Welcome to Valier

Valier, Montana, is a small town north of Conrad in Montana’s Golden Triangle.

Grain, like the wheat dropping into this truck headed for Shelby at the CHS grain elevator operation, is what began and what sustains Valier. The town was founded in 1910 when dams were built to flood a hay meadow and form Lake Frances so the surrounding prairie could be irrigated.

Today, the Pondera County Canal & Reservoir Company is one of the largest privately-held irrigation districts in the country, watering 80,400 acres. “This irrigation project is the only reason Valier is here,” says Bob Sill, who has been raising grain in Valier since the mid-1970s. About 10 years ago, Sill says, around 75 percent of the irrigated acres near Valier were in malt barley and about three-quarters of those acres were growing for Annheuser-Busch. Then wheat prices improved and barley demand went down. “They just didn’t need the bushels anymore,” Sill says.

Gary Arnst, who serves with Sill on the PCC&RC board of directors, was one of those who moved into wheat. He says he grows peas, lentils and canola as well and although wheat is more risky and more work than barley, he can make more money growing it. “Who said life’s supposed to be easy?” he says.

Sisters Fawn Ahern, left, and Janet Jones work at the Panther Cafe, a popular spot for locals like Ray Widhalm, right, whose mother settled nearby in 1913 from Belgium and father arrived from Nebraska in the 1930s. The Widhalm family is a big one in Valier.  Widhalm says he has seven siblings and 125 first cousins. “It’s a pretty nice place,” he says. “Pretty homey. It was tough getting a date in high school, though. Ten percent of the school was related to me.” He says few of those in his kids’ generation are sticking around. “This is the first year since 1945 there hasn’t been a Widhalm in the grade school.”

Jere VandenBos, 26, is one of those who’s sticking. “When I’m not shoeing, I’m out here doing something,” he says while shoeing one of the horses at his family’s cattle ranch. Jere’s brother Jeff, 22, works construction when he’s not gassing up the tractor to feed cattle and sister Gina breaks horses in nearby Shelby. “We all have different jobs to make it by,” Jere says, and none of them has plans to leave. “I like it around here,” Jeff says. “I need the construction job to get money so I can buy land, if it ever comes available, so we can run more cows.”

Another bright spot in Valier’s future is represented by Amber Widhalm, who was born and raised in Valier, left for six years for a career in title insurance in Arizona, and came back in April to turn her jewelry-making hobby into a successful Internet business. Her jewelry is now sold in seven stores in the U.S. and two in Australia and she has more than 7,500 Facebook fans. “Valier is a very quaint little town,” she says. “Most people leave after high school and then come back in their 30s and 40s.”

Bob Kovatch, 57, left after high school in 1971 and came back with his wife, Sue, and their kids in 1989. They bought an abandoned property on the shoreline of Lake Frances and started the Lighthouse restaurant on their youngest daughter’s sixth birthday three months later. “We had no money,” he says. “We just had an idea.” In addition to irrigating 80,400 acres of farmland, Lake Frances boasts a great walleye fishery and has accommodated wind surfers, snowmobile drag races, boating, swimming, water skiing and other fun activities. “I own an ice boat myself,” Kovatch says. In February every year, the firemen host a fishing derby that brings in about 400 entrants, doubling Valier’s population. “The lake is a very integral part of our area.”

Wanda Hale, 85, gets her hair done every Friday by Charlene Henke at Charlene’s Cut ‘N Style and her hand keeps her place in a book of Valerian history. She was born on the far shore of Lake Frances when Valier was just 15 years old in January 1926, moved to town with her husband 20 years later and never left. She just finished 50 years as the clerk of the cemetery board. And she helped out after a terrible flood killed 19 people on June 7, 1964. “That night,” she says, “we talked to a man we knew and he said he didn’t know if any of his family survived. His little girl fell off the roof and drowned, but his boy and wife got off and were found. It was sad.” And she helped catch two bank robbers in the 1940s. “I walked right into the two guys who had robbed the bank. I was scared to death when I found out what was going on.”

Valerians come and go through the main intersection downtown on a December evening. Some are coming home, others are heading out and what Valier will look like in 10 years is anyone’s guess. Cyber business may supplant grain farming, tourism may take over, or it may just get old and fade away. Wanda Hale has 85 years of Valerian history to look back on for perspective: “Life goes on and you just kind of accept it.”

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