Ingomar, an aging Montana cattle-ranching community that sits on a bench between the Yellowstone and Musselshell rivers, has no gas station, no doctor's office and no mechanic. The closest grocery store is 45 miles down U.S. 12, though most of Ingomar's 27 residents opt to shop at the second-closest grocery store, which has better deals and is 86 miles away. Approaching Ingomar by car, it seems like a mirage: a huddle of gray buildings standing in relief to the vast prairie. To the west, east and south, the town seems neighbor only to horizon. To the north, hills hide yet more prairie.
Today, no one in Ingomar knows what "Ingomar" means. Many homesteaders in the area were Norwegian, which might trick you into thinking "Ingomar" sounds Norwegian (Sumatra and Vananda, in the same area, play a similar game). The going theory around Ingomar is that after the Milwaukee railroad came through in 1910, rail executive Albert J. Earling let his daughter ride the train and name the fledgling communities along the way. No one there today seems concerned with how she came up with "Ingomar."
Today, Ingomar's hard luck is typical of many towns in the arid West that were built on ranching and agriculture. Over the past half-century, advances in automated machinery led to fewer jobs. The children and grandchildren of homesteaders sought work in cities rather than taking over family ranches. Big, corporate farms and ranches bought up many littler ones. In this way, Ingomar is a part of a seemingly inexorable trend that started when workers first pounded iron tracks across America's flatland.
Between 1910 and 1913, eastern Montana experienced uncommonly favorable weather. Wet springs, cool summers and mild winters allowed newly arrived homesteaders to believe what they had read in the Milwaukee Rail's pamphlet: "There is not another state in North America where a day's work or a dollar spent in agricultural enterprise will bring such large returns and amid living conditions which are so uniquely delightful. We enjoy the tonic of the air, the variety of the landscapes...towns "and cities newly built and building, new faces on the street, something moving, stirring, starting and going somewhere and always toward achievement, success."
With the help of pamphlet campaigns by the railroads, enterprising families from across the United States heard about the "free land" the government was giving away: 320 acres of farm and ranchland to be proved-up after five years. Lying about 40 miles northeast of Forsyth, the land around Ingomar was some of the last to be homesteaded in the West.
In 1910, a Milwaukee Road pamphlet advertised opportunity on the new section of the rail between Forsyth and Melstone, Ingomar lying halfway between. The tone is tempered: "This section...has until recently been kept from developing through lack of transportation facilities. On the bench...are found immense areas of gently undulating prairie land excellently adapted to farming without irrigation. The country is so new that not much has yet been accomplished in the way of actual farming, but enough has been done to demonstrate its feasibility."
Between 1911 and 1917, an average of about 2,500 homestead claims were filed per year in the area surrounding Ingomar. After the rail was completed in 1910, Ingomar got its post office. By 1914, there was a bank, two hotels, two general stores, a doctor's office, a maternity home and a school. Though no drinkable water could be found in the area, a daily train brought potable water in a tender. The weather of recent years, a booming wool business and a servicing railroad led to the fruition of the life the railroad pamphlets had promised.
It wouldn't last long.
In 1921, a fire burned half of Ingomar. Some businesses rebuilt; most, dismayed by recent years of drought, moved on. That same year, the town's bank president was indicted on federal charges of abusing funds. Though charges were later dropped, the bank closed. People began moving away and soon there were hardly enough hands to support a labor-intensive wool industry. By the 1930s, due to ongoing drought, farming was only lucrative enough to supplement a ranching income. Raising cattle was the only suitable use of the land.
In 1951, Ingomar's school closed. In 1975, the wool warehouse was sold and closed. In 1980, rail executives turned their attention to Ingomar for the first time since a rich girl's daddy let her pick a name out of a hat and whisper a town into existence. Rail service was discontinued, the tracks removed for recycling. After the tracks were gone, the rail company gave Ingomar the water tender that once made daily deliveries. Today, it sits next to the north entrance of town, halted on a lone section of track. In crooked letters, someone has written "Thanks for sharing your day with us."
Always fence to mend
To get to NNN ranch headquarters, you turn off the pavement north of Ingomar. Twelve miles down the gravel, you take the first right. Nine more miles and the road ascends a soft grade to a tree-pocked notch in the landscape. The headquarters is a sprawl of buildings, shacks, garages, pick-up trucks, machines with hitches, machines with steering wheels, cattle dogs, cats, fences, pens, tractors, a school bus and a diesel pump. The sprawl is multi-generational: there rusts the road grader Albert Newman once used; there, the grader his sons, Wally and Howard, use today.
