Capturing the cheerful spirit of a Montana general store

My husband probably thought he had found someone else. Why else would he keep diverting me off Interstate 90 into a town whose population is smaller than my daughter’s high school class?

Although I’ve lived near Bozeman for 28 years, there’s something provocative about Fishtail, Mont., a small town of about 250 people. But it wasn’t another lover, and it wasn’t the scenic grandeur or the glittering nightlife. The attraction, incredible as it may seem, was the Fishtail General Store.

If you’re driving through Fishtail, you can’t miss the store: it’s one of two or three businesses in town (depending on whether you count the post office), and it’s surprisingly quaint.

Founded in 1900, the company is the oldest continuously open general store in Montana. Owned and operated by Katy Martin for the past 22 years, the store is a fixture in this rural community. “Katy is a force of energy and generosity,” said Nan Sollo, a long-time customer. “This store is a labor of love.”

At 72 years old, Katy never stops moving, except to greet her customers. Her manager, Melissa Husted, compares her to a hummingbird: always on the go.

And while I’m not in the worst shape, I still struggled to keep up with it, racking up a bill at Gatorades and chasing it around the store while internally entertaining the creative merit of a blurry portrait. Perhaps, I tried to convince myself, that would better convey her constantly moving state.

The store attracts people from all walks of life, from ranchers and miners to CEOs and doctors. “We get locals from our community as well as visitors from out of state and out of the country,” said Katy.

And there’s almost nothing you can’t find here. Some are things you might expect: milk, soda, beer, chips, toothbrushes, tampons. Others, like nuts, bolts, nails and screws, are sensible and provide a measure of relief: “We try to have what people might need so they don’t have to go into town to fix something,” Katy said.

But you can also find freshly baked cakes, yard signs, steaks and sausages, baby clothes, dog treats, toys, rock painting kits, puzzles, craft soaps, games, spam. Y fresh fruit, local art, homemade peanut butter, micro beers, camping, fishing and hunting gear, PVC for sprinklers, gasoline, reflective t-shirts and mining boots.

Yes, mining boots. The Stillwater mine, run by Sibanye-Stillwater, a multinational mining company, is 22 miles from the general store, directly down Nye Road. (The company also operates the nearby East Boulder mine.) A good neighbor agreement signed between the mining company and a coalition of environmental and citizen groups has helped protect water quality and prevent industrial pollution. It has also created goodwill between the mining company and surrounding communities.

“The Good Neighbor Agreement is a win-win,” said Doug Ezell, a long-time customer. “It preserves the beauty and lifestyle of Fishtail and the surrounding region while allowing the mine to conduct its business.”

The general store’s relationship with the mine evolved 15 years ago when, at the request of a mine employee, the store began serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Around 3:30 a.m., store employees arrive to prepare for the first round of miners, who swarm like a flock of birds at dawn, between 5:30 a.m. and 6:15 a.m.

The miners gather up their hot coffees, pre-wrapped burritos and sandwiches before disappearing down Nye Road (points that dissolve into the horizon) as they head out for a day in the underworld. The night shift mining crew usually drop by the shop around 7:15am at the end of their day.

When greeted and asked how he was doing, one night miner, Austin Jensen, simply said, “It’s blinding.” (Her eyes of his were still adjusting to the light from the surface.)

Later, the schedule changes: miners on the evening shift start their days, and miners starting in the morning finish theirs. During that time they offer hamburgers, sandwiches, Mexican food, pizzas, homemade cookies and more.

Ranchers are also welcome here.

“On any given day, a rancher might brand, move cows, ship cows,” explained Melissa, the store manager. “We have a lot of ranchers around here who just come to buy groceries, snacks, water and beer to help feed their crews.”

You don’t have to spend a lot of time in the store to realize that everyone is included.

I met Chase Anderson and Brett Heggie, two daytime cowboys, or “grass paramedics,” at the store as they added hot sauce to their breakfast burritos. Their job, as they explained, is to identify diseases such as hoof rot or conjunctivitis in individual cows in the herd.

It was interesting to hear the cowboy version of the popular TV series “Yellowstone”. “Taylor Sheridan,” the show’s writer and director, “has done a good job of portraying little bits of the real West,” Brett said. “The show has shed some light on the fact that real working cowboys are still here, every day, doing the chores necessary to keep agriculture alive.”

As I wandered through the store, I quickly made friends with Katy’s stepson, Kirk Martin, co-owner of Fishtail Grind, who set up with Luke Whall inside the general store in 2017. Kirk and Luke were married in April at the courthouse in Columbus, Mont. .

I also met several regulars: Sherry Winn, speaker, author, leadership coach, and two-time Olympian on the handball team; John Dinsdale, the owner of Beartooth Concrete, who shared with me that he had recently lost his wife; Jan LaForge Flanagan, a Raven woman who told me that she was recently married.

Bill Kalyn, a retired urban parks manager, was visiting from Canada. On the phone after I photographed him, he laughed and said that he was getting a lot of jokes from the portrait session. “We enjoy visiting the store,” he said, adding that Katy has some unique items in stock. One in particular that caught his eye was a beer can insulator. He said that she wraps up your drink and looks like a little sleeping bag. His wife enjoyed the large selection of cards.

The products in the store are worthy of attention. But perhaps my biggest takeaway is that the patrons reflect the joyous spirit of the place.

“People feel comfortable coming here,” Katy told me. “They line up and talk. It doesn’t have to be about anything big. They share their stories and what is happening in their lives. That makes us more compassionate.”

“And the fact that we have good food doesn’t hurt,” he added.

janie osborne is a photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. You can follow his work on Instagram.

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