Breezin' Through Big Timber
A Look at the Places & faces
The thermometer on the Citizens Bank blinked 94 as the late-summer sun baked McLeod Street in Big Timber. Even the occasional vehicle seemed to creep in the heat.
But inside Cole Drug – “Established in 1935” as the sign out front proclaims – Alayna Smith and Tasha Stevens could hardly keep up. The old-time soda fountain was enjoying a rip-roaring business as groups of two or three, tourists and locals alike, were drawn by the promise of milkshakes made so generous that just one filled two fluted ice cream glasses. Not only are the milkshakes oversized, but they’re flavored with chunks of fresh strawberries or thick chocolate syrup.
“It’s like this all summer,” Tasha says of the brisk business. “We’ve had people call us from Australia to make sure we’re still here.”
Just a few hours after dawn that same day, the Crazy Mountains were already hazy with smoke. Some guessed it had drifted east from fires in Washington. No dew that morning, but the second cutting of hay, swathed into neat lines on the outskirts of town, oozed the fragrance of fresh-cut grass.
Morning comes early in Big Timber, where locals gather at the Frosty Freez to nurse bottomless cups of coffee. Well, maybe not so bottomless if you actually believe the sign posted: “60 cents for one cup/ $3 all day allows one hour to go home for lunch/ Ask for weekly rates.”
Sisters Jay Deen Federer and Kitty Buster have been running the place for more than 30 years. They grew up across the street, where their parents ran the motel, which has since been replaced by the post office. They both ventured out of the area, but, like many other locals, returned to raise their own children.
For 57 years and counting, the Frosty Freez has served as a local hub.
“They’re here before we open the doors,” Kitty laughs, referring to the regulars. “They’re honking, waiting for us.”
By 9 a.m., several groups had already passed through, most sporting weathered baseball caps or straw western hats, their bands stained dark with hard-earned sweat.
Waitress Susie Phares juggled plates loaded with hash browns and chicken fried steaks, while constantly roving with coffee pot in hand. Like most of her co-workers, Susie has made the Frosty Freez a career. Not only has she served up breakfasts and burgers for nearly 30 years, but each one of her five children has worked alongside her.
“It’s not like a job. It’s more like an extended family,” she says. “If they sell this place, I’m done.”
That “family” includes the regulars at the “Old and Wise Table” – so named for the elder ‘statesmen’ who occupy it, in contrast to those who lay claim to the “Wise Table.” Staking their territory at the former were Laurence Larson, Ed Parrent, Norbert Zindler and Dick Willems.
“It’s friendly here unless you talk about irrigation water or politics,” Larson says, grinning. “There’s no politics, no gossip. Just BS,” adds Willems. Parrent remembers coming to the Frosty Freez as a kid. He says it was the first place he ever had store-bought ice cream.
Big Timber is the kind of place where residents rally to help neighbors in need and volunteers wear many hats. The same could be said for many Montana small towns, but the guys at the Old and Wise table say Big Timber has something unique.
It’s the mountains, the Crazies, they say.
Parrent remembers getting his first glimpse of them after returning from the Navy. The sight was enough to bring tears to his eyes. “That’s the first thing a person looks at when he wakes up, the Crazy Mountains,” Larson says. “It tells you what the weather’s going to do.”
The Crazy Mountains cast a powerful presence across Sweet Grass County. Some say the name traces to the fact that the lava upthrusts creating the mountains are geologically young and a misfit – hence “crazy” – in relation to the rock formations surrounding them. Other theories explain that the Crow called them “Mad Mountains” due to their rugged beauty and the haunting winds that howl down through their canyons. Most widely accepted is the story of the crazy woman – some say Native American, some say white – who went mad on the prairie, perhaps after an attack on her family, and took refuge in the jagged peaks.
The mountains are depicted in a sweeping mural on the side of the local IGA grocery. And their name is repeated in such diverse businesses as Crazy Mountain Chiropractic and Crazy Mountain Towing and Repair. Even the local museum – a must-stop for visitors -- has adopted the title.
The Crazy Mountain Museum is situated on Big Timber’s southwest shoulder, adjacent to the town’s tree-shaded cemetery. That’s where you’ll meet folks like Jeanie Chappel, one of many who volunteer there.
Chappel is an art teacher by training but she’s working a custodial job at Stillwater’s East Boulder Mine.
“I get paid so much more to scrub toilets than teach,” she says.
With employment at 300 or so, the mine is the area’s major employer. Not only has it brought newcomers into the area, but it’s allowed some locals, like Chappel, to stay.
