An Old Broke Montana Rancher on the Way We Were, and the Way We Could Be

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
Grain elevators in Montana

I have seen a lot of changes in Montana over the years.  As a crotchety old man and a life-long pessimist, I have to say that while some have been good, some seem to me to have been very bad.  

It won't surprise you to hear that Montana has small towns.  And I don't mean small as in they only have two gastropubs that serve soy lattes.  I mean the one-elevator types, with a Ma and Pa combination grocery/general store, one solitary bar to go to after you attend the one church, and no post office at all kind of towns.  We used to have a lot of them, and I suppose we still do.  But those towns, which used to provide so much of Montana's odd charm, are drying up fast.  Many of the small towns that existed when I was a little critter have shrunk to what I would now reluctantly call living ghost towns.  Many are so small that there might be only one person living in what is left of the whole town.
I'll be first to admit that this process started long before I appeared on the scene.  It probably started almost as soon as homesteading began, and continued as Montana was settled.  It was, is, and I suspect always will be tough to make a living on the Montana prairies.

But I wonder if, with each succeeding generation, it has gone from hard to harder yet.  Look at the farm gate sales price for wheat over the years, and you will see what I mean.  Now compare year after year to what other things cost.  Wheat in 1897, adjusted for inflation, would be worth well over $30 a bushel today.
The overhead for land, machinery, building supplies, transportation, you name it, they've all gone up.  The costs have advanced with, or way ahead of inflation. Yet the price of wheat remains stubbornly low; farming is indeed a "tough row to hoe."  It's no wonder towns in farm country have shrunk.
Unless they're constructed of sod, buildings last longer than do the people who build them.  So most of the towns are still there in the sense that if you drive to the indicated spot on the map you will find a ramshackle assortment of buildings.  But they are virtually abandoned now.  Many of the medium-sized villages have remained relatively stable, with a new building or two added and one or two torn down every year.Conversely, some of the bigger towns or cities have grown.  Some of them have in actuality seen exponential growth.  
The population of Montana in 1960 was about 680 thousand people.  Now they estimate nearly 1.08 Million.  I imagine many an old-school Montanan lamenting the moment that invisible ticker passed a million.


Billings has changed the most, at least in my view.  I grew up in Lewistown, and I remember going to Billings with my family as a small boy.  We went to check out the fair, or sometimes just for Mom to shop - even then, Billings was a big city to us.

But I vividly remember that the fairgrounds (now called the Metro area) was out of town, and getting to it meant crossing at least a mile of mostly empty space from the fairgrounds down Montana Avenue to about 27th street.  Now it can almost take as much time, in rush hour, to traverse the Billings Heights as it used to take to drive from Lewistown to Billings.  Billings has grown in all directions.  Poly Drive was a sort of bypass back then with not much north of the Rocky Campus.  There was no development to speak of west of Zimmerman trail.  All of those neighborhoods are new in the last 50 years.  The roads to Huntley and Hardin did not look at all like they do today. Laurel was its own discrete city then, and now there is development all the way between and almost out to Columbus. And what I have heard described by many as mansions have been plopped on their stately 20-40 Acre plots nearly all the way to Red Lodge.
Great Falls has also seen its share of growth in the same 50 years.  It is now big enough to have two Walmarts.  Not much more than that needs to be said.  
MissoulaMissoula has seen the same type of growth as Billings and Great Falls.  The difference I see, though, is that Missoula, with its perceived better views, has seen even more of the development go towards bedroom communities that surround the city, servicing a populace of commuters.  With run-away growth, dare I say sprawl, there are now 5 to 10 acre lots on every hillside.  I hope I don't offend anyone, because no offense is intended, but it looks like the septic tanks might be a little close to the wells,  if you know what I mean.  At least, I assume that there is not a chance for city water or sewer on those steep hillsides, so I assume they must have wells.  At any rate, as I drive south or look west out of Missoula, I can't help but notice there are whole sides of town that didn't exist just a generation ago.
Any person old enough (and if you're one of us I give you a hale and hearty hello, as our population is thinning these days) to remember Bozeman, or Kalispell, from 50 years back probably agrees with me that much has changed, and not much has remained the same. Runaway sprawl and serious congestion rule the day in both of those cities, though it would take a harder heart than mine to suggest they're not still pretty.
Sadly, I feel that those bigger towns, for all their new prosperity, lag far behind on the development of their infrastructure.  Good thing that the scenery is so beautiful, or else there'd be nothing to look at while you're stuck in a traffic jam.
Please do not get me wrong; Bozeman and Kalispell are still stunningly beautiful and desirable places in which to live.  Montana, even with the doubling of population in 50 years, still has plenty of wide-open space in which to grow.  I just wish that there was more local commerce.  We linger far behind most of the rest of the nation in jobs for our children.

