By Tim Leeds
The Big Sandy area was a busy place for modern agriculture for about 25 years before homesteading came to the area.
Keith Edwards, a native and long-time resident of Big Sandy, said the area was a well-known cow town even before the railroad came through in 1887.
"Big Sandy is a place where the trails met," he said.
Edwards said the area had the juncture of trails between Fort Shaw, Fort Benton, Fort Assinniboine and Fort Walsh in Canada. He said when the Missouri River was too low to ship all the way to Fort Benton, the trails to Big Sandy were a natural way to bring the freight.
The History of Big Sandy, printed by the Big Sandy Mountaineer in the 1960s, says that two freighters, McNamara and Marlow, built a warehouse at the location after Fort Assinniboine was established in 1879, which was the start of Big Sandy.
Edwards said once the railroad came through in 1887, Big Sandy became a natural place to trail livestock to ship out. He said an amazing amount of livestock was shipped from there.
"It was the most viable shipping point," he said. "The figures are staggering."
Businesses started early in Big Sandy. The history reports that the Log Cabin saloon was built in 1886, near the present location of Pep's Bar and Lanes. By 1889 the town boasted two hotels, a store, the warehouse, a depot, and several saloons in addition to the Log Cabin, most tents with wooden floors or shacks.
The town remained a cow town until the homesteaders came in, a regular site for 80 to 90 cowboys complete with horses hitched in front of saloons and six guns, including "shooting up the town," a common sight. It attracted men who became famous in Montana history, like Charles Russell and the desperado Kid Curry.
Edwards said the open range for livestock lasted from then until the coming of the homesteaders.
"The last open range roundup was in 1910," he said.
When the homesteaders did come in in 1911, it changed everything.
"It made a very beehive of these little places," Edwards said. He said all of the little towns, including places like Laredo that are now gone, had their own banks, newspapers and so on.
The history reports that settlers were arriving almost daily, and there were shacks going up all over the valley. By the end of June, the town's businesses included three lumber yards, a hotel and a bank, two livery stables, a general store, three saloons, a meat market, a restaurant, two barber shops, two real estate offices, The Bear Paw Mountaineer newspaper, a physician and an opera house.
The community continued to grow for a few years, then drought hit. Edwards said 1918 was a big exodus, with about 90 percent of the homesteaders leaving the area to the remaining 10 percent.
"That's a dog-eat-dog thing," he said.
The history past that point revolved mainly around agriculture, the railroad and natural gas.
James Rettig, the publisher of The Mountaineer, said natural gas has played a major role in Big Sandy for many years. He said until the Montana Power Company began selling its operations off a few years ago, its gas production center was a main employer of the community. It was closed a few years ago.
Edwards said the railroad was probably the single biggest thing about Big Sandy when he was growing up. He said the depot was the very heart of the community.
"It made the town," he said about the railroad. "When I was a kid, there was no highway the railroad was everything."
Rettig said when the railroad stopped running through the town in the mid 70s, it hurt the town pretty badly, but UPS started coming to Big Sandy about the same time, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been. He said the shipping of cattle has switched mainly to trucking, although the freight trains, which come as far south as Big Sandy, still haul a lot of grain.
Dianna Webster, treasurer of the Big Sandy chamber of commerce, said the future of Big Sandy is tied to what happens with agriculture. The town is still an ag town, she said, and what happens next depends on what happens to agriculture.