My last trip to Ekalaka was just a few weeks ago, when my I took my mother, 82, and her new boyfriend, Roy, 86, down to visit the family ranch,just 15 miles north of Alzada, and about 60 miles from Ekalaka. We took a drive over to Ekalaka the next day, so Roy could see where Mom went to high school.
Roy is a retired history professor from Britain who has lived in the States for over 60 years. He taught at U.C. Davis for about 40 years, then got the best job ever, teaching history courses on cruise ships. So every two months for 20 years, he traveled to another amazing port and gave a couple of lectures. So he’s been around.
I think it’s safe to say that Ekalaka was not on Roy’s bucket list, but he had been anxious to see another corner of the world. We met up at the Wagon Wheel Café with the Castleberrys, who had been my mother’s high school classmates. The Wagon Wheel is the only restaurant left in Ekalaka. And although Roy carried on for days afterward about how we could have gotten a grilled cheese sandwich for $3, he ordered a burger. And it was when the food came that the trouble began.
Only two other tables had customers, but the waitress seemed distracted and forgot to bring us our drinks.
Roy was beside himself, especially when his fries turned out to be too salty. “I need my drink!”
Finally, he turned to me and said in his most appalled British manner, “Why do you suppose she hasn’t brought us our drinks? I’ve asked her three times now!”
“That’s probably why,” I replied, and Fulton Castleberry just about busted a gut, laughing and nodding.
Welcome to Ekalaka, 2017, where things are pretty much the same way they were in 2007, or 1987, or 1957. Ekalaka is one of the few county seats in the country that is not on a road going anywhere else. And in many respects, it feels very much like a dead-end town. Which is sadly true of many towns in Eastern Montana. This little town is the county seat for Carter County, which has a strong history of cattle and sheep ranches, a corner of Montana that once boasted some of the best grazing land in the region.
Like so much of Montana, this corner has been hit hard by drought for many years now. And of course, in a place where everything revolves around water, the impact is impossible to overstate. But it would be wrong to assume that people are not making a living out here.
Fulton Castleberry’s great grandmother came to this area at the age of four, when her parents moved up from Iowa in 1883. They bought some livestock, but like many from that era, they lost most of their stock in the blizzard of 1886.
Fulton’s grandfather eventually started another cattle ranch just a few miles outside of Ekalaka, and Fulton has owned and operated that ranch since he was a young man.
“I think most of the operating ranches in Carter County are sustainable,” Fulton said, which is a bit of a surprise. “But they’re much bigger than they were when I was young. Plus people just want more than they did back then. Everyone was pretty content to get by in those days. If you had a car, you were happy. You didn’t need a whole bunch of vehicles, or a boat, or a cabin in the Black Hills. So the ranchers that want those things have to work harder.”
I asked Fulton whether some of the ranchers still farm as well, as I remember my grandfather always raising a little wheat or barley, and sometimes mixing in other crops like flax. “No, there really isn’t much mixing it up anymore,” he explained. “There are a few places here that focus entirely on farming…big outfits. But the cost of equipment these days makes it pretty much impossible to do both. You can’t use the same tractor for everything like we used to do back then. They have a separate machine for everything, and those big machines are expensive. So you’re either ranching or farming these days.”
Of course, the biggest change in Ekalaka, just as it is with most small towns in Montana, is the lack of businesses in town. Everyone goes elsewhere to shop now. Fulton began naming the businesses that used to be here when he was in high school. “We had three implement dealers then—two of them sold cars, too, but they were mainly there to sell machinery. We had three grocery stores (there is one now), three bars, (again, one), we even had a bakery for a while. Plus there were a bunch of saw mills. And then there was the light plant. That plant ran on a big old diesel generator, with a flywheel that they had to dig a big pit to make room for. When they brought the generator into town, they had one semi hauling the engine, and one for the flywheel. And at night, just about the time you were falling asleep, you’d hear that flywheel. It rotated real slow and it made this thwump at the end of each cycle. It wasn’t real loud, but just loud enough to wake you up.”
It’s not surprising to hear that most of the ranches have gotten bigger, a trend that started from the time the West was settled. The annual rainfall in Carter County rarely rises above 20 inches. When the pioneers first made their way out here, a man named John Wesley Powell was given the daunting task of surveying this huge tract of land called The West, and determining its potential. Based on the annual rainfall, the soil, and the weather patterns, Mr. Powell determined that the only way a family could ever make a living out here was to start out with at least 2500 acres of land.
Congress was in the process of creating the Homestead Act at the time, a program that promised a family 160 acres of free land if they made their way West and proved up, which meant building a house and living in it for at least two years. Congress found Mr. Powell’s findings to be very inconvenient for their promotion of the Homestead Act, so they basically discredited him. He proved to be right, but not until thousands of families moved West with dreams of bushels of wheat, or fat, happy cattle.
The average ranch in Carter County is now thousands of acres, and sometimes that’s still not enough, depending on the availability of precious water. My great grandfather, George Arbuckle, had the good fortune of landing a job as a wagon boss for one of the first cattle ranches in the area, the VVV (Three V), and when the Homestead Act kicked in, he was able to make a claim on the land where the VVV had built him a house, right along the Little Missouri River.
More than 100 years later, the ranch is still in our family, which is unusual, but not completely unheard of in this country.
But all of this history has to seem quaint to my mother’s friend Roy, who has written many history books, including Western Civilization: An Urban Perspective, Volumes I and II.
The history he knows goes back centuries, and there we sat in a little greasy spoon diner, in a place whose “civilized” history could be counted in a handful of decades.
When you watch someone who has traveled the world…watch them scrutinize the place you consider home, the place that shaped your family, and ultimately you, it’s interesting how defensive you can get. And even though Roy was diplomatic, he was also very honest when I asked whether he could see himself living here. Without hesitation, he said “No.” And he didn’t even bother to expand on that answer. He really didn’t need to, after all.
Carter County is 3,348 square miles of mostly desert, dotted with a few sandstone buttes and one gift from the nature gods, called The Medicine Rocks, a smattering of huge rock formations that have been carved and poked and bored through by wind and other natural elements. Not surprisingly, the Medicine Rocks were considered magical to the Native Americans. They certainly look magical.
But most of Carter County does not look magical. Most of it looks empty, and for good reason. It has a population of just over 1000 people. So more than three-and-a-half square miles per person. In the pioneer days, visiting a neighbor was a day trip, and without phones, visits to the neighbors were a welcome distraction from relentless work, not to mention having only your family for company. The stories of how this isolation affected people are legendary, including one from our own family, concerning my grandmother’s brother, Louie, and his wife, Vaida.
Louie and Vaida were notorious for their drinking as well as their brawls, and one night they got into a wrangle, and Vaida stormed out of the house. Her timing was bad, because a blizzard had just hit earlier that day, and the snow was still coming down hard, with a brutal wind sending it into a swirl. Although we can only guess as to what Vaida’s intentions were, whether she was headed to a neighbor’s house or eventually tried to find her way back to her own home, she got lost in the storm and froze to death 100 yards from the house.
There was talk of charging Louie with negligent homicide, but it never came to that. Probably because people knew it could have happened to any of them.
And of course similar accidents still do happen, to almost every family out here. Loss is part of life, and it gives the people here a certain perspective that has two sides. On the one hand, it makes them tough and resilient. They learn to cope, to move on. Because out here, there is always work to be done, and letting emotional turmoil get in the way of work is not even an option.
But the other obvious by-product is that they keep most of the hard stuff—things like pain, and grief, and loneliness—to themselves, which, when you think about it, sounds remarkably British.