Growing home in Ekalaka
Eastern Montana's Carter County is bucking longtime trends toward population declines in rural plains communities, adding 255 residents according to the 2020 census. How? Oil money, dinosaurs and family.
The first thing to know about this town of a few hundred souls, the only incorporated municipality in a county of 3,300 square miles at Montana’s southeastern corner, is this: Getting here from just about anywhere else is a hell of a drive.
It’s also a heavenly one, at least on a sunny day in late summer. Coming out from Miles City, the location of both the nearest Interstate and the nearest Walmart, a modestly lead-footed driver faces a 75-minute drive east through scrubby bluffs. Then it’s a turn to the south at Baker for the best part: a straight run of state highway that delivers 40 minutes of pitching up and down rolling hills. Perhaps it’s only imagination, but the fields alongside the road seem to grow a touch greener at every crest.
The town itself always catches me by surprise, sweeping into view over the last hill, white and tan buildings poking out from a swath of trees. Main Street is wide with pull-in parking, a few blocks of the sorts of local businesses that can survive in a frontier community too small and too isolated to draw the attention of national franchises. Among them are a bar, two restaurants, a coffee shop, a grocery store, two banks, a law office, a gas station, a newspaper office and a small motel.
Circle around town a few times and you’ll find the other institutions that help make this farming community tick: a post office, a fire station, an electric co-op, churches, school buildings, a library, a hospital, the Carter County courthouse and the county museum.
This is one of the most remote communities in Montana, and among the most remote in the continental United States. The highway down from Baker, 36 miles to the north, was the only paved road into town as recently as 2010, when a notoriously muddy route south to Alzada was upgraded. In visits over the years, I’ve occasionally heard locals describe Ekalaka as “Montana’s Timbuktu.”
The rural question
In a modern, globalized world, the conventional wisdom is that places like this are on their way out, resigned to status as economic and cultural backwaters, doomed to see the young adults who could be their next generation of community leaders siphoned off by the allure of bigger cities. Except for the places where mines or oil plays pump small-town economies full of high-wage jobs, or that tourists and telecommuters have transformed into scenery boomtowns, the family farms and close-knit main streets of rural America are supposed to be fading toward dust.
Population counts, the numbers most often used to measure community vitality, have been in decline for decades in most rural counties in the Great Plains, north-central and eastern Montana included. A U.S. Census Bureau study published in 2009, for example reported that most of Montana’s plains counties had lost at least 10% of their population between 1950 and 2007, mirroring trends in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and eastern Colorado.
For a century, ever since the homestead boom of the early 1900s, that’s been the story in Carter County. The decennial census counted 4,136 residents here in 1930, but the decades since have delivered steady decline. The county population was down to 3,280 by 1940, then dipped below the 2,000 mark by 1970. In 2010, the Census Bureau tallied a population of only 1,160.
By the time census takers made their rounds last year, though, something appears to have changed. When the Census Bureau published detailed data from the 2020 count in August, it reported the Carter County population at 1,415 — up 255 residents, or 22%, over 2010. On a percentage basis, only one part of Montana, Bozeman’s Gallatin County, grew more over the last decade.
It’s possible those figures are some sort of mistake, either the result of some unaccounted-for snafu in the census process or an artifact stemming from the bureau’s decision to add statistical noise to published figures for low-population areas in an effort to protect respondent privacy. The Billings Gazette, for example, ran a story in August that concluded the population uptick was “more math than human multiplication.”
But census counts aren’t the only vital statistics ticking up in Carter County. K-8 enrollment at the Ekalaka Elementary School was 98 during the 2020-21 school year, according to data from the state Office of Public Instruction, up by 26 from a decade earlier.
And then there’s Ekalaka’s Main Street, which has seen a small-scale resurgence in recent years, much of it led by a new generation of business owners. Counting the bar and coffee shop, the town now has four dining establishments. Three of them are new in the past half-decade: the Dawg House Pub, which replaced a shuttered bar, Stompin’ Grounds coffeehouse, and most recently Mexican restaurant TSO Cantina, which opened last December.
