deep-fried chicken.
Don Lietz, 85, Karen’s husband, said he’s been told Martin City had 13 bars during the dam construction years. His family moved from Scobey to Martin City when he was a teenager.
“Mom hated the wind in Eastern Montana, so Dad got a job falling timber. Then he got his own logging outfit,” Don said.
The appeal of staying in Martin City was easy access to hunting and fishing, he added.
“Just drive out your back door and you’re where you want to be,” he said. “We used to get on our snowcats and head up the road to Desert Mountain.”
Karen Lietz recalls a harrowing incident in the mid-1950s when a logging truck barreled right through the Silver Dollar Bar in Martin City.
“He came off Highway 2 and lost control,” she said. “We were walking to school and had just walked by there to catch the bus by the Deer Lick [Saloon].”
U.S. 2 used to run right along the west edge of Martin City, but eventually was rerouted to its current configuration. That left Martin City off the beaten path, where it remains a shadow of its former glory.