Friday, June 01, 2018


When I began working on the history of Valier, Montana, a town based on irrigation, the consensus of the town dwellers was quite different.  One idea was that the economic base was the recreation offered by Lake Francis, which is a dam-created impoundment, part of the irrigation system.  Fish are there because they are stocked, planted, but no one in town sells a fishing license.  The kind of fish is quite unlike stream fly-fishing for trout.  Some of the lake use is machines that go fast on water.  It’s not a good place to swim because of mud.  

An island was a roosting spot, a refuge, for herons, but also for seagulls which are considered negatively and nest on the ground.  When a vandal got access because water was low, partly because a construction company had graveled the route as a favor to politicians, and smashed the nests and eggs in a gleeful ATV spree, bird defenders tried to bring in national organizations.  The rookery, trees that had grown there before the dam and had died after that, was cut down to eliminate controversy.  Or maybe the dead trees just fell down.  Things calmed down.

There are no seagulls around this year.  I don’t know why.  No herons either.  The campground next to the lake becomes more and more controlled, with an onsite manager to collect fees for the piped water and electricity.  People mostly come on the weekend in RVs.  We’re all nervous about open fires.

At one point when the Conrad brothers owned the land, it was an open range ranch with many cowboys.  This is often featured in the histories written by women hoping to promote a romantic image based on movies and tv.  The just previous period of raising sheep is quickly skipped over, and the introduction of barbed wire, which ended the “open” part, likewise is only noted.

Another rather idealistic story is that Valier was founded by Belgians whose sense of propriety was offended by the raucous boom culture of oil discovery, particularly since it was associated with the Blackfeet reservation, but also avoidance of Cut Bank, which was still wild and woolly when I came in the Sixties.  The bars are more civilized now, but still thrive.

The boom years of Valier came from the construction of Swift Dam and the ensuing irrigation channels and basins.  The former sheriff from that time, now deceased, told me that weekends were so riotous in Valier that one had to walk down the streets on a layer of beer cans.  I have not researched any of this but only have talked to people, seen the publicity, and observed the land itself.  The exception is the story of how the Catholics, the Belgians, and the railroad developed a scheme for bringing in a community of farmers.  I’ll pursue that story, which I did research a bit, in another post, but it has been a strong force in terms of self-image. 

The dwindling of Valier, which is in process today, is much the same as that of the entire High Line of Montana and small towns across the prairie.  It is dynamic, continuing, and cannot escape forces that have nothing to do with the town.  Maybe most wrenching is the aging of the population, the thinning out of families, the confused transfer of wealth and practises across the generations.  Many people have big powerful vehicles and shop a hundred miles from home, but those with undependable cars and those who have no way to drive — either no car or no ability — are limited, as I discovered when a severe ear infection made me too dizzy to drive.  This is no longer a good place for poor people with health problems.

A counter force, not necessarily helpful, is that of the people from other places who see this village is a refuge, a holdover from long ago when families lent stability and charm.  There are two categories: one is young families hoping to keep their children safe and unaware that drug dealers have discovered that small towns are a good place to cook meth and dispense pot, that an aging (and hurting) population is vulnerable to pharmaceutical pill racketing.  The other is single men who have not formed into families or who have left earlier families.  A theoretically non-alcoholic community is not a problem when one drinks privately, a practise that is not exactly community building.

Another factor is the return of military people, since the area encourages enlistment of the young as a guard against poverty.  These people are educated and energetic, still young in retirement, and accustomed to a rather different ethos than that of the current nation where extreme negatives are seen as funny and powerful.  Something similar happens on the rez where the people who were moved to the cities by Eisenhower — who thought it was a way to disperse the rez — come back home.  Some are used to prosperity and impatient that things are old-fashioned, old buildings are falling down, and so on.

One expectation is that small towns like Valier will be cheaper places to live, cost less for food, taxes, infrastructure and so on.  But the idea also means less quality, less fresh food, more potholes, water problems, and standards imposed by people in the “cities” of Montana, though none of them break the 100,000 population mark.  Professional refugees from competitive cities, much bigger and usually coastal, have little idea of how to live in a rural place.  They don't participate, expecting service.

This close to Canada (a little more than an hour’s drive to the border) we have compensated by interweaving our enterprises, but the federal government’s appetite for national isolation and tariffs is interfering.  Consequences are felt in medical care, academics, and the international pressure from refugees.

One other factor should be mentioned, which is the risk of monoculture.  The beef ranches and hog farms are not so susceptible — or so we think — as the vast stretches of wheat, esp. where irrigation can encourage it.  These fields are vulnerable to the shrinking supply of water (or so it seemed until this violently wet year) and also to tinkering with seeds, both by cross-breeding and by fiddling the genomes.  Today there are people allergic to wheat, people dependent on the beer from barley, undetermined numbers diseased from chemical fertilizers and weed control.  It’s easy to play “sim city” with a small town like this one.  As long as a bad move doesn’t eliminate all the players.

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