A spacious new Main Street market, Ijkalaka Grocery, also opened in a newly constructed building in September, filling the gap left after a smaller downtown grocery burned down in 2018. (An attempt to replace the old grocery with a store in an old church building on the outskirts of town shut down earlier this year.). The new grocery uses the original spelling of the town’s namesake, Ijkalaka, an Oglala Sioux woman who married one of the area’s early white settlers in the late 1800s.
By the standards of Billings or Bozeman, much less Denver or Salt Lake City, those commercial comings and goings, resulting in a net gain of only a couple of businesses, amount to modest news at best. But in a town where the 2020 census counted a grand total of 399 residents inside town limits, each storefront represents a notable chunk of the local economy.
“In a town this size, one new building on Main Street can make everyone say, ‘Wow, what’s going on in Ekalaka?’” said Eric Lovec, who edits the local newspaper, the Ekalaka Eagle.
So what exactly is happening here? Is a bona fide frontier renaissance emerging in this small town on the plains? And if so, is there some sort of secret sauce that can be bottled and shipped out to withering communities whose leaders would pay dearly for a dose of revitalization?
I’m not a disinterested observer. For most of the last decade, I’ve been making the five- or six-hour drive out to Ekalaka once or year or so, usually without my reporter’s notebook in hand.
The county museum is run by a pair of college friends who’ve had me on their volunteer list for the museum’s annual dinosaur festival since shortly after graduation. I’ve been promoted over the years from refereeing kids as they play dino-themed mini golf to helping the reception desk hand out wristbands. It’s routinely the best weekend of my summer.
In the spare moments of those visits, I’ve often found myself chatting with an array of Ekalaka friends that’s grown over time, listening to their hopes and aspirations for the future of their town. The story you’re reading exists in no small part because their love for this place is contagious.
In one sense, the explanation for what’s going on in Ekalaka is simple: People are choosing to live here.
Talking to people in Ekalaka, I’ve heard repeatedly about a wave of younger people moving to the area. Many, I’ve been told, are locals who left town for work or college after graduating from high school in the early 2000s and are now trickling back to take over family ranches, raise families and step into leadership roles at local businesses.
Several of the seven residents I interviewed for this story paused during our conversations to do a bit of mental math, adding up the names of locals who have returned, their spouses and their kids. It wasn’t much of a stretch to see where the census count was coming from, they told me.
The trickier question, then: What is it about this town, a place with a very real claim to being the middle of nowhere, that pulls its people back with enough strength to buck the brain drain tide?
The answer to that is less simple. It’s part family ties, part infrastructure and part economics, including a hefty dose of oil pipeline money. Ekalaka is a place people can raise kids close to their grandparents, or keep a family farm in operation. Some of the new arrivals have also come for job opportunities, say at the local hospital, or the museum.
"The anonymity of a big city was nice, but it was also extremely isolating. And this town is anything but isolating. It’s extremely isolated, but it’s where I’m known. People know where I’m from. People know my family. And that means something."Eva Grimes
It’s part heart, too, the result of a critical mass of smart, creative people who’ve chosen to put persistent sweat and occasional tears into making this a place worth being instead of just being from.
Lovec, the Eagle editor, said his distribution list includes about 900 subscribers — a figure that’s close to twice the population of the town proper. More than half of those papers, he said, are mailed weekly to people out of county, many of whom are former residents who subscribe to maintain a sense of connection.
“It’s nothing that I have done,” said Lovec, who grew up outside of town and moved back when he bought the paper in 2014. “It’s some sort of emotional nostalgia factor that Ekalaka has for some reason that other places don’t.”
Supporting that local charm is a healthy dose of infrastructure: everything from the paved road south, which opens up Rapid City, South Dakota as a destination for shopping and medical appointments, to broadband connectivity. Residents say the area’s internet access has gotten significantly better in recent years as the local internet provider, Mid-Rivers Communications, has laid new lines. At least in and near town, service is now good enough to stream Netflix and make video calls.