 Bales of hay at sunset in Montana

As a state, we are a leader in wheat production, but good luck finding a flour mill.  As a state, we are a leader in cattle production, yet good luck finding a butcher shop in places like Ingomar, Glendive, Glasgow, or Malta.  That one is really a sore spot with me; as a rancher, it sticks in my craw that it can take up to six months of planning to get one of my own steers put in my freezer.  There are very few Ma and Pa butcher shops left, nor a place to process a chicken or hog.  When was the last time you saw a ham, or pork chop, labeled as from Montana?  So the fruits of our labor are transported out to be processed, have the "value" added, and are then trucked back to a Costo or Walmart by the pound.  I imagine that Nelson Story or Granville Stuart would find that the height of absurdity.
I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said "Montana Is Full - I Hear North Dakota Is Nice," and another that said, "Montana Sucks Now Go Home and Tell Your Friends." That attitude, while it makes me chuckle, might just be part of our problem.  

We hope that we can remain the way we were.  That is unrealistic - even absurd - when you consider for a moment that one of our primary sources of revenue is tourists.  So we want them to visit, and then go tell their friends not to visit. It's ok for us to live here, but not allow others the same privilege?  In my mind, one of the things all of the population centers in our great USA have in common is they are (or were) nice places in which to hang your hat.  It is not a coincidence that people were attracted to California by the wagon trainload.  Do not expect people to stay out of Montana when it just isn't going to happen.
We have lots of good things to go around.  One especially good thing is room to grow, and we stand now at the still shockingly (and comfortingly) low population density of seven people per square mile in 2020.  So if the campground is full up, well, then let's build another one a ways down the road. 

Let's promote our state and produce some value-added right here.  I am tired of our children having to move to the big city to find a job. Let's produce it, build it, process it right here!
working cowboyI have four boys and they'll all need jobs.  I'd prefer they get good ones, too.  I would like it if my boys could find a good job, a job where they can raise a family so they could stay right here and sprout from their roots in Montana. Odds are most of you folks have kin that you would like to see live near you, too.  
So as a bitter old codger, I long for the way we were.  But as a thinking person I say some development is a good thing.  I enjoy the surrounding scenery, but not the traffic jams. Don't you think with just a little planning, Montana could route traffic every bit as efficiently as more populated states? Couldn't we butcher our own meat?  Bottle our own milk? Add our own value to every move we make, add value to everything we do, and then enjoy the fruits of that value ourselves?
I don't have a crystal ball, so I'll look into the ice of my whiskey glass to perform some divination.   In 50 more years, Billings could be the size of Denver.  Missoula might be the new Spokane.  In 1970 there were 205 million people in the US, and now they estimate 330 million.  In fifty years, will it be 400 million?  Montana is going to grow in population, one way or the other.  In 50 more years, my "crystal ball" suggests that there will be 2.5 million inhabitants in Montana. Shows like "Yellowstone," of which I am a very great fan, show a new generation the wonders and charms of the Last Best Place.

I do not think a bumper sticker is going to keep them out.  

