EKALAKA – The rules for the coffee game, which folks here have been playing on dang near a daily basis at Ekalaka’s Wagon Wheel Café for 45 years, are fairly simple to explain and, occasionally, a tad bit harder for a novice to grasp.
The first rule is, get your coffee. That means get your own, from the pot on the hot plate, and take the pot around to refill every cup in the restaurant while you’re at it.
Trish Bishop is too busy taking other customers’ food orders, and cooking them, to be running around topping off coffee cups when you’ve got two arms and legs and can do it yourself.
Now, start the game, which anywhere from five to 20 people usually show up to play once a day. Somebody picks a number between 1 and 1,000, writes it on a paper napkin and folds the napkin so no one else can see it. If you’re picking the number you better remember it, too, or you’ll be on the hook to buy coffee for everyone.
Then, everybody else in the game takes turns guessing the number.
Here’s the key to the coffee game: The object is to avoid guessing correctly. Whoever does has to buy coffee for everyone in the game.
With each guess, the number-picker indicates whether it is above or below the one written and hidden in the napkin. The picker also writes down each guess on the outside of the napkin, placing guesses at the top (for high ones) or bottom (for low ones).
Each guess narrows the field – if you say 133, for instance, and 133 is below the correct number, no one who follows can guess a number lower than 133.
“We had one gal who wanted to play and always started at 500,” says Ekalaka resident David Rice, who keeps meticulous track of who plays every day, who picks the number, what number they pick and how many guesses it takes before one person has to shell out for everyone’s coffee.
By the third day of her participation, Rice says, Kenny Jesperson was writing “500” inside the napkin and the coffee game was over the moment the woman made her first guess.
The good news is, at the Wagon Wheel, a bottomless cup of coffee costs 50 cents. You can be the loser in a game where 19 people play, buy coffee for 19 people, and get change back from a $10 bill.
Otherwise, Wagon Wheel patrons are still a little incensed about price increases on food items that occurred this fall when Dennis and Trish Bishop took over the restaurant from Trish’s aunt, Lu Strangford.
Lu, who is 78, injured herself while halter-breaking a colt, and asked for the help. The Bishops stepped in, but raised some of the prices.
The cost of a hamburger, for instance, skyrocketed by 30 percent.
“Yes, we raised it from $1.40 to $1.80,” Trish says.
A western omelette went from $4 to $4.60, and a breakfast of ham, bacon or sausage and eggs with hash browns and toast will now run you all of $5.50 – a full buck more than it did just last summer.
Some people joke, says local resident Tommy Carroll, that the signs outside town should be changed.
“Entering Ekalaka,” they propose the signs should read. “Set your watch back 40 years.”
The griping over the price increases continues to this day, and mostly in jest.
“It’s a real culture shock when any of us go to a restaurant in Billings and look at the prices,” says another local, Jef Jourdan.
Jourdan says in Ekalaka, it doesn’t matter whether the national economy is booming or being dragged over a cliff by Wall Street banks.
“We don’t care,” he says, “because it never affects us. The economy here always stays the same.”
Just 35 miles north on Montana Highway 7, it’s hard to miss the signs that the effects of the Bakken oil boom have stretched as far south as Baker, where restaurants and bars are full of people on a Monday night in December.
It’s harder to find signs of it in Ekalaka.
“The price of real estate has doubled in the last eight years,” says Rex McCord, who was born in Ekalaka and retired here, but spent more than half a century in Oregon in between. “Of course, it was so low to begin with, doubling it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
McCord says he paid $10,500 for his home on Mormon Avenue 10 years ago, but figures with a good remodel he could get $70,000 to $80,000 now.
If there are other changes due to the oil boom happening much farther north, “it’s just barely, and just starting,” McCord says. “I hope it don’t change Ekalaka, whatever happens.”
This is a place where – when a microburst ripped homes off foundations, took down trees and overturned private planes at the Ekalaka Airport in August – Carter County ranchers whose places weren’t affected hauled food and water into town and went to work next to victims, clearing the debris.
“I’ll bet there were 300 people who showed up to help,” says Ekalaka resident Tommy Carroll.
But in Carter County, cautions Rex McCord’s brother, Duane, “that ain’t news. That’s normal.”
What isn’t normal is for a town this small (330 people) and isolated (more than 100 miles from Miles City, Glendive or Belle Fourche, South Dakota) to have a museum that’s open year-round.
Unlike many Montana museums whose exhibits may cover the thousands of years that Native Americans have been here, the Carter County Museum has ones that go back about 80 million years.