Albert Newman, 89, is tall with big hands and a deep, sandpapery voice. He was born outside Lewiston, Idaho, on July 4, 1922 and was brought to Montana in a covered wagon a few weeks later. It took the family a month and a half to reach their homestead south of Hysham. In 1943, Albert married Jean, the daughter of a vegetable farmer from Hardin. They ranched south of Billings and started a family before moving northeast to Ingomar in 1963.
Albert remembers when Ingomar got running water. He remembers when, on a still summer day, you could hear the train passing through town. He remembers when people still raised sheep. But he reminisces without sentimentality: "To me," he says, a grin edging onto his face, "a sheep is just walking around looking for a place to die. We do cattle."
It's been a while since Albert worked NNN ranch, where he and Jean still live. He's left the care of some 600 head of red and black Angus to his sons, Wally and Howard.
It's January, and so far the season has been warm and relatively dry, an "open winter" (the opposite of an open winter, Jean Newman says, is a "bad winter"). Howard, 64, has just come back from feeding some cows. His older brother, Wally, has just loaded a freshly killed coyote into the bed of a pickup truck that lost its power steering. Wally is loading the truck and the coyote onto a flatbed trailer to take about 85 miles to Miles City.
From behind the steering wheel of a 1989 Ford flatbed, Howard only speaks in answers. He wears a felted Stormy Kromer and a black silk scarf around his neck. He has eyeglasses, a gray mustache and clay-caked boots. At first meeting, he lacks the affability of his father; he doesn't say hello, he nods. He doesn't extend a hand until you extend yours. It doesn't seem unfriendly so much as cautious, a trait typical of people in this area. It's a little bit like Rooster Cogburn at his soberest, a demeanor that can make a twenty-something-year-oldwish he hadn't said he grew up in Connecticut.
Howard stops the truck in a pasture where 40 or so head of cattle are eating a freshly unrolled bail of hay. They all turn and watch us as they chew. Howard explains that these cows will calve in April and their offspring will spend the summer working the semi-arid grassland into 400 pounds of lean meat to be sold at auction in October. From there, the calves end up in feedlots in Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, where they are fed grain and corn until they are marbled and knob-kneed1,400 pounds ready for slaughter. Ranch life is cyclical: calving in the spring, branding in the early summer, weaning in the fall. The completion of one job means only that you can begin the next. Depending on where you started keeping score, you end up a year older and back where you began.
Heading back to ranch headquarters, I ask Howard if he's ever had another job. He says he poured concrete for a summer after coming back from Vietnam, then he laughs for the first time since we met and says, "No, I've never really had another job." Ranching is hard, he says, but it's also interesting, different every day. "There are no days off," he says. "You live here and it's your life. Something can always be done." There are over 150 miles of fence on his property. "At the very least, there's always fence to mend."
Howard's only child, a daughter, is a lab technician in Miles City. Her husband rodeos, Howard says, and the two work a smaller cattle ranch on the Powder River. Howard isn't sure they'd ever move up to Ingomar to take over. Most likely, he and Wally will be the last Newmans to steward NNN ranch.
To an outsider, age would seem the most pressing issue in Ingomar's future. Not only are most of the buildings old, but most of the residents are elderly or close to it. Mark Boone, 43, claims he's been the youngest person in Ingomar since he moved there 23 years ago. The next-youngest person I met is Susan Webber, who fills in at the post office and waitresses at the bar, the Jersey Lilly. She's 57.
Mark and his father, Stan, are something of an anomaly in Ingomar. Stan, 76, was a sales executive for Xerox in California before tiring of corporate life and moving to Darby in 1972. "That was before people didn't want anything to do with Californians," Stan explains without even a glint of a smile.
Stan spent 17 years raising cattle in the Bitterroot before heading east to Ingomar. By that time, Mark was already sure he wanted to be a rancher. When Mark was starting high school in Darby, Stan says, "I took him aside and asked what he wanted to do. He told me he wanted to ranch. His little brother was there, too, and I asked him what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to be a fighter pilot." Stan points to a picture of a man standing next to the open cockpit of a fighter jet—his younger son—and a rare smile spreads across his face. "That was a worthwhile conversation," he says.
