By Ron VandenBoom
Havre, the largest city on Montana's Hi-Line, is a bustling north central Montana community situated less than an hour drive from the Canadian border.
It is nestled along the cottonwood strewn banks of the Milk River amid miles and miles of rolling fields of wheat. It's a place where dinosaurs once trod and American Indians once chased buffalo over nearby cliffs. It is also a part of what early explorers called "the Great American Desert."
And desert it might have stayed, were it not for the defeat of Colonel George Armstrong Custer at The Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. After the famous battle, many Sioux and Cheyenne warriors moved into Canada a safe haven from vengeful U.S. troops, but also a place where the United States feared it could be attacked by marauding Indians bent on continuing the fight.
"The military needed a fort in a more central location than those that already existed," said Gary Wilson, president of the Fort Assinniboine Preservation Association and tour coordinator for the fort. "A post that could watch the Canadian Indians and the Sioux coming from the east were all given a sense of urgency after Custer met his fate on the Little Big Horn."
Wilson describes the fort as "strategically one of the most important forts of the old west."
"Construction went extremely fast," Wilson said. "In fact, it was built so quickly that the Indians used to say it sprang out of nowhere."
By 1879, Fort Assinniboine was completed just six miles south of the Milk River. With more than 100 brick and stone buildings, 1,000 troops, and 500,000 acres of land, it soon became the economic wellspring from which Havre was to spring. Its existence heralded the creation of a small but rowdy collection of bars, bordellos, and mercantiles just outside the military boundaries called Bullhook Bottoms.
The needs of the fort also heralded the establishment of an agriculture- and cattle-based industry that today is the backbone of Havre's economy.
By May 1911, the fort had lost its significance as a frontier outpost and was closed, but not before taking advantage of perhaps the most important single development to influenced the growth of Havre the introduction of the Great Northern Railroad.
Abundant water supplies for locomotive boilers, an offer of free land, and its central location made Bullhook Bottoms an ideal place for James J. Hill's railroad to create a terminal.
As Hill's mighty steam locomotives forged their way along the vast openness of the Northern Plains, homesteaders, too, began forging their way into the vast unclaimed territories along the Hi-Line. With them they brought courage, a dream of owning a 160-acre farm, and a chance at a new life.
For Havre, there was no looking back. The Great Northern Railroad changed the name Bullhook Bottoms to Havre after the port city of Le Havre, France and the new community began to take on the trappings of an agriculturally-based wholesale distribution and retail center for a nine-county area.
According to the latest census figures, Havre today has a population of more than 10,200 people and Hill County population figures exceed 17,000. Havre serves as the county seat and can brag that it is one of the largest wheat growing regions in the United States producing more than 13 million bushels of wheat annually on more than 500,000 acres of cultivated land.
Hill County ranks first, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the production of spring wheat, with only Chouteau County, directly to the south of Hill, producing more. Montana ranks third among states in total wheat production, producing more than 154 million bushels in 1999.
According to the Montana Almanac, farm size, too, has grown from the homestead grant of 160 acres to an average size today of more than 7,500 acres.
The U.S.D.A. also ranks Hill County seventh in Montana in the production of hogs, with 10,300 head in 1998, and 36th in the number of cattle, with 31,900 head in 1999.
The community's strong ties to agriculture have always caused Havre's economic fortunes to follow the ebb and flow of farm prices, and agricultural suppliers in the area are also positively, or negatively, impacted by swings in the market.
Havre is currently suffering from steady declines in wheat prices that went from an average high in 1996 of $4.24 per bushel to an average in 1999 of $3.
Beef prices, too, have seen better times, with prices since 1993 experiencing a slump. Prices went from an average high of $75.60 per hundred weight in 1993 to $64.62 in 1999, according to U.S.D.A. figures.
Hog prices that bottomed out as low as 25 cents a pound during 1998 and 1999 are beginning to make a comeback, with optimists hoping for prices to reach as high as 40 cents in 2000.
Relief in the agriculture sector may be slow in coming, with current projections supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency showing little change in wheat prices prior to the year 2003.
Some help is available, however, and Mike Zook, Hill County F.S.A. executive director, said recently that Hill County gets about $26 million worth of benefits in an average year from various F.S.A. programs. In 1999, Hill County received more than $43 million through those programs second only to Chouteau County's $52 million.
Zook added that only four other counties in the United States have more crop land than Hill County and only Chouteau County has more in Montana.
"We are definitely part of the golden triangle," he said.
All the wheat produced in North Central Montana will eventually be shipped on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
The BNSF has been a mainstay of Havre's economy for more than 100 years and continues today to play a significant role in Havre.
Gus Melonas, B.N.S.F.'s public relations officer, said that roughly 35 trains a day pass through Havre, carrying all types of commodities from lumber and wheat, to raw materials and automobiles. It also handles intermodal and international goods.
"Havre is one of 22 division headquarters on a system that spans 28 states and two Canadian Provinces," he said.
Melonas added that the B.N.S.F. Havre operation employees 550 people in its various departments. It has an extensive Maintenance Department, Signal Department, and Bridge and Building Department. It also handles communications and serves as a terminal for crews.