The town’s soft infrastructure, the main street businesses and public institutions necessary to support a cohesive community, are generally healthy as well. Bond measures passed in recent years have funded a new elementary school building in Ekalaka and put $15.1 million toward a new hospital building that’s nearing completion — highly visible investments in the area’s future.
Those bonds have been made possible in large part because of oil money. While the county has little active oil production inside its borders, a handful of pipelines cross its landscape, bolstering the tax base that supports county government and local schools.
As of 2020, the Montana Department of Revenue estimates the market value of Carter County’s class 9 utility property, which includes both pipelines and a small amount of electric company property, at $407 million — twice the combined value of the county’s homes, businesses, agricultural land and other taxable property. When that market value is translated to taxable value, pipelines represent more than 90% of the county’s tax base.
Put another way, non-oil property owners will shoulder only one dollar in 10 of the taxes necessary to pay down the county’s hospital bond, assuming the pipelines hold their value until the debt is paid off.
Oil revenues have also let the county add 19 employees to its payroll since 2015, said County Treasurer Jesi Pierson, including a full-time county attorney, more road and bridge crew positions and additional staff at the county museum.
“It’s really paying for everything,” Pierson said. “It would be a very, very different story if we didn’t have those pipelines, because we couldn’t afford to tax our residential homeowners at a high enough rate to get this kind of revenue.”
A quirk of eastern Montana’s geography means that the rock formations that hold oil beneath the ground farther north are the modern-day surface layer in much of Carter County. While there isn’t much extractable oil here as a result, it turns out the area is a great place to dig for dinosaur fossils.
If you know where to look outside Ekalaka, you can find a thin line of material stretching across the hillsides, debris deposited following the meteorite strike that drove the dinosaurs extinct 66 million years ago. Fossils discovered in the area are displayed across the nation and around the world.
That fossil wealth has boosted a vibrant interest in paleontology in the area, anchored by the Carter County Museum, which claims status as the state’s oldest county museum. Established in 1936, the museum has a storied history, including a surge of renewed vigor over the past decade.
Museum Director Sabre Moore first came to Ekalaka in 2013 as part of a volunteer crew recruited at Montana State University by her now-partner, Nate Carroll, an Ekalaka native who was then studying paleontology in Bozeman. (I met Sabre and Nate working at MSU’s student newspaper in the early 2010s.)
Those volunteers, mostly new MSU graduates, spent the summer injecting energy into the museum, revamping exhibits and shaking dust from its neglected corners. They also planned the first installment of the museum’s dinosaur festival, the now-annual Dino Shindig. With the help of advertising funded by a state tourism promotion grant, they drew hundreds of attendees for a weekend of paleontology talks, kids’ activities and a field expedition.
Moore, a Wyoming ranch kid who studied history at MSU, was hooked. She spent portions of the next few summers volunteering at the museum while pursuing a master’s degree in museum administration. She moved to town full time when she was appointed to the director job in late 2016 and started putting down roots.
Running the museum, housed in a stone building initially built as an automotive garage in the 1920s, involves a fair bit of creative problem-solving. At one point a few years ago, its crew was puzzling over how to display a full-scale replica of the Wyrex, a Tyrannosaurus Rex specimen unearthed north of town (the original is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science). Since the county museum’s main display hall is too small to mount the skeleton upright, they ended up posing it in a crouch instead, placing it in a spot where an inattentive visitor will walk around a corner and find themselves face to face with the dinosaur’s skull.
In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic cut into 2020 visitation, the museum recorded 5,844 visits, three times the number it saw in 2012. The Shindig has become an annual tradition, drawing attendees from across the state and nation and featuring presentations from paleontologists as prominent as the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Additionally, the museum’s volunteer programs have attracted a steady influx of new arrivals, some affiliated with MSU and others, from places like Los Angeles or Chicago, who’ve connected with the museum through the national paleontology community. Some, like me, are casual weekend visitors, and others are serious dinosaur geeks who stick around for weeks or months at a time. A few volunteers, like Moore, have moved to town after being offered staff jobs.