These days, Stan works less than he used to, leaving the management of the ranch to Mark, but he still gets out on horseback to trail cattle and check fence.
Ingomar persists because of beef. Nearly everyone in town owns a ranch, works on a ranch or worked on a ranch. In recent years, the price of beef has hit near-record highs. Boone explains this is not only due to a growing overseas market, but also because there are just fewer head of cattle being raised. In part due to the worst drought the southern plains has seen since the Dust Bowl, 2011 saw the smallest U.S. cattle herd since 1952.
'We choose this life, every day'
On a clear day, Mark Boone is driving north to show me a place that his dad thought I'd like to see. As we turn off the dirt and clay road, onto a double-track through grass, he says he doesn't know why this spot on the northeast edge of his father's land is called Acorn Flats. There are no oak trees—hardly trees at all. The spot is 30 miles from pavement, 35 miles from Ingomar, much of which, like Acorn Flats, is gone now, burnt or blown over, save for a bar and a post office. When it rains too much, you can't get here. When it snows too much, you can't get here. Unless you asked one of a few people, you'd never know Acorn Flats existed.
Mark has a neat mustache and blue eyes that brightly contrast with his wind-burnt complexion. He's eager to share information about his life, the land, cattle ranching. He says he gets about one flat tire a week driving these roads. He makes it to Billings to see his wife and children about as often. He explains that though this country is best used for cattle, the land is only suitable, not ideal. The soil is so alkaline that deposits of salt carpet the earth between clusters of sage, greasewood and yucca, like perennial frost. He says a single head of cattle needs about 50 acres. He looks after 800 head on 65 square miles.
As he stops the truck, he says, "You know, a lot of people make the assumption that we're out here because we don't have anything better to do. Like we're stuck here. But we choose this life, every day."
Boone has children, but he is fairly certain none of them will ever do what he and his father chose to do. "It's hard to get young people out here," he says. "It's hard for us to even pay anyone minimum wage. And with no schools, no socializing to be had, it's hard to convince young people this is a good opportunity."
He begins walking, winds a path through the thigh-high grass and warns to be careful of nails sticking out of planks of wood scattered on the ground. In the summer, he says, you have to worry about rattlesnakes too.
A break in the grass reveals a sun bleached spinal cord. He says most of the antelope are gone these days: "They say it's some kind of disease is getting them."
Acorn Flats is a conglomeration of buildings that once headquartered a wheat farm and cattle ranch. The six smaller buildings, Boone explains, were homesteads from the early 20th century, at some point transplanted and repurposed to this spot, though just when is hard to say. One building was clearly made into a chicken coop before its roof sloughed to the ground. Another is kept upright by wires crisscrossing its interior. Boone doesn't know who rigged the wires, can't figure why you'd want to save the place. The rest of the buildings, collapsed or close to it, are monuments.
Amidst the shacks is a two-story house built sometime after homesteaders first arrived in the area. Inside, there's evidence of more recent use: layers of peeling wallpaper, an old radio, a high school physics textbook, two spring mattresses and a lone cowboy boot resting on its side. Boone knows someone lived here in the 1960s, but he's not sure about more recent occupants. "Any day now, this building's going down, too," he explains, holding his hands up in the shape of a house. "Wind, lightning, rot, the roof'll collapse." He makes a whooshing sound as his hands fall to his sides.
A loud, strange silence
I first visited Ingomar in October of last year, to attend a town meeting about the possible closure of the Ingomar post office. The meeting was held in the rec center, a 1960s, barn-shaped building with corrugated metal siding and a basketball court that seemed too small and dimly lit to host a game. Over the phone, Coleen Robinson, Ingomar's postmaster, had told me to "just look for the new building in the middle of town."
Some 40 people attended the meeting, which means that at least 13 attendees were from somewhere else.
During the meeting, residents asked a sheepish USPS representative questions about the proposed closure. The few answers he had were not satisfying. Nearly everyone I spoke with said they were going to write their congressmen. I wondered if 27 letters wouldmakemuchof a splash.
