People & Place

In this seeming Age of Anger, good neighbors are still alive and well across the state of Montana.

One such good will story took place this past February at the Phil and Brenda Gilbert Ranch, a few miles east of Clyde Park, in the rain shadow of the Crazy Mountains—or, in this case, in the snow shadow of one of the worse winters in recent history.

Phil Gilbert is a fourth generation rancher. Brenda, besides being a co-rancher, mom, and foster mom, is also the State District Court Judge in Park County. The ranch is classic old Montana. Beautiful horses are standing quietly in the corral, cows are out on the horizon, hay meadows are lush. The oldest barn on the place, built over a hundred years ago by Phil’s great-grandfather, has the traditional upper level hay mow filled with stiff harness, antiquated saddles, remnants of a tough old wagon that once was pulled by sturdy draft teams to deliver winter hay, and odds and ends that could keep kids entranced for months. The house and barns are nestled beneath grand old trees near Rock Creek and in a dip in the landscape, seemingly protected from the worst of the weather.

But not the weather of 2019. This winter was Montana’s version of the perfect storm involving all the elements at the same time—snow, wind, and cold. The wind by itself was crazy, arriving day after day from unexpected directions in horizontal gales strong enough to push over a human being. It was sufficiently unremitting to pack the snow hard and deep almost everywhere, including on top of roofs that were designed steep enough to normally slough it off.

And, of course, the weather peaked at its worst just as calving season was starting. Phil was finishing evening chores, and checking the cows for any calf mishaps. As he passed the machine and calving shed he heard the alarming sound of the splitting of the main beam. This is particularly unwelcome at -10 degrees. As he said, “Wisely or unwisely, I immediately went in the shed and removed the Bobcat and pickup.” He left the maternity pen where it was set up in the corner, since the one remarkable piece of good luck was that there were no cows and calves in it this particularly evening.

After returning to the house, Phil and Brenda began pouring over Internet ideas as to how one removes deep snow and ice that has frozen and packed on to steep roofs. They considered several workable approaches, and were ready to go into action the next morning. But when Phil made a midnight tour, he could see daylight—or in this case, star light—at the top of the shed where it should not have been. By morning the collapse was complete, leaving “the damndest mess you could imagine.” The broken roof was poking up at all angles and under four feet of snow—all this when the bone chilling temperature did not get above 12 degrees and the lashing wind refused to let up.

But Montana neighbors, always on the lookout for each other, were ready for the challenge. How is it that Montana neighbors just seem to know—instinctively sense the unwritten, unspoken local bulletin? It must have something to do with all breathing the same air and feeling the same vibrations of the earth, since it clearly has nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter. They just know.

So Brenda receives a phone call that everyone—a dozen strong—are going to show up the next day with kids, tools, and shovels; and dinner for all would be set up next door (“next door” as the crow flies). 

The goal of the project was to rescue the free standing maternity pen, since in this worst of winters, it was just a matter of time when it would be in demand. But this job required everyone to shovel snow off the collapsed roof parts, chip the ice off each metal sheet, and remove all the screws. This work went on from dawn to early dusk, but as the temperature dropped with the setting sun, success was actually measurable with a full bucket of screws and a corridor big enough to move the pen. The final effort was disassembling the pen, moving the heavy panels out the corridor and onto the Bobcat, and re-assembling the pen in the old barn.

The final rebuilding of the shed waited for spring, again bringing in neighbors for what almost looked like an old fashioned barn raising. One neighbor, a rancher and excellent carpenter, told his son they were going to Gilbert’s to put up trusses, which prompted his son to say, “Trusses are not my thing”; which prompted him to reply, “Trusses are going to be your thing tomorrow.”

Ranch-style rebuilding is not for sissies, and sometimes not for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). But the job has to get done, and has to get done timely for the coming season. In this case, volunteer workers are walking down beams and scrambling up walls, leaning out to catch the trusses dangling in front of them at the end of a loader. Sometimes the conversation is interrupted by strains of Rush Limbaugh blaring out of an old radio, and sometimes Rush gets shouted down. Ranch kids are front and center in the work, earning the recognition of a “hand,” of which there is no higher praise for competence.

Today the shed is ready for its next winter. Insurance was not part of the rebuild. Insurance seems to be based on minutely defined causal differences between snow, ice and wind, and negotiations are generally endless and fruitless. Good neighbors are the best insurance policy in the world.

What will be the memory of the winter of 2019? The rancher perspective is generally, “It is just one damn thing after another, and you go with the flow.” But there is another memory, and that is the story of “good,” good neighbors—of hearing a voice on the phone that is not saying, “So sorry. Be sure to tell us if there is something we can do.” No. The voice says, “We’ll be there tomorrow with our kids and crews, and dinner for everyone will be at my house afterward.”