Northeast — Patience

20130420182726This is the second of four posts I’ll do on the four corners of Montana, a project Al Kesselheim and I were proud to do for Sheila Habeck and Montana magazine.

The northeast corner of Montana has a history of booms, beginning with the fur trade that followed closely on the heels of Lewis and Clark. Then the railroad brought homesteading farmers and ranchers at the beginning of the 20th century. Now, oil in the Bakken formation is changing the economy, the landscape.

Yet if you stand in a wind-scoured wheat field up there, you can hear the faded optimism of booms gone bust, see time etched into shapes and faces, feel the patience, the endurance, the persistence that is required to live here.

Talli Else, above with her 6-year-old son, Cade Schwarzrock, and family are raising cattle and grazing horses on Else’s grandrather’s old farm near McElroy. Else said her father was growing grain on the land as well, but that the bulk of the family’s income is coming from the trucks her husband and father drive, hauling hay, grain and cattle.

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The railroad brought homesteaders to northeast Montana during the early 20th century, but is now used infrequently.

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It left behind towns like Comertown, founded in 1913 along the Soo Line, but already in decline by the end of the 1920s.

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The old Rocky Valley Lutheran Church is all that remains of what used to be Dooley, just a bit farther west along the Soo Line.

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But people hang on. Like Tim Hutslar of Medicine Lake. Hutslar, who sells liquor to pay the bills in the voluminous old hardware store he owns. The store offers ample space for Hutslar to display his collections of toys and artifacts. And when he’s not selling whiskey or dusting his collections, Hutslar is active in a golden retriever rescue organization,  ministers for three local churches and has been mayor of Medicine Lake since he won a write-in campaign 12 years ago. “I think eastern Montana has always been kind of a hide-out area,” he says.

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“Serving the oil industry since 1960,” reads the sign above Justice Oilfield Water Service, Inc., in Dagmar. Oil has been a part of the northeast Montana economy since the 1950s. But the discovery of a way to economically drill horizontally under ground has opened up vast reserves of oil in western North Dakota and extreme eastern Montana.

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That expansion makes sights like this oil derrick all the more common.

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And it brings in man camps like this one just west of the North Dakota line.

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But those who have stuck it out the longest know that time passes, and brings change. You might as well keep a sense of humor.

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