In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railway bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew
And of whiskey too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
– Lyrics from “The Big Rock Candy Mountains” by Harry McClintock
EKALAKA – Here at the Church of Hank Williams no one finds it blasphemous that the self-declared theme song is not one of Williams’ country hits like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” but a folk song written by Harry McClintock way back in 1928.
Neither do they find any irony in the song – “The Big Rock Candy Mountains” – celebrating a hobo’s idea of paradise, when all the church’s worshipers appear to be either hardworking people, or retired and semi-retired people with a lifetime of hard work already under their belts.
Some, like J.C. Christenson and Brenda Fazekas, are cattle ranchers who also hold down day jobs – he’s a carpenter; she works at Dahl Memorial Healthcare, a medical clinic that everyone here refers to as “the hospital” (the motto on the sign out front promises “professional health care” delivered with “Western hospitality”).
The “church” is located in an old mechanics’ garage on Mormon Avenue in Ekalaka, population 330 or so, and services appear to happen pretty much daily; the time, around happy hour.
At the Church of Hank Williams you BYOB, although it’s more of a bring-your-own-can kind of place, judging by the number of aluminum Busch Light containers crumpled up on the cement floor.
Duane McCord owns it. He used to repair big tractors in the garage; now he and brothers Mickey and Rex rebuild old Fords and Chevys for fun during the day, and visit with their Carter County neighbors at night.
The weeds outside the Church of Hank Williams don’t do a very good job of hiding all the old cars, and car parts, that have piled up over the years.
“To a lot it looks like a junk pile,” Rex says, “but to my brothers and me it’s a gold mine. It’s all got a purpose. The second we scrap something out we’re sorry.”
Along about 4:30 or 5 in the afternoon the garage begins to transform into a “church,” which you’ve probably guessed by now is a euphemism for “bar.”
It’s not really a bar, of course, because no alcohol is sold – you bring your own. But it effectively functions as one because Ekalaka’s only real bar, the Old Stand, seems to be closed up to five days a week, and for no apparent reason, locals say.
They sweep the one-time tractor shop out and have live music several times a year, including New Year’s Eve, and the garage has been host to weddings, funeral receptions, Halloween parties and family reunions.
“We have a lot of revivals,” one “parishioner” admits. “We celebrate a lot of birthdays, even for people who have been dead several years.”
“People just come to drink beer and talk about whatever’s on their minds,” Rex McCord says. “The place is never locked. Once in a while kids will come in to see if there’s any beer laying around to steal, but we leave it open ’cause if a rancher’s broke down and needs a tool, he knows where he can borrow one.”
Welcome to Ekalaka, a place virtually all longtime Montanans have heard of, and a place most of them have never been.
It’s a long ways from anyplace. That’s one reason the people who do live here like it.
Perhaps most of us have heard of Ekalaka because of its distinctive name, which manages to coax four syllables out of just seven letters. It comes off the tongue like a train clickety-clacking its way down railroad tracks.
Had the future postmaster not spelled it phonically when the town applied for a post office in 1885, we might also know it for an even more distinctive spelling. It was originally Ijkalaka, pronounced the same but named for an Oglala Sioux Indian who married the area’s first white settler, David Russell.
Russell paid Ijkalaka’s father, Eagle Man, eight horses and a 100-pound bag of sugar for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and named the town growing up around the One Stand Saloon after her.
You can still find some of Ijkalaka’s descendants in Ekalaka. On a Tuesday earlier this month at the Church of Hank Williams, both Tommy Carroll and Les Kreitel, great-grandsons of Ijkalaka, stopped by.
“Our grandmother was Ijkalaka and David Russell’s youngest child,” Kreitel says. “The story is their oldest boy broke out of the Indian boarding school in South Dakota where he was during a smallpox outbreak. He came home and told his father he was afraid he was going to die.”
“You’re damn right you are,” family legend says Russell told his son, “because I’m going to kill you.”
Russell didn’t, of course, but his worst fears were realized. The boy who escaped the quarantine at the boarding school became ill and infected his mother and two of his brothers. While the first sick child survived, the others all died from the disease in the spring of 1901, when Ijkalaka was just 45.
Ekalaka is tucked into the southeast corner of the state. It’s about 24 miles, as the crow flies, to the South Dakota border, maybe a mile or two more to the North Dakota border, 60-some to Wyoming and more than 100 miles on pavement to the nearest Montana cities of much size, Miles City and Glendive.
Watch a local newscast on television here, and odds are you’ll be catching up on what’s going on in North or South Dakota via stations from Dickinson or Rapid City.
One Billings TV station does come in on cable, “but when the weatherman steps over to point at temperatures on his weather map, his butt blocks out all of Carter County,” says Jef Jourdan, director of the Carter County Museum. “We’re kind of in a forgotten part of Montana.”
