ISMAY – There may not be a faster-growing city in all of Montana than Ismay. Its population has almost doubled in the past eight years.
Yeah, it’s clear up to 26 people. But we know it’s 26, and eight years ago it was only 14, because both times, Rita Nemitz counted every last one of them on her fingers for us.
“There’s a family over here,” says Ismay’s first lady, pointing in some direction, “that moved in from South Dakota and has four kids. That’s a population explosion for us.”
Ismay is Montana’s smallest incorporated city. It has a post office and a church among its handful of homes and otherwise boarded-up or falling-down buildings and vacant lots, but not one bar or grocery store.
Its lone commercial business – the Ismay Grain Co. – actually gives this tiny prairie town a towering skyline of grain silos.
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“We’re the largest employer,” says Rita Nemitz, who works there with her husband Gene, “and the tallest one, too.”
It’s six miles of dirt road off U.S. Highway 12 to get to Ismay, located midway between Miles City and the North Dakota border, and little to differentiate it from any number of tiny farming communities, some of them dying, in eastern Montana.
Except for one thing. A large community center and fire hall on the north side of town – the north side of town being approximately one block from the south side – seems out of place for a community so small.
Wayne Rieger, then Ismay’s town clerk, was in the bathtub when his phone rang one morning in 1993. On the other end: a Kansas City radio station with an odd request.
Would Ismay – named, “Brangelina” style, for Isabella and Maybelle Peck, daughters of a railroad division superintendent – consider changing its name to Joe?
Four-time Super Bowl champion Joe Montana had been traded from the San Francisco 49ers to the Kansas City Chiefs in April 1993. The radio station was after a city in Montana to change its name to “Joe,” put a comma after it, and keep the “Montana” part of its name as part of a publicity stunt.
The station first contacted similarly tiny Bearcreek east of Red Lodge.
“They turned them down flat,” Ismay Mayor Gene Nemitz, Rita’s husband, says. “They called me next, but I was busy and didn’t have time to figure out what it was they wanted, so I referred them to the town clerk.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Ismay changed its name. It was originally called Burt.
And, sitting there in his bathtub, Rieger saw some possibilities in tiny Ismay becoming Joe, Montana.
“We needed to fix our fire truck,” Gene Nemitz says. “The city clerk had enough insight to figure out if we changed the name and printed up and sold 500 ‘Joe, Montana’ T-shirts, we could afford to make the repairs.”
The city left the decision up to its registered voters, and they elected to become Joe for the 1993 football season by a 21-0 vote.
“It would have been 22-0, but one of our voters was out of town,” Rieger said back then.
Once the national media picked up on the name change, Ismay/Joe sold a lot more than 500 T-shirts.
“Sports Illustrated mentioned it in July of 1993, and that made us credible,” the mayor says. “After that, we were getting calls from papers from Los Angeles to Germany. Once the ball got rolling, all we had to do was give it a push once in a while.”
Rita filing to run against her husband for mayor was one of those publicity-seeking pushes.
The original T-shirt featured an outline of the state of Montana and a football player passing a football toward goalposts. “Don’t pass up Joe, Montana,” it read.
“We got an 800-number, and all the gals in town took turns manning the phones. Four to five nights a week, we’d all get together and pack up shirts and mail them off,” Nemitz says.
They also sold everything from coffee mugs to golf balls with the “Joe, Montana” theme, and for a small fee – about $1.50 – would drop a “Joe, Montana 59336” helmet-shaped postmark on an envelope for you.
When they were done some eight years later, they not only had enough money for a new fire truck, but enough to build a community center and fire hall around it.
The town long ago returned to being Ismay, but the sign on the big building reminds everyone how it came to be built. It’s the Joe Montana Center. Inside, they also used colored floor tiles to spell out “Joe.”
A sign inside points out the mileage from “Joe” to the key places in the three-time Super Bowl MVP’s playing career – 1,259 miles to South Bend, Indiana, where he played his college ball at Notre Dame, 1,507 to San Francisco and 942 to Kansas City.
Meantime, the “Middle of Nowhere,” according to the sign, is just nine miles down the road.
If the name change was Ismay’s 15 minutes of fame, it got more out of those minutes than a new community center.
It also sponsored “Joe Day,” the first of which brought more than 2,000 visitors into the little town of 26 people despite a summer downpour that turned the city’s dirt streets to gumbo.
“Only time in my life I ever got to take my wife out to dinner in Ismay,” Mayor Nemitz says, “because some food vendors showed up.”
A TV crew made a documentary about the town, with a theme song sung to the tune of “My Sharona” (“It’s Juh-Juh-Juh-Juh Joe, Montana”).
And best of all, the Chiefs and the radio station flew the entire town to Kansas City for a Chiefs’ game.
Well, almost everybody. Dave Nemitz, Gene’s brother, opted to stay home so at least one person was around to keep an eye on the otherwise deserted city.
