“The glamour of the frontier days is gone.”
These words, etched on a roadside historical marker near Jordan, were written in the 1930s by Bob Fletcher, who penned Montana’s original roadside markers.
The “glamour” as he calls it, is described on that same sign. “This portion of Montana was unsettled country where roving parties of Sioux, Crow and Assiniboine Indians hunted buffalo and clashed in tribal warfare.”
“The buffalo were slaughtered to clear the range for beef critters and the cattle kings held sway for many years,” continues the sign. By 1904, 100,000 sheep grazed in the valley of the Redwater River near Circle. Brockway, a dot on the map between Jordan and Circle, “became a major livestock shipping point reaching number one in the U.S. in 1934,” Fletcher writes.
“In 1910,” the sign reads, “the first wave of homesteaders surged in and the open range dwindled before their fences and plowed fields.”
“During the height of the homestead boom in the 1910s,” Fletcher puts on another sign in the region, “Scobey was the largest primary shipping point of grain in the world.”
These “windswept plains of northeast Montana” proved tough territory and many of the homesteaders “failed to realize their ambitions,” and left, Fletcher says.
Driving through the region today, one is met by a desolate and barren landscape. Many of the once bustling towns dotting the horizon are dwindling. The oil boom, keeping towns like Lambert, Sidney and Culbertson alive, will one day pass, just as it has before.
But these harsh lands tend to breed people of character and resilience.
Dave Eness drives nearly 100 miles from Lewistown to teach his daughter, who rides with him, and three other girls who make the entire student body of the Ross School where I meet him and his students at recess. “It fits my lifestyle,” he says.
And, if it rains, the road becomes impassible gumbo, and he and Evie will spend as many nights as they have to until the road dries. And, if the girls find a rattlesnake in the hills or coulees that serve as the school’s playground, “they know what to do,” he says. It’s something they go over in class.
Later, down the road in Brockway, Eddie Broast steps out of his harvester as the sun sets and darkness takes over in the town where he has always lived. He’s busy with the last of a small soybean crop but talks instead about the wheat.
Broast describes a perfect planting season in the spring followed by perfect growing conditions in the summer. “Forty some years of farming,” he says. “I thought that this was going to be the year.”
Then rain and hail at harvest ruined the crop.
“But it fooled us,” he continues. And, in the way of those who stay and still seek to scratch out a living here, he says, “Maybe next year.”