montana photograph Jason DeShaw

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It’s not much of a concert poster, but it filled the room at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs for Jason DeShaw last summer.

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DeShaw is a country singer from Plentywood who is open about his own struggles with mental illness. He tells the crowd at the hospital that he was first diagnosed in 2010 after a breakdown while he was on tour in Saskatchewan. After a 400-mile dash to Billings, Shaw tells the crowd, he was asked if he heard voices.

“Yes I do.” Whose?

“Johnny Cash.”

“And into the psych ward I went,” DeShaw says.

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Four years later, DeShaw is on tour as a performer, speaker and listener, visiting Montana small towns and large cities, advocating for mental illness awareness.

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He speaks from the heart, he says, and sings from it too. And his honesty, courage and eloquence have impressed and affected lives. He tells Montana Quarterly writer Brian D’Ambrosio of a performance an an eastern Montana high school that inspired several students to seek counseling for depression that many of their friends and family did not know existed.

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“Mental illness has made me a better human being,” DeShaw says. That’s a hell of a thing.

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montana photograph Colstrip

Times are tough in Colstrip, Montana, where most of the town’s economy is dependent on coal, mined nearby and burned to create electricity at the power plant in town.

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“It’s steam,” residents assure a visitor photographing the vapors emanating from the Colstrip power plant. Many in Colstrip are sensitive to the perception people may be getting from the town’s strip mine and power plant. They’re afraid visitors on a cold day will see plumes of smoke over the power plant and think it is all pollution. They worry that no one talks about all of the landscape restoration the mine does after it removes coal from a seam. They worry that pictures of dozens of tons of dirt being moved at once will make the mine look too dusty, despite the water trucks in evidence spraying the ground on a January morning.

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Ninety tons at a time, one of the drag lines at Colstrip’s Rosebud Mine removes overburden dirt to uncover a coal seam. Coal is the central economic force behind Colstrip and its history. Colstrip supplied the coal used in Northern Pacific locomotives in the 1920s, then the town nearly died when trains began running on diesel. In the 1970s, construction began on the power plant and once again, Colstrip bustles with life — for now.

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Rex Rogers manages the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Colstrip. Colstrip is a company town and that company mines coal and then burns it to make electricity. Efforts to curb the use of fossil-fueled electricity are threatening the livelihoods of Rogers and the workers he represents.

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Mary Ann and Bob Whitehead are both retired from the Colstrip power plant. They live in the mobile home they’ve had since 1980, where Mary Ann has converted the dining room into a quilting studio for her new hobby. They tout Colstrip’s many parks and the local golf course, recreation center and gun club which cost residents little or nothing to use. All thanks to financial support from the mine and power plant.

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In addition to free membership at a local nine-hole golf course and a park for every 100 people in Colstrip, residents can freely use the well-equipped recreation center, where 49-year-old Tammy Robinson teaches a fitness class. Robinson’s husband and oldest son both work at the power plant. “I’m nervous about the whole thing,” she says. “I’m nervous about where Colstrip is headed.”

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Engineer Bill MacFarlane, 72, says he worked at the Rosebud coal mine for 30 years, assembling the giant drag lines that can weigh 6 million pounds and more. But his roots are in Havre, he says, where his grandparents were farmers. “The land meant a lot to us,” he says.

Electricity prices are being driving down by the availability of cheap natural gas, and both Washington and Oregon have passed legislation that will gradually phase out the purchase of coal-fired electricity. And the federal Clean Power Plan threatens to impose more stringent regulations on what — besides the steam — comes out of the Colstrip smokestacks .

montana photograph Joe Medicine Crow

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This week marks the passing of Joe Medicine Crow, who died in Billings on Sunday at 102. I photographed him in 2008 at his home in Lodge Grass for a story about the American Indian Institute.

Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, Medicine Crow was a hero in World War II, where he became the last member of the Crow tribe to accomplish the four traditional deeds that earn one the status of “war chief.” One of these deeds was to steal 50 horses from the Nazi army.