“They flew 21 of us to Kansas City for a week, wined and dined us, had a tailgate party before the game for us, and we got to meet Joe,” Gene Nemitz says.
“Their PR people said we’d have 20 minutes with Joe, and when he came in he looked as nervous as we were,” he goes on. “He gave us this little talk and then started talking with us. Forty-five minutes later when the PR people are trying to drag him out, he waved them off. He visited with us for almost two hours, and I don’t know if anyone ever talked football with him.”
Meantime, two of the Kansas City radio station’s listeners, Karen Fast and Janet Hedrick, won all-expense trips to Joe/Ismay. Since Joe/Ismay has no hotel to stay at or restaurant to eat in, the station rented them an RV for their visit.
These days, according to a notice taped in a window of the community center, the Ismay Town Council – made up of the mayor and two aldermen – has issues other than name changes to deal with.
Leaping off the page, among listings concerning a water leak and street light maintenance, are proposed ordinances involving “overnight street parking” and “marijuana.”
What in the world? Rest assured, there is no lack of parking spaces in Ismay.
And don’t think for a second city government is thinking about legalizing pot.
“We hear of places that have dispensaries for marijuana,” Mayor Nemitz says, “and we don’t know if we want that in our town. If somebody came in and started one, I don’t know if that’s a direction we’d want to go. The city attorney’s getting back to us” on whether that’s something that could be banned.
The other ordinance would bar overnight camping in town. That, the mayor says, stems from worries that oil patch workers might show up in Ismay and overrun the little place with their trailers and RVs.
“We’re only 30 miles from the oilfield,” Nemitz says. “And we hear war stories out of places like Williston.”
The question for Ismay is whether it could enforce such ordinances, given that it has no police force.
A century ago, 500 people lived in the Ismay city limits.
“There was a lot here,” Nemitz says. “Two banks, Ford and Chevy dealerships, a drugstore and two mercantiles that sold everything from underwear to plows.”
Wooden signs on vacant lots identify their locations: the Brackett Hotel, the Farmer and Stockgrowers’ State Bank, Wilson Chevrolet. One of the old businesses, Ryan Clothing, Millinery and Maternity, still stands, although it’s been abandoned for decades.
“It was a big cattle-shipping spot,” Nemitz says of the town he runs. “People called it ‘Little Chicago.’ I would have loved to walk down the streets here in 1920. I guess there were a lot of shootings and stabbings.”
The Ismay School was built in 1909, when the town was still called Burt, and was renamed Ismay Public School in 1917.
In 1937, a large gym and auditorium were added; their remains can be seen in a field.
“The columns still standing on the old school show where the gymnasium was,” Nemitz says. “Before they played in tournaments in Miles City, the basketball teams from Plevna and Baker would come to Ismay to practice so they knew what it was like to play in a big gym.”
Nemitz moved here from Minnesota with his parents in 1976. His father bought the Ismay Grain Co. when Nemitz was 13.
Except for a couple of years in Baker, 30 miles away, and one summer in Alaska, he’s lived here ever since.
“It’s a good, quiet community with nice people,” Nemitz says, but one so small that “if you’re in town, you’re on the fire department.”
That, he makes clear, means even if you’re visiting on a day a fire breaks out.
The city council meets once a month, except when it doesn’t, to talk over any issues in town. There is no city water or sewer or police department – “It’s just not feasible,” the mayor explains – and Ismay is a poster child for limited government.
“Technically, we can’t have ordinances for the city of Ismay, because there’s no one to enforce them,” Nemitz says. “We abide by county ordinances, and the sheriff enforces them.”
The town’s two councilmen used to be paid $24 a year and the mayor got all of $48 annually, but those wages have been bumped up by a whopping $100 apiece on account of “a councilman couldn’t even take his wife out to lunch once a year on what he got paid,” Nemitz explains.
Once the state decided to run Highway 12 six miles south of town in the 1930s, “things went backward fast,” Nemitz says.
The high school closed in 1956. The elementary school followed suit just seven years later.
“The school closing was the last straw for most businesses,” Nemitz says. “When they took the highway out, the town was already going downhill fast.”
Then, one day in 1993, Wayne Rieger’s phone rang. Soon, virtually every NFL fan in the country knew about the tiny eastern Montana community.
For a small town, they were pretty savvy. Rita filed to run against her husband for mayor during the height of the “Joe, Montana” publicity, generating even more ink as residents worked to peddle T-shirts and postmarks to raise money for their fire truck and community center.
“It made for good news,” Rita says. “I voted for myself because I was afraid if I didn’t, no one else would.”
“And I voted for myself because I was afraid no one else might,” Gene says.
Two decades have passed since Ismay dubbed itself Joe, but there’s no denying it: For a while back then, this tiny prairie town made a name for itself.