The museum’s volunteer programs give local residents, kids especially, the opportunity to learn from people who have experience from other places, Moore said. It also gives outsiders a chance to come into the rural community and see all the things it has going on.
“I think that really helps build empathy on both sides, because a lot of urban doesn’t understand rural and vice versa,” she said. “It helps open up the conversation there.”
Moore is now working on a doctorate through MSU’s American Studies department, focused on studying how rural museums like hers can contribute to community vitality. Thanks in part to broadband internet, she’s able to conduct her studies remotely in an arrangement that lets her hold down her day job.
Carroll, who’s back in Ekalaka after earning a doctorate in paleontology from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said he’s confident he can build a career as a dinosaur scientist in his hometown. He’ll likely have to do a fair bit of travel, he said, but it’s getting easier to get work done by Zoom calls, and the Shindig brings a lot of his colleagues to town once a year anyway.
The town does have its claim to being the middle of nowhere, he said, but it’s “the center of everywhere for a paleontologist.”
“I really just don’t feel like I’m giving up anything by moving out here, really, other than a diversity of food options,” Carroll said. “But that can change too.”
‘Locals keep our doors open'
With the new Main Street restaurants, there are in fact more food options in Ekalaka than there used to be, businesses supported in part by the uptick in dino-tourism and in part by the new oil-money-supported jobs at the county.
Eva Grimes, who owns Stompin’ Grounds and does double duty as the town’s Chamber of Commerce president, said she doesn’t think the local economy could have supported a bar and three restaurants a decade ago. But growth has given her an opportunity to find her niche, fulfilling a long-time dream of running a coffeehouse.
She maintains a Facebook feed for the shop where she mixes snapshots of lunch specials with visual gags and local landscape photos. In mid-September, she posted an image of a Velociraptor photoshopped at the shop’s counter to illustrate “That moment before you get your first coffee of the day.” A couple of weeks before that, she posted a view from over the hill coming into town. “Just look at this village of inspiring history with a vision for the future full of incredible & passionate people,” she wrote, adding an emoji for punctuation. “Why would you want to call any other place ‘home’?”
Grimes graduated from high school in Ekalaka in 2005, and then, like many local kids, moved away for college. She worked for a while as a surgical tech in Dickinson, North Dakota, then moved back home in 2009 as the Bakken oil boom drove up the cost of living in Dickinson. She took a job at the local hospital, which seemed to be her only real option at the time.
“I wanted to be back in my town,” Grimes said. “The anonymity of a big city was nice, but it was also extremely isolating. And this town is anything but isolating. It’s extremely isolated, but it’s where I’m known. People know where I’m from. People know my family. And that means something.”
She and her mom, Shelly, a retired nurse, opened Stompin’ Grounds in 2016, working out of a rented storefront so small it didn’t have space for a public restroom. It took a few years, but the business eventually grew enough that they could add hot food service and both work there full time.
Paleontology crews taking a break from their field camps routinely come in during the summer to use the Wi-Fi and pick up a slice of pizza. And while the annual town fair has historically been the year’s “big weekend” for downtown businesses, Grimes said the Dino Shindig now provides another one. The festival has actually been her best sales weekend for the last few summers, she said.
The shop also benefits from other tourists: fall hunters, as well as motorcyclists who’ve found the second paved road a convenient backcountry route as they make their way around the Sturgis circuit. But, Grimes said, when it comes down to it, it’s really her regulars that anchor the business.
“Our locals keep our doors open for sure,” she said.
That was particularly true last fall when Shelly, who was 56, was hospitalized and then died from complications of COVID-19.