Nor will I concede that a million more people will really change the way things are all that much.  With a little planning, the way we were could be the way we will be.  Hopefully, in the not-so-distant future, the rancher will be able to process his beef a few miles from his ranch rather than a few states away.  Perhaps we will have built some infrastructure that makes sense.
Even if there is a big city, or two, in my (tell you what, I'll use 'our' in the spirit of neighborly love) Montana in 50 years, it will still remain the Treasure State.  And I think there's plenty of treasure to go around.  But let's see that some of that treasure reaches the small and forgotten towns.  Let's see to it that Ma and Pa get their share of the treasure too.

Let's make it so!  After all, it's up to us.  As I said, I still laugh at the bumper stickers.  But I can see the value that a little clean and competitive commerce could bring to our lives.  I would bid a hearty Montana handshake to anyone who comes here because they recognize something special here, something vanishing and beautiful.  Let's work together to keep it that way.  Let's see that our sons and daughters have futures as bright as the past.

Mailbox on Montana road

Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy.  Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV.  Hell, scratch that.  Enough to buy the whole RV.  He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations.  Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.

Leave a Comment Here

Cathy Hershkowitz (not verified) , Wed, 12/30/2020 - 09:28
Excellent thoughtful writing ❤️
Karla Wagner (not verified) , Wed, 12/30/2020 - 15:03
Some things that have crossed my mind many times in recent years. Thank you for you eloquence!
Sandra (not verified) , Mon, 01/18/2021 - 14:56
I love Montana. I make four generations in my family here. My children are 5 and my grandchildren make 6. It`s a hard place to survive. Especially since everyone else has moved here, drove up prices. I can`t even afford to live in my home town. My ex- half brother stole my dad`s land from me. I miss ranching and the life. I miss the critters and the pride you get from watching your hard work grow.
Dave (not verified) , Fri, 02/12/2021 - 11:01
We may have a population of 2.5 million in 50 years, but considering that places like California will be topping 50 million by then. Montana will still be the last best place!
Dan Adams (not verified) , Mon, 11/22/2021 - 10:02
Unfortunately alot of the increase in population will be from Californians
Ted Frazier (not verified) , Thu, 09/09/2021 - 17:26
In 2019 I purchased land next to a ranch near the Wyoming border. For the last 3 summers I have had to deal with a xenophobic good ole boy, who in spite of my assurances that the land was not being developed any time soon, would constantly harass me and make it difficult to enjoy camping, fishing, hunting and the boating I enjoyed on the Clarks Fork. The reason I bought that property was my personal recreation... He just wanted it empty so his cows could graze it but didn't want to buy it pay taxes on it.

So this year I sold it for a nice profit to remove his thorny attitude from my rear end. It's not what I wanted, but since he couldn't be respectful I had no more desire to deal with his shenanigans. Beyond this one person, everyone I have met in Montana has been incredibly friendly and welcoming. My bad luck I guess.

I love this state. I have been coming here for summers for a decade. The fact is that those who own land generationally through the homestead act are just hypocrites for trying to keep others out. Manifest destiny may have brought their family to their land, but at the cost of those who lived there before being shipped off to reservations.

Montana is a puzzle. It's the most beautiful state in the union. It is the least densely populated state.. but some who live there do not want to leave the 19th century. It's a shame that a privileged few who have had it to themselves for so long think they can keep people out who are there legally and within their rights.
Karen I Ford (not verified) , Sun, 09/12/2021 - 20:32
Wonderful article. When we moved to Billings in the early '60's, I was the one kicking and screaming. Our Dad had died and Mother moved us from NY State -- a house full of furniture and six kids -- site unseen!!! Why Billings? I was a senior in high school and wanted to go to college. Also her brother was the hospital administrator of the hospital in Hardin. So move we did!
Sixty years later, living in WA State, I am homesick for Montana. All of the things I did not want turned oit to be the best part of Montana. I know that I will be buried in Montana but I would rather be where I really can breath fresh air and see the sky.
Cathy Angle (not verified) , Wed, 09/15/2021 - 06:46
I enjoyed your article. We share and have a lot in common Mr. Old Broke Rancher. Both of us born in 1951. My mother was born and raised in Miles City. But alas, she met my father and moved to Iowa, where I was born, raised and still reside. We experience the same urban sprawl, the gobbling up of rich farm ground, the decline of small communities, the loss of our young to other states, bigger experiences. My own son surprised us 6 years ago when he announced he was uprooting his family and moving to Montana. Which they did. Not for a job or great opportunity. They just liked it there, because it "was pretty". They settled NW of Missoula, near the small town of Plains. It sure is pretty there, but I, like you, plan to remain where I've been rooted. Yes, I still have family near Miles City, and my grandparents, aunts and uncles are buried in local cemetaries. I pray for future generations, and, like you, I plan to stay where I belong.
Karen Richele Burke (not verified) , Thu, 11/18/2021 - 10:25
Great article informative and thought provoking!!
I intend to be one of those turist's in the near future. ?
Drew Nelson (not verified) , Mon, 11/22/2021 - 17:23
My Dad was also born in 1951 in Helena. His adopted grandparents homesteaded near Great Falls in 1912. My Mom's grandparents homesteaded near Neihart around the same time. Unfortunately we don't have that place still in the family like on my Dad's side.

