After fire, Montana town pulls together

Shop rebuilding was necessary for remote community to go on

May 13, 2007|By Maurice Possley | Maurice Possley,Chicago Tribune

Fort Smith, Mont. -- Take a drive down just about any back road in this, the fourth-largest state in the country, and you might come upon a ghost town or a small scattering of abandoned buildings.

Some of these suggest an earlier time of prosperity and evidence the precariousness of existence in what can be a harsh place to scratch out a living, leaving unanswered questions: Did the mine play out? Was it disease or some other misfortune? A disaster? Why do some places survive and others don't?

For some residents of this town of 122 people on the Crow Indian Reservation a 40-minute drive from the Little Bighorn battlefield, a cloud passed over the future last August.

That was when a fire at the Bighorn Trout Shop and lodge killed three people and destroyed several lodging units, as well as an adjacent building housing the only grocery store and gas station. Residents had to drive to Hardin for their daily needs, a round trip of 90 miles.

This is not the most remote place in Montana or even the smallest town. According to the 2000 census, the state has 32 smaller towns, some with populations of fewer than 25. And during several months of the year, thousands of people converge here in search of brown and rainbow trout as big as footballs in the nearby Bighorn River.

For Brenda and Chad Fenner and the entire town, the fatal fire - whose origin is undetermined - was a tragedy. It killed three residents of Glendale, Wis., who for several years had come to fish.

After the shock of the deaths came the realization that the community needed the Fenners, owners of the Yellowtail Market, to rebuild, Brenda Fenner said in an interview.

"They were anxious for us to get up and going again," she said. "You can see how if you don't rebuild, a town can just go away. You don't realize what it means sometimes until you have to drive 90 miles for a gallon of milk. We were shell-shocked for a while, and then we decided to rebuild."

Rhoda Blakley, who with her husband, Alvin, owns nearby Cottonwood Camp for people who come to fish the Bighorn, said, "This was devastating - the loss of life, first. But then people just came together.

"You learned to make do without, or you had to make the trip to Hardin. The farmers union brought out a gas truck once a week so some people could get gas. ... You know, rural people just make it work. It helped us see what we are made of."

By Christmas, the store was back in business - rebuilt from the ground up.

"We were all glad to see things coming back," Blakley said. "That store is the heartbeat of the town. People were almost giddy when it reopened. It has been a place to catch up on what's going on ... and is a meeting place for people."

Meanwhile, reconstruction is nearly complete at the Bighorn Trout Shop and lodge. Hale Harris and Steve Hilbers recently opened the new shop.

Owners of the business since 1985, Harris and Hilbers have been a cornerstone of the fishing community here.

The fire destroyed seven lodging rooms, along with the fly shop, dining room and kitchen. Four rooms have been rebuilt, bringing the total rooms to 12, Harris said.

Steve Bentz, a property manager and appraiser from Milton, Wis., began visiting the Bighorn in the 1990s because the fish are plentiful and big.

And when he comes here, Bentz stays at the Trout Shop, in part because the owners and guides make a personal connection with their guests.

"I met the owners and a couple of guides on my first four-day trip in the late '90s. I made my second trip a year later, and when I walked into the shop, Steve Hilbers said, `Hi, Steve,' " Bentz said. "One of the guides also remembered me, and now after several more trips over the years, I consider him as much a friend as a guide."

Inspired by Hilbers and Harris, Bentz said he plans to open a fishing lodge near Viroqua, Wis.

Dick Cheney, who stayed at the Trout Shop years before he became vice president, sent a letter after the fire, wishing the owners well.

"The townspeople were great," Harris said. "There was an outpouring of support from Fort Smith. People were donating things, offering to help, giving us tables to put things on and pictures to hang on the wall."

"It brought the community together," Harris added. "There are blessings in the long run -relationships were strengthened. The property is one thing. It's hard, but you can always replace it. But loss of life is a bitter thing."

Maurice Possley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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