Ismay’s bustling business, wicked ways, and itinerant population of cowboys and railroad men earned it the nickname “Little Chicago.” This town, born with the construction of the Milwaukee Road across Montana, began in 1908 with the name of Burt. Burt became Ismay a few months later, taking its new name from Isabelle and Maybelle, daughters of railroad official George Peck. At the start of the heady settlement boom of the 1910s, Ismay had need of a deterrent for its rougher element. Bids were taken for construction of a local jail and W. T. Perham won the contract for $676. The utilitarian brick jail, of squat and sturdy construction with small windows and iron bars, was built in 1910. This type of lock-up was once common in rural settlements. Over the years, the building largely accommodated rowdies who overindulged at local saloons and served as a holding facility for prisoners awaiting transport to the county jail at Miles City. It is the only public building that remains from Ismay’s early period. Today the community is Montana’s smallest incorporated town, and in 1993 its twenty-two residents took an unprecedented gamble. In a public relations stroke of genius that won national attention, Ismay conditionally changed its name to Joe in honor of football player Joe Montana. This entrepreneurial enterprise netted enough capital to build a new fire hall, acquire a fire truck, and restore the jail. It stands today as a reminder of the times when Ismay was the “Little Chicago” of the West.

Images

Ismay Jail
Ismay Jail Ismay Jail. View of the south wall. Source: Montana State Historic Preservation Office Creator: Gene Gerber Date: 1996
Ismay Jail
Ismay Jail Ismay Jail. View of the East Wall. Source: Montana State Historic Preservation Office Creator: Gene Gerber Date: 1996
Ismay Jail
Ismay Jail Ismay Jail. View of the North Wall. Source: Montana State Historic Preservation Office Creator: Gene Gerber Date: 1996
Ismay Jail
Ismay Jail Ismay Jail. View of the West Wall. Source: Montana State Historic Preservation Office Creator: Gene Gerber Date: 1996

Location

Jailhouse Road, Ismay, Montana | Private

Metadata

The Montana National Register Sign Program, “Ismay Jail,” Historic Montana, accessed March 2, 2024, https://historicmt.org/items/show/246.