A renowned anthropologist and historian, he knew personally four scouts who had been with Gen. George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Custer’s army was decimated by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in 1876.

I remember him as the embodiment of dignity, strength and resilience. I was honored to have met him.

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montana photograph Billings Best Barbers

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Montana isn’t exactly a melting pot. About 90 percent of the population identifies as white, according to the 2014 census. If you’re a Montanan of another race, finding a someone who will do a good job cutting your hair can be a problem.

That’s why people drive 100 miles and more to Billings to have their hair cut at Billings Best Barbers, owned by Rafael Rivera and his older brother Eric Rosas.

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“We’re super multi-cultural,” says Rivera. “We cut all types of hair.”

The brothers grew up in Puerto Rico, but Rosas was stationed in Great Falls during his stint in the Air Force. He married a Billings woman and moved there when he was discharged. Rivera came to visit and never left.

“We grew up in a barber shop environment,” Rosas says. “We knew there was a need for something like this.”

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The brothers say a barber shop should provide an experience, develop relationships with clientele. A barber shop should not only provide a good haircut, but also be a place to get up to speed on sports, talk music, parenting, everyday life.

“Any topic of conversation is open for discussion here, ” says Rosas. “Nobody ever gets out of hand. Everybody understands we’re just talking.”

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The shop specializes in short hair. Fades are a specialty. They take pride in clean lines, cool designs, razor work, and uniform, consistent blending.

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montana photographs Rural Life

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The Bear Creek Schoolhouse hasn’t been the scene of a traditional class since 1942, but you’d never know to look at it. The paint is new, the roof is solid, the walls clean, the floor gleaming. It’s virtually unchanged since it was built in 1909, but it’s not a museum.

Six miles from Cameron, 17 miles south of Ennis, at the foot of the Madison Range, the Bear Creek School House has electricity and heat, but no running water. Members of the Cameron Community Club have been its caretakers since 1945. Every Saturday night in March, they bring water, coffee and treats to the old building for Cabin Fever Pinochle Parties. Once in a while, they’ll have a dance or a cowboy poetry event.

A sign near the door says enrollment during the 1910s and 1920s grew to 40 students, then began to decline in the 1930s. Mona Durham, who organizes events for the club, says she’s the only former student still around. She walked three miles each way to Bear Creek School for the first and second grades in the mid-1930s, then moved into Ennis with her mother and older sisters when her sisters entered high school.

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Perhaps 30 people show up for one of the Cabin Fever Pinochle Parties at the Bear Creek School House. Players change partners and tables throughout the evening.

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Scores are kept carefully.

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Competition is friendly.

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Friendships are kindled.

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Treats are served.

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Mona Durham, 84,  lives nearby and organizes the events. She says she’s the only former student still around.

 

To see these pictures on my website, click here.

montana photograph Fairfield and Water

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

montana photograph Radersburg

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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The old Radersburg School is the center of community activity. Though recently refurbished, it still bears scars from a 1959 earthquake.

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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.

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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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montana photograph Why I Love Montana

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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.

He’s real.

The Jersey Lilly isn’t a movie set.

It’s real.

That’s why I love living and working in Montana.

For more on the Jersey Lilly, visit my website.

montana photographs Holistic Ranching

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Kathleen McConkey walks away from a successfully tagged calf.

See these pictures on my website here.

montana photographs Tom Harmon, Agate Man

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.

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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.

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A finished agate is cut and polished. This one was cut thin and framed. It is most dramatic when lit from behind.

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Agates come in a wide variety of colors and configurations. This one appears to show trees.

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Inside his shop, Harmon grinds a stone into what may become a claw shape.

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In his basement, Harmon keeps a display of his favorite agates.

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Tom Harmon, agate man.

These pictures and more can be found in the current issue of Montana Quarterly.

See these pictures big here, on my website.