Last time we checked, that’s a bit longer than Montana has been a state.
“We’re the home of the bones,” says museum volunteer Marilyn Schultz.
Started in 1936 by founders DeLoss Hall, Walter Peck and Speton “Zip” Cady – it was the first county museum in Montana – dinosaur bones, and other artifacts, were first housed in the basement of Carter County High School for more than 40 years.
In a remote area where there’s more to see than you might expect, from the unusual Medicine Rocks State Park just north of town to the Chalk Buttes to the south, the museum is almost invariably the first recommendation locals make to strangers. The locals help keep it open year-round through a 1.5-mill tax levy.
Here you can look at a stuffed two-headed calf, two dwarfed front legs wrapped around each shoulder like the heads were best buddies, that was born on a nearby ranch. Or read about J.L. Nies of Ekalaka, Montana’s first female highway patrol trooper. Or take a stab at deciphering the brands of virtually every ranch that ever was in Carter County.
But the star of the show – if you allow for the fact that kids are especially fascinated by the two-headed calf – is a mounted Anatotitan copei.
The Anatotitan copei was a duck-billed dinosaur that roamed this part of Montana 75 million years ago, and the nearly complete skeleton is one of the few of its kind on the planet.
It’s on permanent display in the “Dino Room,” where you can also find the complete skull of a triceratops, a skeletal display of a mosasaurus – an aquatic lizard that resembled a flippered crocodile – hanging from the ceiling and a replica of the head of one of the greatest finds in Carter County.
It started with a toe, then a leg bone, unearthed in 2001 by fossil hunters from the Burpee Museum of Natural History of Rockford, Illinois.
Over the next three years, they found the rest of what they determined was a 66 million-year-old juvenile female tyrannosaurus Rex that had died when she was just 11 years old. They named her Jane. She’s on display at the Burpee Museum.
“And underneath her, they found a bone from an azhdarchid, a flying reptile with wingspans up to 40 feet that was the largest flying animal in the history of Earth,” Schultz says. The museum has a mock-up of the skeleton of an azhdarchid.
While Jane, and other, dinosaurs have left Carter County, the museum has been collecting bones since the 1930s, and has way more in storage than it does on display. Community volunteers and students from Montana State University help curator Nathan Carroll rotate exhibits.
The museum moved into a one-time automotive garage on Main Street it remodeled and added onto, in 1980, and seems pretty spacious.
But amid dinosaur skeletons, horse saddles and bank safes on display you’ll also find artist renditions for another massive remodel – it’s as much a wish as a proposal at this point – that would triple the museum’s exhibition space.
“And we could fill it all right now,” says Jef Jourdan, the museum director. “Our warehouse is packed.”
If your vehicle breaks down on one of Carter County’s lonely roads, Brenda Fazekas is willing to bet that the only reason the first person to come across you wouldn’t stop to help is if the person is from somewhere else.
“Last year, we bought 25 heifers and were hauling them home when our truck blew up,” she says. “The first guy by not only stopped, he hooked his pickup up to our trailer and delivered ’em.”
Fazekas tells the story at the Church of Hank Williams (see related story, Page A1), where she and J.C. Christenson have stopped for a couple of beers.
Christenson is something of a rarity in Ekalaka – he didn’t grow up here, and didn’t move back from someplace else.
“I’d been coming out for 17 years to go hunting,” says Christenson, who was living in Minnesota. “When I got divorced four years ago and decided to start over somewhere else, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t like women any more – Ekalaka sounds good.’ Then after I got here I met Brenda – her husband had passed – and I decided I liked women again, so it worked out really well.”
Somewhat surprisingly, too, since Christenson brought two daughters, then ages 16 and 12, with him.
“I explained it before we came – you can’t hop in the car and run to Walmart where I’m going,” he says. “You’re talking about driving to Miles City or Rapid City. They’re used to having everything right there. When we first moved here you couldn’t even text. They really had to go back to basics.”
The girls have been here all four years.
“They love it,” their father says. “This is a place where, if you’re going to Costco in Rapid City, you bring back a pickup load for everybody who needs stuff. If you go up to the Rexall (drugstore) in Baker to pick up a prescription, you pick up prescriptions for everybody in town.”
And it’s a place where, if you ask someone like Tommy Carroll, great-grandson of the Oglala Sioux woman Ekalaka is named for, if he’s lived here all his life, he’ll tell you, “Not yet. But I’m working on it.”