By Tim Leeds
Big Sandy entered the 21st Century continuing its more than 110-year history of agriculture, working to get through the tough times in that industry.
"The community is primarily an agricultural community, so, of course, with this ag downturn it has affected the community," Dianna Webster said.
Webster, treasurer of the Big Sandy chamber of commerce, said the town has lost quite a few businesses in the last five years or so, including the clothing store and a grocery store. She said they still have enough that people don't have to leave for services, though.
"There is just about anything you have to get here," Webster said.
"The business community is staying fairly stable (now)," James Rettig said. "I think the community is staying fairly stable."
Rettig, the publisher of the Big Sandy Mountaineer, said since he came to the town in October 1971, probably two dozen businesses have left. He said it's the same as everywhere else.
"A lot of things have happened, though, in the last 10 years that are happening in all small towns," he said.
Local resident Keith Edwards said Big Sandy, like a lot of small towns, is running on a three- or four-legged stool. He said having a high school is a reason for the town to continue on, as is the hospital. Edwards said the schools and the hospital are probably the biggest employers in town.
He said the two elevators in Big Sandy, Centennial Mills and General Mills, are also a major part of the town's economy. He said the town could be losing those, however, with the two super high-speed elevators planned for Havre and Rudyard to speed up loading into railroad cars.
Rettig said there are still a lot of ag-related businesses in town with the elevators. He said agriculture is pretty well split in the area, with the area into the Bear Paw Mountains almost exclusively cattle ranching, while the area 20 miles to the west of town is mostly wheat farming. He said the areas farther west and to the southeast are pretty evenly split.
There are quite a few businesses supporting the farmers and ranchers in Big Sandy. These include the Cenex and United Agri Products fertilizer plants, which Rettig said employ quite a few people. Other businesses include several aerial applicators, machinists, crop adjustors and insurance agents.
"It's really critical that, these ag-related businesses, we don't lose any more of them," Rettig said.
Those are not the only businesses in the area, though. Webster said they still have a local hardware store, plumbing and heating, the lumberyard, a boutique, flower shop and the hospital and long term care center, with a doctor and physician's assistant. She said they also have two homes for the developmentally disabled which employ quite a few people.
The Big Sandy Mountaineer puts out a weekly paper for the town, and Rettig said they do quite a bit of other publishing for the region as well. That lets them keep quite a bit bigger staff on hand, he said.
"These little papers play an important part in small communities," Rettig said. "They're the only way for the small communities to communicate with the outside world"
Rettig said a major business in the area is guides and outfitters. He said Don Sorensen at Virgelle, who runs float trips down the Missouri River is just one example. One such trip included six professional historical writers, with two from Europe and two with magazines out of New York, Rettig said.
He said there are several other guides in the area who employ a lot of people and bring a lot of money into Big Sandy. Chuck Hilton of the Hilton Hotel family hunted with one of them, Rettig said, and liked the area so much he built a mansion to live in out of Big Sandy.
"Some of these people come here, like it and stay. It's just a different life, a different lifestyle. Things move a little differently, a little slower."
There are plenty of other things to do in the area as well. Rettig said Pep's Bar and Lanes and Pep's Cafe are kind of the hub of the town these days. He said with no movie theater and no arcade Pep's is a place for people of all ages to gather. He said the bowling tournament at Pep's also brings quite a few people and quite a bit of money into town.
The Big Sandy Historical Museum; the sports complex; the city pool; school activities, and the Jerry Martin Memorial City Hall, which was built out of the old fire station and provides a community center, are among other places and activities for Big Sandy citizens to keep busy at.
Webster said one of the strengths of the town is how they pull together to help each other out when things aren't going so well.
"The thing about a community like this," she said, "it just comes together so well in hard times."
Edwards said that while small towns like Big Sandy are changing, he thinks they can survive. They are changing from towns with an auto and tractor dealer to service towns, but shouldn't be branded as dying towns, he said.
"I don't believe that these little towns, their role is changing the town'll be here another 100 years," Edwards said.