Friday, March 14, 2014


It’s always worthwhile to look at the businesses that have succeeded in Valier.  Some of them are new starts, some have been quietly growing all along, and some are invisible to the general public.

Glacier High School

Aside from the school and the irrigation complex (canals, elevator, railroad) the biggest business in town takes advantage of federal and tribal monies in order to build major structures.  I’m talking about Swank  which builds schools, border ports of entry, and a host of other specialized structures.  This conservative and conscientious business has grown inch-by-inch from its origin in a small service station in Chester owned by DeVoe Swank to another service station in Browning -- which meant getting to know the rez people -- to the present hardware store, gift shop, design and construction business in Valier with an office in Kalispell, working throughout the Northwest.

Aabergs, owners of Trader's Dispatch

Brent Gaylord and his wife who took a government mailing list of ag people and used Gaylord’s knowledge of running a printing business to create “The Prairie Star,” a weekly newspaper of ag agent advice and articles downloaded off the Internet, plus a classified section, plus salesmen-generated larger ads.  This grew enough profit to attract interest from a regional publishing business that bought the newspaper and moved it to Great Falls.  But the employees were able to recreate “Trader’s Dispatch” using the skills, equipment and contacts. They have been able to develop and grow with the computer revolution, as well as adding material of interest to truckers, a growing industry with a strong regional component that keys into grain and livestock. That is, they were able to find and use ways to serve the pre-existing work.  

Another online business, an antique and collectible store attempting to draw on the materials that become available in the form of auctions of farm and ranch estates, didn’t work.  I don’t know why.  Maybe there just isn’t enough interesting material in the area.  Maybe really successful auctions have to be in person where there is gossip, food, competition.

Jack Smith AKA "Lame Bear"

Medicine River Trading Company is a gallery and “mountain man” store, except that much of the business is online, a website linking the international network of aficionados and re-enacters that generate a steady stream of opportunities to impersonate historical figures for schools and events and also commissioned specialties like a white buckskin wedding dress.  Jack Smith is not one to miss an opportunity.  The “steampunk” movement, which mixes 19th century industrial objects with futuristic plot lines, was to him a opportunity to create objects like old-fashioned toy Colt .45’s with gimmicky little additions of a “high tech” kind, ingeniously suggestive.  He and his wife are adept enough at computer skills to create and support websites.

In fact, one of the supports for growing local businesses is the Valier Area Development Company.  However, partly because it is nonprofit, partly because life rushes on at a breakneck pace, partly because of illness, the website hasn’t been updated since 2009.  As a result, I don’t know who is the current leader. Things can change a lot in five years.  Nothing is as much a dampener on outsider investigations of a community as an unmaintained website, but nothing is peskier than keeping up with change day-by-day.  Is Rock City Quilts still in existence?

One service station was a “old fashioned” service station that had a special connection with reservation people traveling through.  They stopped for gas, bought candy for the kids, maybe sold some firewood, and used the mechanic and tow truck services.  Rising state regulation of gas stations and their underground tanks plus an opportunity elsewhere with shorter hours and better pay caused the station to be closed.  This represented an opening for the remaining service station which saw its growth in terms of becoming a C-store as well as the state liquor store outlet but discontinuing the hunting and fishing licenses were discontinued.  I don’t know why.  Neither do I know why they don’t sell lottery tickets.  Their laundromat feature was removed.

Valier Public Library

If the library were a business -- which it is, though it’s nonprofit -- it would be classed as a roaring success due to the gifts and dedication of Kathy Brandvold, who is a trained arts manager.  It is not a shushing place, but a learning place.  She especially enjoys kids and easily interfaces with the readership of the Hutterite colonies, who avoid television though the men come to use the computer network for business.  The library board is a lively one that has about raised enough money to expand the space.
Valier in the early days.

The work of Ivan Doig, one of the most popular and successful Montana writers, has not been celebrated by the town, though his stories are located in the area.  Locals seem to think HE should do something more for the community -- like send money.  Several people create bead jewelry, small bronzes, and local books, but they are quiet occupations, dependent on individuals and not sold through a local outlet.  Pony Expressions is on the boundary between art and sports, specializing in embroidery of group-identifying clothing and caps.  A little shop selling “cowgirl” clothes moved to Conrad but first started in Valier.

Stone School Inn room

The Lighthouse has developed from a lunch counter with a view, serving fishermen and travelers, to a prestigious supper club where people come to mark special events, like proms or anniversaries.  The Stone House Bed and Breakfast is also a high quality venue where the rooms are luxuriously unique and the “breakfast” is special.  For a while there were Red Hat Ladies events, pre-wedding sleepovers for the bride and her attendants, and other ingenious commotions.  Providing them can require a lot of patience and attention to detail.

Serving more daily needs are the Panther Cafe, Froggies, and the Senior Lunches, which include Meals on Wheels.  Google for info and reviews.

Rock City erosion on Birch Creek

Local people have a huge appetite for history, but mostly their own, not interfacing with the indigenous history and not exploiting geology, as at the amazing “Rock City” erosion formation on Birch Creek.  (Don't try to go out there in wet weather.) Local memories of the transit from Belgium are still alive and there was even a bit of resentment when the state required that schools provide the history of the tribes.  “Why should WE study THEIR history?” asked a presumably educated person, which is a point of view that limits growth rather than expanding it and supports the kinds of schisms that interfere with agreements supporting things like irrigation.

Most of the businesses in Valier depend upon the enthusiasms and dedications of individuals or couples.  Christiaens Meats is dependent on a strong, healthy, skillful butcher able to go to ranches to do custom processing.    There is no assistant who can take over if he is hurt.   New family generations, especially those who leave for college, are not necessarily interested in continuing the family business.  But big families can bring their children back, often to ranching that’s supported in part by such things as a real estate office, seed cleaning, custom grain cutting or specialty livestock veterinary work like embryo transplants.  They can use their capital and labor pool to expand.  They don’t always think in terms of the town since they can't vote in the elections.

Valier is a creature of irrigated prairie.  What affects that basic industry controls the future, because it is the one business that has to be right here.  Schools are affected by the economic health of families and their willingness to stay.  Swank could move tomorrow.  Attractiveness and safety will attract commuters with jobs in nearby locations, but there are limits to that, esp. given Montana weather.  Upgrades to the electricity, high-speed internet (we keep being pushed down the list of towns getting fiber optics), and basic infrastructure will do more to support businesses than any cosmetic changes.  Why does our cell phone tower have nothing at the top? The tower is ready for the gizmo, but it's not there.  The wind farm seems to have nothing to do with us except for housing the few maintenance workers.  We need to keep thinking.

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