Fairfield sits at the base of the Rocky Mountain Front in northern Montana, an arid, scrubby landscape until European settlers arrived in the latter part of the 19th century and started spreading water around. Now, water from the Sun River is sent through a network of reservoirs and irrigation canals onto 83,000 acres, enabling the Fairfield Bench to become a large grain producer.
That has given Fairfield a pretty solid economy for a small town in Montana. Downtown storefronts are mostly full and include a grocery store and two car dealerships, though traffic still isn’t much of an issue.
And Fairfield requires an adaptable, can-do spirit. Carrie Otness runs the Berry Patch, a coffee shop, quilt shop, nail salon and liquor store in downtown Fairfield. “Out here,” she says, “you’ve got to diversify to make it.”
Farrier Tom Shields somehow got his old Dodge to the downtown Napa store, then dove under the hood to fix his carburetor. “Out here,” he says, “you pretty much do what you gotta do. Otherwise you’re headed to Great Falls.”
Not that Great Falls or any other Montana city is necessarily a bad place to raise your family, but Kristen and Chad Becker believe their five kids are getting a lot of opportunities in the Fairfield school system. They say the kids can participate in a wide range of activities due to small enrollment numbers. Activities they might be crowded out of at a larger school.
Still, agriculture is the source of Fairfield’s identity and its economic base. And it’s uncertain how that will continue. Shelly Strutz moves a wheel irrigator through a grain field for her father, Jeff Beck. Shelly and her husband may not take over the farm one day, but help out when they can. Jeff Beck thinks of the land as his retirement plan. “This is our 401K,” he says.
I’ve been doing a lot of driving north out of Three Forks recently, constantly passing this sign on my way up to Helena. So I was thrilled when Montana Quarterly assigned me to follow the sign. Nine miles west of Toston, turns out Radersburg was once a thriving, bustling mining town.
Alan Smith grew up in Radersburg, son of a single father. Smith now owns the cabin his father left him, it’s walls filled with collections his father amassed in the years before his death.
Jackie Smith, 52, runs the cattle ranch she grew up on along the Missouri River just outside Radersburg city limits. “I set my own hours, I get to work outside and I don’t have to deal with too many stupid people,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Dennis Miller sorts through the meat in one of five freezers on his property. Miller and his wife, Sarah, live in a house Dennis built, and say they raise or hunt nearly everything they eat. On their place, there are turkeys, chickens, goats, milk cows, a greenhouse, a vegetable garden, incubators, and hunting dogs.
The old Radersburg School is the center of community activity. Though recently refurbished, it still bears scars from a 1959 earthquake.
One Saturday every month, current and former Radersburg residents gather at the school for a pot luck lunch and to discuss ways to preserve Radersburg.
One of Radersburg’s youngest residents speeds past a log building said to once have been a hotel in which President Ulysses S. Grant stayed.
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Look at those hands.
Seventy-nine-year-old Richard Kirchhevel isn’t wearing a cowboy hat, a fancy belt buckle or spurs. He’s just paid his bill at the Jersey Lilly in Ingomar, way out in the eastern plains of Montana. The Jersey Lilly has outhouses instead of bathrooms since it only recently got running water. It’s justifiably proud of the bowl of beans on the menu.
Mr. Kirchhevel is no actor in a costume.
The Jersey Lilly isn’t a movie set.
That’s why I love living and working in Montana.
For more on the Jersey Lilly, visit my website.
There’s a great story in the current issue of Montana Quarterly about ranchers in Montana who are raising cattle and managing grassland in new ways.
On the Twodot Land and Livestock Company south of Harlowton, they’re blessed with the American Fork Creek. Excellent water resources at the ranch allow the ranch managers to graze smaller portions of grassland intensely for short periods of time. In turn, that makes for more healthy grasslands.
And grass management is key to holistic ranching practices in the J Bar L Ranches of Montana. Stuart Phelps of the Twodot Land and Livestock Company says the blade of a grass plant is like a solar panel and the root like a battery. If the blade is eaten or cut too close to the ground, the plant must use battery power to regrow. If left long enough, the blade will supply power and the plant will thrive better.
So Phelps and Kathleen McConkey spend their summer growing seasons herding cattle to new grazing patches instead of growing, baling and storing hay. The cattle graze small plots of land intensely for a short time and then are moved, replicating grazing patterns of bison before European settlers arrived.
A large map takes up most of a wall inside a shack near the rangeland on the Twodot. Stuart Phelps says 70 pastures on the 24,000-acre ranch are each subdivided into 24 sections for grazing, giving an average pasture of just 50 to 150 acres. “Pretty dang small,” Phelps says. But careful planning and innovative thinking, along with a great water source, have made it possible to raise beef cattle on the Twodot without worrying over growing hay.
Portable electric fencing is used to confine grazing animals to the intended piece of pasture on the Twodot. The cattle are moved to mimic the grazing patterns of the bison that used to run on the range. Ranch hand Anya Gandy uses a rock to hammer in a stake.
The Twodot is experimenting with adding goats to their herd of cattle. These goats, belonging to Ivan and Chia Thrane, will be mixed in with the cattle at the Twodot once the goats have finished kidding. Goats eat a different mix of grasses and weeds than do cattle, balancing the grazing.