Grimes said she was forced to shut down the shop, but anonymous donors stepped up to pay her utility bills and several months of rent. A community fundraiser raised thousands of dollars in a matter of hours, enough to cover her mom’s funeral expenses. She was able to reopen a month later, something she’s not sure would have been possible in a bigger city.
“They took so much burden off of me as a business owner and a daughter,” Grimes said. “And they all did it because they wanted to see me make it and they cared about my business.”
Without Shelly as a second set of hands in the shop, Grimes soon realized she needed to hire some help — something she couldn’t afford without expanding into a larger space. In part because of that business pressure, in part because the outpouring of community support had boosted her confidence, she took the leap to buy and renovate a building of her own, where she relocated Stompin’ Grounds earlier this year. A framed copy of the story the Ekalaka Eagle published when the mother-daughter team first opened for business is mounted on the back wall.
There’s a Mayberry aspect to Ekalaka’s small-town appeal, too — the sense that its isolation makes it a safe, comfortable place to lead a quiet life focused on family.
Jesi Pierson, the county treasurer, said her favorite thing about the community is the sort of childhood it lets her give her four kids, the oldest of whom is 12.
It’s a place, she said, where kids can ride bikes unattended, or walk themselves home from school. If one of them goes missing after class, she can call their teacher, who will likely know which friend they took off with and which direction they went.
“I’m not worried about traffic or kidnappers,” Pierson said. “The most dangerous things around here are sharp sticks and snakes.”
Similar sentiments are echoed in research published by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2015 that sought to understand the factors driving return migration to remote communities like Ekalaka. Based on demographic data and interviews with high school reunion attendees in what they termed “geographically disadvantaged counties” nationwide, those researchers concluded that return migration, much of it family motivated, represented a major demographic force moving people into rural America.
“Roughly half of the nonreturnees interviewed were open to the possibility of returning or had considered such a move at one time, and the majority of these nonreturnees cited work-related barriers as the primary reason for staying away,” the researchers wrote. “Those choosing to return came back primarily for family reasons and found ways to secure or create employment.”
The researchers also heard that amenities like new schools, parks and bike trails were seen as “critical assets” by people who had chosen to move back to small towns with their kids. Things seen as missing pieces in rural communities weighed on the opposite side of the scale, though.
“Nonreturnees described numerous shortcomings that outweighed family ties, such as limited shopping choices, fewer restaurants and cultural venues, and not enough kid-friendly activities,” the researchers wrote.
Work that remains
Carter County, like anywhere else, has its challenges. Finding — and keeping — teachers is a consistent headache for the Ekalaka school district, for example. Residents also worry about housing availability. In part because Ekalaka’s housing market is so small, it can be particularly hard to find the rentals necessary to give first-year teachers and other new arrivals homes to land in. According to Ekalaka School District business manager Lora Tauck, in at least one case a new teacher has accepted a job in Ekalaka and subsequently backed out after being unable to find housing.
The small-town politics can be dicey, too. A years-long dispute between Ekalaka’s town government and its volunteer fire department over which entity owns the town fire trucks has worked its way to the Montana Supreme Court, for example.
The thing that’s changing, though, is that the influx of people with entrepreneurial or professional skills, returners and new blood alike, means there’s more talent at the table to help puzzle out solutions to the community’s problems. There’s a new hospital administrator, Ryan Tooke, a local who’s recently moved back with his family. A new lawyer, Jennifer Williams, has set up full-time practice in the town, too. Her husband, Tye Williams, is in the process of assuming management of the local electric co-op.
That’s the sort of thing that starts to snowball, as there are more and more hands available to do the work of building and maintaining a community with all its puzzle pieces in place.
Grimes said there’s a sense now of a “brain trust” available to her and the town’s other community leaders, a group of “motivated 30-somethings” she can bounce ideas off of when she’s looking to tackle a problem.
“When you see a need, there seems to be someone there to fulfill that need,” she said.
“There for a while, Ekalaka was just waiting,” she added. “And then everyone just started moving back.”