For the past few months, the museum has been abuzz about a bizarre Easter accident, in which an errant driver crashed through the museum’s front entrance. The vehicle came to a stop just short of a massive diorama of Big Timber, circa 1907. In amazing detail, the diorama lays out the community before the legendary blaze of 1908, which razed nearly half the town.
The museum is rich in local lore, with displays telling of the once-famous Hunter’s Hot Springs to the west and of old-time dude ranches like the Van Cleves’ Lazy K Bar. There’s also an exhibit chronicling the long-ago Chinese presence and a plaque recounting the story of the “Bad Swede” (See sidebar story below).
Another wall recounts the history of the area’s sheep industry, highlighted with the factoid that the wool house shipped out five million pounds of raw wool in 1895.
“We were known as the wool capital,” explains Jill Lavold, museum director.
In fact, Big Timber was and still is known for sheep, cattle and lots of Norwegians – though not necessarily in that order. Over the decades, as grazing allotments dried up, so too did the sheep herds. During that same time frame, White-faced Hereford cattle have given way to Black Angus. Several area ranches – among them the Beley, Rein and Christensen Ranches – have already celebrated centennial anniversaries.
McLeod Street is Big Timber’s main street that points north to the Crazies and south up the Boulder River Valley. The broad street offers enough room for pull-in parking on both sides and for middle school kids to dart up and down on Spyder bikes. McLeod Street is where you’ll find long-established businesses like the Grand, Cole Drug, the Cottonwood Cinema and Gusts. It’s also where you’ll find newer ventures like Crazy Woman Trading Co. and Two Rivers Gallery.
“In a small town, you sell anything you can to make a living,” says Barb Sell. She and husband Art owned the Color Shop – paints, wall covering and tiles – for decades. Three years after they sold it, the long-time business shut its doors.
“They (new owners) didn’t grasp how hard we worked,” Barb says.
But some businesses, like the Cottonwood Cinema, have survived. Its marquee boasted the same Mission Impossible flick being shown at multiplexes in Billings, 80 miles to the east.
But back in in the 1940s, when World War II newsreels were all the rage, Art Sell worked as a projectionist there. It was the State Theater then, he says as he shows a roll of old movie tickets, 25 cents a pop. “And students were only 14 cents,” he remembers. “Wednesday nights were take-a-chance nights. All tickets were two bits. There was always a B movie they could get real cheap.”
Across the street, Two Rivers Gallery represents one of the “new kids on the block.” Tastefully displayed inside are a wide range of mediums – oil and acrylic paintings, ceramics, sculpture and weavings – many online casino by local artists.
An anonymous donor purchased the building for the Sweet Grass Artists Alliance, explains Joe Hansen, treasurer for the Alliance. Though agriculture still runs the local economy, he sees a growing support for the arts. “Big Timber is a pretty healthy town for a small rural Montana town and I think the arts have something to do with that,” he says. “We do sell more during the tourist season. But we have a good loyal following of local folks.”
Just a few doors away, the sign over Gusts notes its date of establishment as 1908. Inside the mercantile, the wooden floor creaks with stories to tell. Inventory ranges from a rack of Carharrt overalls to stylish women’s wear to pottery and jewelry.
Looking smart in slacks and checked shirt, owner Virgil Gust, 94, could easily pass for a man two decades younger. The World War II Navy torpedo man moved to Big Timber in 1947 to work at the store. He liked the place, married and raised his family there.
When asked about the changes he’d witnessed, Gust grins. Yes, at one time there were two other department stores in town and two other drug stores, but the nature of the community hasn’t changed.
“It’s not any different,” he says.
As for business, Gust has reason to smile. Not only was last year his best ever, but his two daughters plan to return to Big Timber to run the place. “I guess we always planned to do it,” jokes daughter Sara McFarland. “He (her husband) said it was part of our marriage contract.”
There’s something about Big Timber that pulls former residents back and newcomers in.
That magnetism accounts for Jill, the museum director, being a native of Big Timber. Her parents were living in Billings when her mother was pregnant with her, Jill explains. “But she (mother) made a point that she came home to have me,” Jill says.
Among newcomers, count Alayna, who was working the fountain at Cole Drug. A native of Fairfield, she arrived in town a few months back when her husband took a job at the East Boulder Mine. She loves living out of town where she sees wildlife just outside her door. “Turkeys, deer, antelope – we had a bear this morning,” she says.
Likewise, she’s enjoyed the community’s warm welcome.