Bryan Ulring manages J Bar L Ranches. Horses are used at the ranches to work the cattle when possible. Ranchers say the cattle respond better and are easier to control with horses than with the more popular four-wheeler, though J Bar L Ranches do use four-wheelers at times.
Peggy Dulany owns the J Bar L Ranch in Montana’s Centennial Valley. Dulany bought the ranch in 2000, stricken with the pristine quality of the Centennial Valley in southern Montana. She has run the ranch with a strong environmental sensitivity ever since.
Stuart Phelps upends a newborn calf for tagging. Calving on the Twodot lasts 45-60 days and is timed to coincide with peak grass abundance in May and June. Phelps says a lot of ranchers calve in February and March when it’s cold. So they need a barn and they need hay. That means they spend their summers planting, irrigating, cutting, baling, and putting up hay. On the Twodot, they don’t need to put up hay, Phelps says. So instead of managing hay, they manage cattle and grassland.
Kathleen McConkey walks away from a successfully tagged calf.
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Montana and the West are full of people who carve their own ways, people who are able to turn their passions into lifetimes. Tom Harmon is one of those people. He has been gathering agates along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana for nearly all of his life.
In the late 1960s, Harmon was making a living as an auto mechanic and gathering, grinding, polishing and then selling rocks on the weekends. When he and his wife realized they was making more money working with agates than with engines, they leapt into the rock business and haven’t looked back since.
At his home in Crane, Montana, south of Sidney, Harmon has converted a dairy barn into a workshop where he transforms the rocks he finds along a riverbank into display pieces and jewelry.
A finished agate is cut and polished. This one was cut thin and framed. It is most dramatic when lit from behind.
Agates come in a wide variety of colors and configurations. This one appears to show trees.
Inside his shop, Harmon grinds a stone into what may become a claw shape.
In his basement, Harmon keeps a display of his favorite agates.
Tom Harmon, agate man.
These pictures and more can be found in the current issue of Montana Quarterly.
Al Swanson is a gifted, highly skilled craftsman who uses age-old, hands-on woodworking techniques to make fine furniture at his studio in downtown Helena.
He says this dovetail joint on a bookcase he’s making demonstrates a timeless strength, elegance and beauty. “It’s all done with hand saws and chisels,” he says. “And you can tell by looking at it.”
Swanson is dedicated to his craft, despite the tremendous amounts of hand work that go into each piece he make. He teaches woodworking classes in the shop behind a large glass window in his gallery/studio.
And, like many people who move to Montana as adults, Swanson is an avid fly fisherman.
People would come from around the country to take his classes, but it was hard to send them home with a table or chair, so he needed a product that wasn’t quite so big. When he noticed fishing guides picking up their clients at a nearby hotel, he hit on the idea of a wooden fly box.
Made of quarter-sawn sycamore and tiger maple, these boxes are the result of more than 20 prototypes and hours and hours of thought and work.
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As the school year winds down, I wanted to share these pictures I made while working with Al Kesselheim up in northern Montana.
Bynum is pretty small. Twenty kids comprise the entire student body at the Bynum School.
But every morning for 80 years or more, each and every one of those kids dances.
Susan Luinstra is the head teacher at the school and she’s the energy behind the dancing today. But she says the idea was hatched by her predecessor and mentor, Ira Perkins, who said that no matter what misery a child might be enduring outside of school, a half-hour of dancing would shake off all of the bad. During the Great Depression, Perkins mandated that every Bynum School student would learn to dance and to play a musical instrument or sing.
Perkins taught at the Bynum School for 50 more years before Mrs. Luinstra took over. She carried on the tradition and never changed the music. Kids dance to old 78 records from the 1930s and learn to waltz, foxtrot and polka.
“Music and dance are the best things we do,” Mrs. Luinstra says. “I don’t have the data, but I know it in my bones. The arts bring the whole child together. Dance and music exercise different parts of the brain, make connections work better. Students are comfortable with each other here as a direct result.”
See these on my website.
I have earned my living by making photographs for more than 20 years, mostly for newspapers and magazines. I've authored a few coffee-table books and won my share of awards.
I believe a successful picture is one in which the viewer sees themselves.
The more we see ourselves in other people and in other places, the more we will cherish those people and places. But we must trust the truth we feel.
Truth resonates character. Character resonates truth. When we perceive true character, that generates trust.
Done well, photography speaks universally and authentically, overcoming barriers of language and culture and trust. So I choose photography to share true character of people and places.
I want people to see themselves in the people and places I photograph.
I want people to realize we all have more in common than in conflict.
I've just published a book, Montana: Real Place, Real People. It celebrates the true and authentic people and places writer Al Kesselheim and I have come across in our travels through this wonderful state.
I give a motivational speech called, "Be Who You Is." It's about the authentic, genuine character that I've discovered and been inspired by over the last decade.
My favorite color is orange and I like canoeing, classical trumpet and Nordic skiing. I love farmers and ranchers, even though I grew up in Chicago and I'm allergic to pretty much everything with four legs.