In Montana, rural fairs cling to a tenuous future

Long seen as a way to fuel local economies, summer festivals are getting harder for some to justify.


This story is part of The Montana Gap project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

Many small rural communities in north-central Montana — like Dutton, Conrad and Choteau — put on summer festivals that raise funds for a variety of community programs. As the population in these small towns continues to shrink, organizers are coaxing along an evolution in the way these events are run to pump more money into the local economies.

If there were a way to distill the identity of these small towns into one weekend, the summer festivals along the Rocky Mountain Front would be that manifestation. Imagine rodeos and country music, quilt shows and beer gardens, fun runs and, formerly, demolition derbies.

The rodeo is one of the biggest draws each year for the Fourth of July Celebration in Choteau.
Courtesy of Tom Frownfelder

It’s January now, but most organizations involved are already deep in the planning stages for their 2018 events. These summer events provide an economic booster shot for the small plains towns on the skirts of the Rocky Mountain Front. Events can draw people to a town and its restaurants, bars and hotels for a few days. The civic groups that organize these events, the ones that spend and make money on the events, funnel these dollars down to the community in a couple different ways. To keep these economic boons coming year after year, organizers are adjusting their events, marketing methods and trying to recruit new membership to bolster their civic cause.

But it is challenging to continue hosting these events when civic engagement falters. Choteau holds a Fourth of July celebration, arguably one of the bigger fairs in the area. The American Legion post puts on the celebration’s rodeo each year, and it is by far the biggest money-maker for the post, which collects about $7,000 in profit after paying around $43,000 just to put the rodeo on. Over the year, the post then kicks that money back into the community each month, to either community organizations or veterans groups.

Last year, retired Sheriff George Anderson III finished his second stint as the Choteau Legion Post’s commander. He’s 71 years old and needed some new blood to take over the position. So rather than holding out the reins for someone, he went looking for a new post commander. He found Jerry Collins, an Afghanistan war vet and a member of the Sons of the American Legion organization.

Not only is Collins younger by a few decades, he’s excited about spurring some economic activity in the town, and using the Legion as a vehicle to do it.

“We’re really trying to work on commerce, to bring something to the economy,” Collins said. “That’s how small towns go downhill, being stagnant.”

Small towns like Choteau and Conrad have been looking for this kind of enthusiasm, hoping to keep the word ‘stagnant’ off everyone’s mind. The agriculture industry has not been especially kind to these communities in the area in the last 40 years. From 1970 to 2000, as the industry became more mechanized, employment on farms in counties along the Rocky Mountain Front fell from about 2,500 to nearly 1,500, according to data from Headwaters Economics. In that same time frame, employment has increased in virtually every other sector, most notably in government and service jobs.

Earnings in farming have been disastrous in that time, plunging from about $175 million in 1970 to about $40 million in 2000 in Teton, Pondera and Glacier counties. Farm industry earnings did rebound some around 2009 and 2013, reaching more than $100 million for this area, but farmers earned just $30 million in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Fair attendants browse the food stands at the Fourth of July Celebration in Choteau.
Courtesy of Tom Frownfelder

Headwaters Economics data also shows that the three industry sectors with the largest earnings were government at $175.8 million, retail trade at $34.9 million, and health care and social assistance at $32.4 million. Agriculture communities or not, the last time farming earnings combined in Pondera, Glacier and Teton counties were comfortably above any other industries was 1976.

Collins said there’s been something of a revitalization effort in Choteau in recent years, with new leadership in the local chamber of commerce. The Choteau City Council in the latter part of 2017 also created an independent economic development agency, the Choteau Area Port Authority, to foster and encourage business retention and growth.

There’s hope that some manufacturing company will build a facility at the feet of the Rockies, although there doesn’t appear to be anything in the works. Outdoor recreation feels like a good opportunity, considering the gains it has made in Flathead and Gallatin counties, but the outdoor tourism industry doesn’t employ a lot of people. No one seems to have the secret of generating new economic gains for small town Montana, but the fact that doing so is now a vocal discussion feels encouraging.

“It’s a blessing they’re spurring some positive activity,” said Beth Barlow, general manager of the Stage Stop Inn in Choteau.

At the very least, the Fourth of July weekend celebration once a year is good business guaranteed. Barlow said all 77 rooms in the Stage Stop are booked out for the Fourth of July celebration each year. Both hotels in Conrad said the same thing about Whoop-Up Days weekend in June. On a social level, these weekends are often marked on calendars as the weekend to get back home for those who grew up and moved away.

The way John McFarland, a member of the Conrad Lions Club that organizes Whoop-Up, sees it, each dollar spent in the town circulates about six times. Money paid to the grocery store goes to its employees, who get coffee at the shop down the street, whose employees buy gas around the corner, and so on and so forth.

Kids scramble for candy on Main Street in Choteau during the Fourth of July parade.
Courtesy of Tom Frownfelder
The event itself features a parade, rodeo and a pancake breakfast. McFarland said the Lions Club expenses for the event come out to about $24,000 a year. With the approximate $5,000 in profit, the Lions Club in turn donates it to organizations like the hospital’s cancer foundation. About 10 years ago the Lions Club struggled to make the event happen, McFarland said. Ticket sales from the rodeo weren’t getting the organization over the bottom line, so they went to the businesses and individuals in town to ask them to buy in with different sponsorship levels, something the Lions Club had never tried before.

“To the credit of the community, not just businesses, but they have all banded together as a community to help maintain the tradition of having Whoop-Up Days in Conrad,” McFarland said.

The tradition is important, McFarland said, because Whoop-Up, like Dutton Fun Day or Choteau’s Fourth of July, carries the town’s identity for so many people.

“This is Conrad’s one event, one weekend that everyone that grew up here relates to,” he said. “There’s no other single event that goes on in Conrad that resonates back to their years growing up here the way that Whoop Up does.”

But it is not just checks that will sustain groups like the Lions Club to keep these events coming each year. McFarland said there is a concern that the organization will soon need fresh faces to take over, or else the benefits from civic projects might fade. But it’s a fleeting concern.

“Rather than having the worry, we instead are actively recruiting, taking action and trying to not let that happen,” he said. “New people come to town, you want them to get involved in civic groups. I don’t care if it’s the art council or volunteer fire department.”

Dan Schuler with the Dutton Fun Day Committee said only about half as many people are volunteering for the event as there was about 10 years ago. In recent years, there have been about 15 people, ages 20 to 70, volunteering for the event from start to finish.

“It’s definitely a major concern for everyone,” he said.

Dutton Fun Day is basically a single fundraiser to pay for the community pool and park. Since Schuler took over as chairman of the organizing committee, the event has paid for new playground equipment, a big achievement for a group of volunteers. Schuler declined to disclose revenues from recent Fun Days, but a Facebook post from 2015 boasts $20,000 raised from the event.

While the demolition derby didn’t do well enough to continue, Schuler said the organization will swap in a barbecue competition and live music. The organizing board is also going to capitalize on the softball tournament, which was a big success last year, by scheduling the tournament earlier in the weekend when more people will be able to participate.

In an effort to pick up more young people, he’s hoping to recruit high school-aged kids to get involved and maybe run the Dutton Fun Day Facebook page to reach a bigger audience.

Among the other changes he’s worked into the 2018 Dutton Fun Day schedule, Schuler hopes replacing horseshoes with corn hole will draw more young people. And in holding on to the community’s agriculture backdrop, they’re adding tractors to the car show on Main Street.

“That’s kind of getting back to our roots a little bit,” he said.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the demolition derby at Dutton Fun Days is not a long-standing tradition, but rather has been a part of the celebration for a few years in the past decade.

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