That’s a shame, because Ekalaka is sort of unforgettable.
You may well run into a cowboy on Main Street, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you bump into a paleontologist, either. Dinosaurs once roamed this land, and the area is thick with their remains. One meat-eater they named Jane, discovered at nearby Hell Creek in 2001, “is the very best example of a juvenile T. Rex skeleton on the planet,” according to Museum of the Rockies curator Jack Horner.
Jane’s 66 million-year-old skeleton has been put back together and is displayed at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois, which mounted the expedition outside Ekalaka. The museum advertises her as the “lean, mean killing machine” that she was.
Fast-forward many millions of years and you’ll discover this tiny town is also home to one of the great bloodlines of bucking horses in the world.
His name was Feek Tooke, and his idea – to breed horses specifically for bucking – was unheard of in the 1930s, when rodeos depended on spoiled saddle horses, or catching wild horses for their cowboys to ride.
“It was several years before people woke up to the fact that you could raise a bucking horse,” says Feek’s son Ernie, who has a host of descriptions for the horses his father bred and raised. “Dad’s bucking horses put Ekalaka on the map. They called it the bucking horse capital of the world.”
Indian Sign “bucked so hard he killed himself,” Ernie says. Another was “as tall as Shaquille O’Neal, with the disposition of Mike Tyson. If you could get him out of the chute, it was scary to see one that big.”
It started, Ernie Tooke says, with Feek buying a 1-ton registered Shire stallion out of Iowa, King Larrygo. His idea was to cross it with hot-blooded Arabians. Tooke got all of one colt out of the idea – Prince – before a “cranky” mare kicked King Larrygo where it hurts and left him unable to sire any more foals.
“We’ve gotten more than 6,000 bucking horses from that bloodline,” Ernie Tooke says. “Prince is really the patriarch of the bucking horse breed. It’s amazing how that bloodline has stood up.”
Ten miles north of Ekalaka you’ll find one of Montana’s most unique state parks, Medicine Rocks – and the names or initials of almost everybody who has ever lived in the town carved into the large Swiss cheese-like sandstone formations jutting out of the prairie.
Two of the initials are said to belong to Theodore Roosevelt, who called Medicine Rocks “as fantastically beautiful a place as I have ever seen.”
We’ll let Roosevelt, who would become president of the United States about a dozen years later, describe the site where he camped in the late 1880s:
“Over an irregular tract of gently rolling sandy hills ... were scattered several hundred detached and isolated buttes or cliffs of sandstone ... cut and channeled by the weather into the most extraordinary forms; caves, columns, battlements, spires, and flying buttresses were mingled in the strangest confusion.”
It was, Roosevelt wrote, “as singular a bit of country as I have ever seen.”
The state implores people to not carve on the rocks, but people in town are pretty sure virtually every Ekalaka resident, ever, has.
“It’s history,” says Rex McCord, who says he can find where his parents, and – back in 1913 – his grandparents, etched their names into one of the countless stone columns and outcroppings spread over 320 acres. If it wasn’t a crime for Lewis and Clark and Teddy Roosevelt to leave their marks on places, he reasons, it shouldn’t be for anyone else either.
Whatever stereotypes you apply to the landscape that is far eastern Montana, you should leave them behind as you travel south from Baker, or north from Alzada, on the only highway that will put you in Ekalaka.
There are hills, and buttes, and cliffs, many covered in beautiful ponderosa pines. Three units of the Custer National Forest are within a short drive of town, including one that is home to the Capitol Rock National Natural Monument, a sandstone formation that resembles our nation’s Capitol.
Here in the county seat of Carter County – where the courthouse is made of wood – other small-town stereotypes can apply.
“I don’t think anyone here knows the number for 9-1-1,” J.C. Christenson says.
“That’s right,” agrees Lynn McCord, Rex’s wife. “If I need the sheriff, I don’t call 9-1-1. We’ve all got his personal cellphone on speed dial.”
And anyone who has been stuck on Reserve Street in Missoula will get a kick out of locals who complain about the increase in traffic since the 70-plus miles of gravel road between Ekalaka and even-tinier Alzada was paved four years ago.
“There were a few sad to see it paved,” says Tommy Carroll, Ijkalaka’s great-grandson. “We used to be off the beaten path – the only paved road came from Baker and ended in Ekalaka. When they paved the road south that was the end of an era – we’re no longer the end of the road.”
But it’s still a place dinosaurs once roamed and paleontologists now do, a place where some of the meanest bucking horses in the world were bred, a place teenagers carve their initials in the same rock formations a future president once did, and a place adults gather to swap lies and argue politics in the Church of Hank Williams.
If you’ve been around Montana very long, you’ve probably heard of Ekalaka. Now you’ve heard a little more.