Ingomar's fortune

With ranching hurting and ranchers aging, can a once-proud Montana town endure?


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Ingomar, an aging Montana cattle-ranching community that sits on a bench between the Yellowstone and Musselshell rivers, has no gas station, no doctor's office and no mechanic. The closest grocery store is 45 miles down U.S. 12, though most of Ingomar's 27 residents opt to shop at the second-closest grocery store, which has better deals and is 86 miles away. Approaching Ingomar by car, it seems like a mirage: a huddle of gray buildings standing in relief to the vast prairie. To the west, east and south, the town seems neighbor only to horizon. To the north, hills hide yet more prairie.

Today, no one in Ingomar knows what "Ingomar" means. Many homesteaders in the area were Norwegian, which might trick you into thinking "Ingomar" sounds Norwegian (Sumatra and Vananda, in the same area, play a similar game). The going theory around Ingomar is that after the Milwaukee railroad came through in 1910, rail executive Albert J. Earling let his daughter ride the train and name the fledgling communities along the way. No one there today seems concerned with how she came up with "Ingomar."

Today, Ingomar's hard luck is typical of many towns in the arid West that were built on ranching and agriculture. Over the past half-century, advances in automated machinery led to fewer jobs. The children and grandchildren of homesteaders sought work in cities rather than taking over family ranches. Big, corporate farms and ranches bought up many littler ones. In this way, Ingomar is a part of a seemingly inexorable trend that started when workers first pounded iron tracks across America's flatland.

Between 1910 and 1913, eastern Montana experienced uncommonly favorable weather. Wet springs, cool summers and mild winters allowed newly arrived homesteaders to believe what they had read in the Milwaukee Rail's pamphlet: "There is not another state in North America where a day's work or a dollar spent in agricultural enterprise will bring such large returns and amid living conditions which are so uniquely delightful. We enjoy the tonic of the air, the variety of the landscapes...towns "and cities newly built and building, new faces on the street, something moving, stirring, starting and going somewhere and always toward achievement, success."

With the help of pamphlet campaigns by the railroads, enterprising families from across the United States heard about the "free land" the government was giving away: 320 acres of farm and ranchland to be proved-up after five years. Lying about 40 miles northeast of Forsyth, the land around Ingomar was some of the last to be homesteaded in the West.

In 1910, a Milwaukee Road pamphlet advertised opportunity on the new section of the rail between Forsyth and Melstone, Ingomar lying halfway between. The tone is tempered: "This section...has until recently been kept from developing through lack of transportation facilities. On the bench...are found immense areas of gently undulating prairie land excellently adapted to farming without irrigation. The country is so new that not much has yet been accomplished in the way of actual farming, but enough has been done to demonstrate its feasibility."

Situated 111 miles northeast of Billings, Ingomar was founded in 1910 as a railhead and sheep-shearing center for the thousands of acres between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. - PHOTO BY ELIZABETH L. COSTIGAN
  • photo by Elizabeth L. Costigan
  • Situated 111 miles northeast of Billings, Ingomar was founded in 1910 as a railhead and sheep-shearing center for the thousands of acres between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers.

Between 1911 and 1917, an average of about 2,500 homestead claims were filed per year in the area surrounding Ingomar. After the rail was completed in 1910, Ingomar got its post office. By 1914, there was a bank, two hotels, two general stores, a doctor's office, a maternity home and a school. Though no drinkable water could be found in the area, a daily train brought potable water in a tender. The weather of recent years, a booming wool business and a servicing railroad led to the fruition of the life the railroad pamphlets had promised.

It wouldn't last long.

In 1921, a fire burned half of Ingomar. Some businesses rebuilt; most, dismayed by recent years of drought, moved on. That same year, the town's bank president was indicted on federal charges of abusing funds. Though charges were later dropped, the bank closed. People began moving away and soon there were hardly enough hands to support a labor-intensive wool industry. By the 1930s, due to ongoing drought, farming was only lucrative enough to supplement a ranching income. Raising cattle was the only suitable use of the land.

In 1951, Ingomar's school closed. In 1975, the wool warehouse was sold and closed. In 1980, rail executives turned their attention to Ingomar for the first time since a rich girl's daddy let her pick a name out of a hat and whisper a town into existence. Rail service was discontinued, the tracks removed for recycling. After the tracks were gone, the rail company gave Ingomar the water tender that once made daily deliveries. Today, it sits next to the north entrance of town, halted on a lone section of track. In crooked letters, someone has written "Thanks for sharing your day with us."

Always fence to mend

To get to NNN ranch headquarters, you turn off the pavement north of Ingomar. Twelve miles down the gravel, you take the first right. Nine more miles and the road ascends a soft grade to a tree-pocked notch in the landscape. The headquarters is a sprawl of buildings, shacks, garages, pick-up trucks, machines with hitches, machines with steering wheels, cattle dogs, cats, fences, pens, tractors, a school bus and a diesel pump. The sprawl is multi-generational: there rusts the road grader Albert Newman once used; there, the grader his sons, Wally and Howard, use today.

Howard Newman, 64, poses with a freshly killed coyote. Newman has worked his family’s land since returning from the Vietnam War. - PHOTO BY ELIZABETH L. COSTIGAN
  • photo by Elizabeth L. Costigan
  • Howard Newman, 64, poses with a freshly killed coyote. Newman has worked his family’s land since returning from the Vietnam War. 

Albert Newman, 89, is tall with big hands and a deep, sandpapery voice. He was born outside Lewiston, Idaho, on July 4, 1922 and was brought to Montana in a covered wagon a few weeks later. It took the family a month and a half to reach their homestead south of Hysham. In 1943, Albert married Jean, the daughter of a vegetable farmer from Hardin. They ranched south of Billings and started a family before moving northeast to Ingomar in 1963.

Albert remembers when Ingomar got running water. He remembers when, on a still summer day, you could hear the train passing through town. He remembers when people still raised sheep. But he reminisces without sentimentality: "To me," he says, a grin edging onto his face, "a sheep is just walking around looking for a place to die. We do cattle."

It's been a while since Albert worked NNN ranch, where he and Jean still live. He's left the care of some 600 head of red and black Angus to his sons, Wally and Howard.

It's January, and so far the season has been warm and relatively dry, an "open winter" (the opposite of an open winter, Jean Newman says, is a "bad winter"). Howard, 64, has just come back from feeding some cows. His older brother, Wally, has just loaded a freshly killed coyote into the bed of a pickup truck that lost its power steering. Wally is loading the truck and the coyote onto a flatbed trailer to take about 85 miles to Miles City.


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