I agree with most of the sentiment of this article. Change is the only constant. It's better to plan for change than react to it. Unfortunately there is a great deal of reluctance to deal with some of the unmentioned challenges facing us here in Montana. Climate change is at least as great a threat to the rural lifestyle as anything. It doesn't matter what a bushel of wheat sells for if there was no rain, and therefore no wheat to sell. The public lands we enjoy so much might be sold to millionaires and billionaires who probably aren't from Montana, just because they buy and sell politicians like baseball cards. No mention was made of Big Sky or the Yellowstone club and their waste polluting the Gallatin River and subsequently everything down stream. What shame for the Crown of the Continent to be a source of pollution for everywhere downstream. Tourists won't have as much interest in Montana if our blue ribbon trout streams are ridden with poisonous algae blooms, there is no snow for winter sports on the ski hills, no glaciers in Glacier National Park. And what fun will be had in the summer when the sky is grey and the sun red from 6 or more months of wildfires?

One particular political party denies climate change, suplicates to the desires of the %1, seeks to privatize public resources, and foments a whole host of sexist, racist and outright fascist beliefs. They're sewing the seeds of destruction for Montana, and the rest of the world. But in Montana they're in charge. Is it a coincidence the governor, representative and a senator from this party aren't actually from Montana? Doubt it.
Nate (not verified) , Mon, 11/22/2021 - 22:17
Your thoughts have brought back many good memories of home and frankly I wish I could afford to move back to the quieter simpler life of my childhood.
Don't worry when lake burnley also known as b pit flows over and kills all the way to Seattle there will be plenty of places for out of staters I lived in butte all my life and will die here by choice and I love bumper stickers like green montana thankyou
Paula L Sorrels (not verified) , Tue, 11/23/2021 - 04:32
Enjoyed your article, recently moved to Glendive , MT from CA, such a beautiful state.
Brian Schow (not verified) , Tue, 11/23/2021 - 13:16
Californians welcome, but don’t try to turn Montana into the place you couldn’t wait to leave.
Jake Kreilick (not verified) , Wed, 11/24/2021 - 10:57
Thanks for your insights and words of balanced wisdom. Montana's iconic landscapes will live and fight on but don't have much hope for our "Americanized" culture and its penchant for putting up parking lots. As Abbey says about capitalism, "It's the ideology of the cancer cell!" No jobs on a dead planet so remember that when you contemplate what awaits future generations...better be looking as far forward as you are looking back.
Shelly Myers (not verified) , Fri, 12/03/2021 - 13:37
Great acticle! So agree that Montana will grow..we need to embrace it and yes .keep our jobs here. My mother was born in Lewiston. Her parents were Rooney and Funston from Hobson. Love learning about life on my great grandparents ranch. Frank and Mary Jane Rooney.
Roger Poirier (not verified) , Fri, 07/28/2023 - 07:41
Recently visited Montana photographing historic grain elevators but can’t imagine how many there were many years ago. Not only did I love Montana and its wide open spaces but the small towns as well.
You have a beautiful state.
Best from Ontario, Canada
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