Friday, October 23, 2015
A TOWN MEETING IN DEADWOOD -- er, Valier
The mini-Bakken boom around here has changed the dynamics of Valier, adding itinerant oilfield labor to the demographics. Once Swift Dam and the canal construction that is the heart of the town's economy had been completed in 1910, the previous boom dynamic of male gypsy labor moved on to other territory. Cut Bank became the saloon town and petit professionals like school teachers did their relaxing in more upscale emporiums in Valier, places more like restaurants. Froggies, which had been closed down, reopened as a pizza parlor with beer. Since then, it has become more of a dive, though the parking lot fistfights have been kept to a minimum.
In fact, Froggies, its growing clientele, and the general weakness of the town council as they struggle with the fraying of infrastructure built a century ago and a constant stream of imposed requirements from the state, has meant that the malcontents and the mutineers have solidified into a kind of alternative political hub, though they have no background or information that is current. Froggies is their headquarters.
This came to a head last night in a council meeting during which the Froggies crowd expressed huge outrage at the lack of respect for their fireworks event on the Fourth. On the one hand the owner actually wept over the grievous insult of a town council member, gentle and quiet Dave Widhalm, coming into the bar and asking whether they had remembered to get insurance for the fireworks in a year so dry that in many places fireworks were flatly forbidden. The indignation focused on Dave asking these questions in front of his clientele. Also, this man felt that the posting of the Valier regulations for fireworks was an assault on his dignity. He had a handful of notes detailing these failures of respect. After a half-hour of being harangued, Dave humbly apologized. I didn’t see why, though it was a generous thing to do.
In addition, the Froggie owner spoke out about the constant fury from people who want to do things that are blocked by city rules. This news must be conveyed by city employees who are personally blamed.
Then there was a diatribe over the failure to properly respect and support the older man who has volunteered to run the campground, so full on the Fourth this year that four spaces were double-camped. He and his friends prepared the camp before the fireworks and then cleaned up afterwards -- all for no pay. Among the other indignities, he has to go around to the camps to collect the fees because the town has not provided registration boxes the way the national parks do it.
Valier fish cleaning station
One wonders at the enormous popularity of the campground this year. This is the first year there has been a full-time resident camp tender. One of the more peculiar complaints about the campground was that the very bright lights by the fish-cleaning station and the wash house should be turned off at night. They were installed to deter persistent vandalism.
The campground (and the lake) is owned by the Pondera Canal Company and the head of THEIR board gave permission for the fireworks. Again, rather strangely, no one seems to have consulted the fire department, though it’s only volunteer. The Pondera Canal Company is a sort of “third government” of the town, but very quiet in most circumstances. It is the whole reason for the town’s economic existence -- NOT tourists, nor fishing nor even ranches. Froggie claims that the fireworks display was not advertising for his bar but rather a benefit event for the library (the most vibrant and irreproachable institution in town) and the VADC which springs into being whenever the ladies of the town want to undertake some improvements of a cosmetic nature.
In fact, two ladies were there to propose more grant applications to improve the looks of the town, because surely money would follow if only the weeds were gone. Of course, they propose to write the grants, as they have done before. (The town can barely get the old ones paid off since they are usually partial funding.) Many of the complaints by the Froggie crowd are demands for repairs to streets and so on that simply can’t be afforded without going into even more serious town debt which must be repaid by property taxes. Maybe a third of the town is “owned” by Pondera County (the county -- not the Canal Company) because of unpaid taxes. The county does not pay itself taxes.
Valier grain elevator
This is a collapsing town. The grain elevator is old-fashioned and there is talk of abandoning it, esp. since the railroad spur may be closed down. One grocery store is left and a proposition to sell it to someone younger has broken down. The cafe has been sold to people who don’t have the vision of the previous owners. The engine rebuilder of great talent is seriously ill. The bank provides less and less service. The owner of the Medicine River Trading Post is too ill to open. One large and prosperous family, reaching critical mass, has bought the only service station (the other one closed) and the motel. The car dealer is gone. The other major business in town, a construction company, has an adjunct office in Kalispell and the company wives would rather live over there where there are many amenities.
Valier is less than a hundred miles from the Canadian border, next to the Blackfeet reservation, and on dealing terms with a half-dozen Hutterite colonies. Our population is divvied up into compartments. The whole situation is ideal for people who like to evade the law without attracting attention.
Lethbridge, pop 83,000, was originally Fort Whoop-Up, based on the whiskey trade (the Whoop-Up trail went past here), and after that a coal mining town. It has always been a sin city with a veneer of upper class culture: universities, art galleries, and so on. It is 131 miles from Valier. Apart from the many 18-wheel haulers, traffic up I-15 is fast, sporty cars with Canadian plates. Great Falls’ population is not quite 60,000 with the same bourgeois cultural features (museums, universities, orchestra) but also Malmstrom Air Force Base. It is 86 miles away.
When the cultured ladies who want to propose grant applications think about small towns, they do not think of the larger context or the opportunities for evading the law. They do not think about the world wheat economy or the international corporations who own it. They do not dream that a new water agreement with the Blackfeet tribe might very well cause ranches to fail, if the lack of snow pack in winter doesn’t end irrigation first. They haven’t penciled on the back of napkin how many major construction projects on the northern prairie remain on the federal agenda, which have been what sustained the company. Nor are they aware of how federal funds are steadily dwindling.
Their thinking is all on nice domestic terms, which is how they don’t notice the drug scene. They drive up government costs simply by bustling around imposing surveys on people who never fill them out. It’s not a glass wall that seals them off from the handsome, wolfish, money-making men or makes them the tools of the steak-eating, red-faced, heart-attack bait who hold office and run businesses. It is a mirror. But this has always been America’s problem.
I think that I will honor my grandmother, a staunch Women's Christian Temperance Union member in her prairie homestead years, by putting a referendum on the ballot this fall to make Valier a "dry" town. Let the soreheads drink in Cut Bank.