“I started working here to meet people,” she says. “I feel like I know the whole town now.”
According to realtor Mary Ann Duffey, the scenery and recreational opportunities add to the area’s allure, as does the fact that it’s more affordable than Bozeman.
But that could hardly explain why the “rich and famous” are drawn to the place. In the 1940s, singer and actor Gene Autry spent time in the area. More recently, newsman Tom Brokaw, actor Michael Keaton and author Tom McGuane have all grown roots in Sweet Grass soil. “And Richard Branson stopped in last week,” adds Kitty at the Frosty Freez. “He was on his way to Sturgis (Harley motorcycle rally).”
But then there’s the wind. No story about Big Timber would be complete without mention of it. That invincible force howls and yowls down the river valley, pushes past mountains, slams doors, takes down road signs and jerks golf drives off course.
Even locals are known to complain, but they seem to take pride in being tough enough to withstand it.
“You’re very thankful for the days without wind,” says Jeanie at the museum. “Even when there might be a breeze, I don’t notice it.”
BIG TIMBER AT A GLANCE
Where the prairies meet the mountains
Big Timber’s current population of 1,653 is only a few hundred more than it was in 1920 and 26 fewer than the 1950 census.
Big Timber traces its roots to Dornix, which started as a camp a mile to the east. When the Northern Pacific Railroad finalized its line in 1883, the community moved to its current location.
Sweet Grass County’s only high school is located in Big Timber. Their mascot: the “Sheepherders”
On Big Timber’s east end, the Fort is home to one of Montana’s few Tesla charging stations, which energize all-electric vehicles.
Once a part of the Crow Reservation, Big Timber is also known for “Rivers Across” – where the Boulder River and Big Timber Creek empty into the Yellowstone. William Clark, along with Sacajawea, her baby and 10 men, spent the night there in July 1806 as they returned from the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The area’s beauty was captured in Robert Redford’s film The Horse Whisperer. Likewise, some scenes from his movie A River Runs Through It were shot on the Boulder River.
A Fixture for 125 Years
The Grand stands as an anchor on McLeod Street. Built for $20,000 in 1890, the restaurant and hotel was one of the most notable buildings to survive the town’s infamous 1908 fire.
Today, the landmark’s renowned menu, antique back bar and period rooms draw folks from far and wide. But that wasn’t always the case, say new owners Tami and Chris Dern.
In fact, years ago, the neighborhood was considered so seedy that “kids weren’t even allowed to walk past it (Grand),” Tami says. But that’s all changed, starting with major renovations in the 1980s by former owner Penelope Wilson.
The Derns have continued the project, a few rooms at a time. “We totally re-did two rooms, floor to ceiling,” Chris says, “and spruced up three others.”
Furnished with antiques, period floor and wall treatments – down to claw-footed tubs – the Grand stands as a testament to Big Timber’s early days. Tami, who has pried into its history, tells how the back bar is original – minus the mirrors that were broken during a long-ago brawl. She also recounts how, in the late 1800s, the victim of a shoot-out on McLeod Street was dragged into the bar. The local doc, a notorious gambler and drinker known for habituating the place, removed the bullet as the victim lay on the pool table, she says.
The Derns themselves are fairly new to Big Timber. Chris had worked for a dude ranch on the Gallatin but landed in Big Timber because they wintered the ranch horses in the area. Once the connection was made, the couple liked what they’d discovered. “It was just a fluke,” Chris says. “But we loved it enough to stay,” Tami adds.
Chris applied for the manager’s position at the Grand and Tami went to massage school. Her massage business has thrived and this past winter the couple took ownership of the Grand. In August, they invited the community to celebrate the landmark’s 125th Birthday with them.
“People come here to visit. Ladies come to play bridge,” Tami says. “Everyone kind of has a stake in the place.”
The story of the “Bad Swede”
Posted on a plaque at the Crazy Mountain Museum, M.J. Songstad recounted the story of the “Bad Swede,” notorious for his penchant for drinking. It was also noted that when he tipped the bottle, he terrorized the community’s women and children.
Having had enough, the townsfolk convened and named a sheriff to arrest the “Bad Swede.” But the nearest jail was sixty miles away in Bozeman. That’s when locals got creative.
“Someone having started a well hole nearby which was about thirty feet deep, suggested to the sheriff that it be used to hold the prisoner,” Songstad wrote. “The sheriff procured a rope, fastened it around the man and lowered him gently into the hole…When he had served out his seventy-two hours, the sheriff lowered his rope and the Swede came out tame and cured.”