Independence Day is a walk along the empty streets of a broken northern Montanan town, empty buildings unkempt with no care to keep people out. For sale signs dot the small neighborhood streets, the gravel roads lined with grain silos, and it seems like these signs appear on every street.
A booster club fireworks display set up in an abandoned garage, announces the only community event for the day. From the booth a guy named Tim yells at me asking in a not friendly tone, “Why are you taking pictures of us?” Walking over to him I tell him I’m a photographer taking photos of the building, the signs and the flag, not of them. Tim tells me in a little more friendly tone, “You should have seen this town thirty years ago,” suggesting that it was once a little boomtown.Then he rails against grizzly bears that appear to be taking over the town. Six were spotted standing in the middle of an intersection. They come from the front range of the Rockies because their habitat is being taken away. He blames the “liberal bastards running things” for the town’s ills and the grizzly bear problem. He says no Montanan politician seems to care about this town’s problems. If this was one of the nearby more prosperous towns he thinks there would be an incredible uproar.
Later that evening near the town we run into a young woman of twenty-one on the shores of Lake Francis taking a break with her dog and young siblings, their one day off from a ranch nearby. She confirms the grizzly problem in and around town especially for the ranchers and farmers, the “easy pickings” for grizzlies raiding cornfields and eating cattle and especially sheep. She says to look for a YouTube video showing two grizzlies swimming and playing in the lake. On another issue she tells us of the riff-raff moving in and families of good standing moving out, the meth and opioid crisis with drugs smuggled over the Canadian border and through the nearby Blackfoot Indian Reservation—one of the causes for all the for sale signs fronting nice middle-class houses. Main Street boarded up and falling apart speaks to the riff-raff moving in. Asking her about the big high school buildings in town, built in the nineteen-fifties, she tells how her graduating class was made up of seventeen students, while this past year it was down to eleven. On the opposite side of the road a stately old stone schoolhouse built in 1911 commands a spectacular view of the fields and nearby lake. Far in the distance adding to the beauty of the landscape stands the range of the Rocky Mountains.
P.S. We traveled to this distant spot to research a beloved Western writer who went to high school here when the building went up in the fifties. Driving away to his more pleasant surroundings farther down the road we wonder at the seemingly by-chance-only how one town can get hit with all bad luck while another springs into prosperity.
By Gay Smith and David Gallipoli