After the meeting, many of the attendees walkedthe200yards across town to the Jersey Lilly, the local bar, and the only business in town that the federal government doesn't want to shutter. I ordered a bowl of bean soup, a grilled cheese and a Budweiser. My friend Beth ordered a Moose Drool and a shot of whiskey. The soup came out in a pot that I ladled into my bowl. Included was a local delicacy supposed to have been a favorite snack of the sheepherders who once bent elbows in the burnt-down building up the street: a saltine cracker, a slice of cheddar cheese, a bit of raw white onion and a wedge of peeled orange. The result is crunchy and slimy; salty, tart and sweet. It's not bad—the flavors are sort of a wash—but it does make you wonder why. The entire meal with drinks cost $16.
We tried to stay at the Jersey Lilly long enough to watch the St. Louis Cardinals win an improbable Word Series, but, feeling exhausted, we left before the start of the ninth. We crossed the street to Central Park, Ingomar's municipal plot of grass with a few picnic tables and horseshoe pits. We had set up our tents before the meeting, in the day's diminishing light, and the dropping temperature made me wish I had kept my sleeping bag in the car. I said goodnight to Beth and climbed into my bag.
I couldn't sleep. At this point, I knew nothing about the place. Nothing about the railroad pamphlets, the nutrient-leached clay soil, the undrinkable water. But the night's quiet was intense, and, as I lay awake, felt absolute. The errant flap of the tent wall, the padding of a mousing catthe murmurs were amplified against the silence, louder and stranger than they ever had been before. Ingomar conjured in me a feeling I have only ever felt looking at an ocean.
I grew up in cities and towns on the East Coast, where there are either too many buildings or too many trees to get much perspective; where communities get together to discuss the pros and cons of bike lanes; where, usually, you can't see the stars or hear the wind in the leaves. The places that are growing in Montana—Missoula, Bozeman, Kalispell—are increasingly this way. But in eastern Montana—in Ingomar—every view is uninterrupted, and seeing the prairie, like seeing the ocean, is to feel very small and alone and human.
Ingomar will disappear. Just as neighboring Sumatra and Vananda dried up and blew away, Ingomar will someday be kneaded back into the folds of the prairie. There is hope, perhaps, in the prospect of the oil boom sprawling to Rosebud County, but most residents are uncertain what that will mean for the town and if it could even happen in their lifetimes. Rather, the question in Ingomar is not if but when, and the people who still live there know it.
I met Susan Webber, the second-youngest person in Ingomar, on my second visit, in mid-November. She served me a grilled cheese at the Jersey Lilly. I asked her if she was willing to be interviewed and she said she wasn't a good person to talk to: "I only moved here in 2008." I told her I thought that was interesting, and that I'd love to talk if she were willing.
Webber has a nervous energy that, when compared to the stoicism of Stan Boone and Howard Newman, seems decidedly East Coast-ish. She second-guesses herself before her words even cross the bar, and she fidgets constantly.
I asked her why Ingomar. She said it was always her husband's dream to live out West, to settle down in an emptier landscape. She said he likes to hunt and trap and shoot his guns.
I asked her how she feels about Ingomar. "It's what's not here that's most important," she saidand she began to cry. "It's just, life sometimes, back there, could be overwhelming. It's much quieter here." She moved away from the bar and wiped her eyes with a Kleenex. "Really," she continued, "I'm here..."
I saw Susan again six weeks later, in January, on my last visit to the town. I wasn't sure if she'd want to talk with me again, but she agreed to let me come to her house, which is connected to the post office, on my way out of town.
The Webbers' front yard has the flung-upon appearance of NNN ranch headquarters: rusting pick-up trucks, a four-wheeler, a tractor. When we pulled up, the coyote that had been in the back of Wally Newman's pick-up was sprawled across the hood of a pick-up parked next to the Webbers' house. Susan met me at the front door and invited me in. I asked if her husband was home.
Calvin Webber, 60, has the irrefutable appearance of someone with whom one should not fuck. He has a gray handlebar mustache, a thick neck and forearms like calf muscles tattooed with images of bullets, a deer in crosshairs and the words "Remington" and "Winchester." When we met, he was sitting in a recliner eating a bowl of soup. Above him, on the wall, were three trophy whitetail mounts.
Calvin seemed put out by my presence. I asked him if we could talk for a minute. He said sure, but he wouldn't have much to say.
Calvin describes himself as a loner. He said the biggest threat to a place like Ingomar is the federal government "messing with people."
"I'm in heaven here," he said.
"I'm so lucky to have a fantastic wife who's willing to be here with me. So lucky"and as he spoke, Susan sat on a couch on the other side of the room, a box of tissues on her lap.