After recovering from the loss of its founding industry, Three Forks looks to continue bucking the trend of small town Montana.
THREE FORKS — Gene Townsend likes to talk about railroads.
Seated at his kitchen table, the longtime Three Forks mayor and current City Council member takes a sip of coffee — his third cup of the day. It’s not yet noon.
Townsend has lived nearly all of his 67 years in the area. He’s had a hand in most civic organizations and community-centered efforts in town, making him the perfect person with whom to talk about the past, present and future of Three Forks. Perched on the edge of the state’s fastest growing county, the town has managed, so far at least, to keep its expansion moderate, its economy strong and beloved identity mostly intact.
But how it has managed to do what so many other small towns across the state have not, and whether it can continue to do so, are other questions entirely, ones that people like Townsend spend their days pondering.
“So,” he says, putting his cup down, “where do I start?”
• • •
Riding the rails
Three Forks has been and always will be a railroad town, though these days the presence of trains rings more afterthought than lifeblood.
Founded in 1908 by a worker for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Co., the town was one of many formed to provide a source of passengers and freight along the winding, multi-thousand-mile route from the Midwest to the West Coast.
The Milwaukee eventually made Three Forks a major thoroughfare, building a storage and repair facility and running a handful of trains daily up and down the tracks off Main Street. The competing Northern Pacific also built a large depot at the other end of town to serve its well-trafficked Butte line.
By 1909, the city had ballooned to 800 residents. Among the buildings lining its unpaved roads were a newspaper, three general stores, two lumber yards, eight restaurants, two barbershops, a pair of churches and eight bars. Spurred by the railroad, as well as a substantial vein of limestone in the hills to the north, the Three Forks Portland Cement Co. opened down the road at Trident — a since-abandoned company town that chose its name over the alternative, “Cementville.”
Townsend was born in Trident. His father, a native of eastern Montana, worked at the cement plant, returning home every night to what was essentially employee housing — $21 a month for a home and garage shared by the family of seven.
In the 1950s, Townsend says, the facility had grown to employ some 300 people. A sign for the plant along Montana State Highway 2 read “Help wanted,” and company representatives would often loiter around the train stations, offering jobs to hobos riding the rails.
The railroad paid slightly better than the cement plant, Townsend says, citing his father’s $2 an hour paycheck, but both were the main drivers of the area’s juvenile economy.
Townsend’s family eventually moved into Three Forks proper to be closer to the high school. On the land that Meriwether Lewis described as “extensive and beautiful,” there were plenty of ways to spend time. Townsend remembers exploring high into the nearby Horseshoe Hills or fishing on one of the Madison, Jefferson or Gallatin rivers. On the weekends he paid 50 cents for a movie and popcorn at the downtown theater, or, if it was a home game, followed the rest of town to the Three Forks High gym to watch the basketball team take on one of its local rivals.
Between the railroad, the cement plant and the pair of talcum plants — the larger of which opened in 1961 to process raw minerals mined from an open pit 60 miles south in the Madison Valley — there have typically been enough jobs to go around in Three Forks. At their respective peaks, the industries combined to employ close to 750 people. That for a town that has yet to officially break 2,000 inhabitants. Everyone, Townsend included, worked at one of the big three or was related to someone who did.
After graduating from Three Forks High, where he was a lineman on the football team, Townsend spent brief stints at Montana State University (“They told me I was as smart as I was going to get”) and working construction, before returning to Three Forks where he got a job as a boiler operator at the talc plant.
Over the 40-odd years he was employed at the plant, Townsend estimates he worked for seven different companies. But despite the inherent unpredictability of extractive industries, as well as turnover at both the talc and cement plants (the former wasmost recently sold in 2011, while the latter is undergoing a change in ownership), he says there’s never been much concern the companies would shut down for good.
One of two such facilities in Montana, the cement plant has carved out a niche market for itself, according to environmental manager Greg Gannon. Much of the 300,000 tons of cement the operation produces each year is used for projects in the state and nearby Canadian provinces, which rely on regional producers to help keep costs down.
“The plan is to be here 100 years from now,” Gannon says. “We have a lot of future to come.”
The talc plants, too, appear in good health, if their part in a recent $340 million sale to a French conglomerate is anything to go by. The two mills together employ more than 100.
But Townsend shares the view of many in town that while the big three were critical for the area’s economic health and do a good job supporting the community (the talc plant helped build Three Forks’ baseball field, for example), it would be foolish to lean too heavily on one or two employers.
“Our community is better off with five small businesses that do well than one big business that employs 60, is based in France and doesn’t care about Three Forks,” he says, speaking in hypotheticals. “(The plants) are a good thing, but if someone decides they’re not economically feasible, the boardroom gets rid of them pretty quick.”
This sentiment is particularly salient given the town’s historic relationship with its founding industry. In 1977, following a steady decline, the Milwaukee railroad filed for bankruptcy and eventually shuttered its operations in Three Forks. Dozens of families left town.
The bankruptcy was a blow, one that took the better part of a decade to recover from, but Three Forks had by that point built up a healthy list of employers — galvanized at least in part by the entrepreneurial drive of its residents — which prevented the loss from being a knockout punch.
“The railroad was a real test for the town,” Townsend says. “Three Forks could have rolled over and died, but it didn’t.”
There are plenty of examples that prove Townsend’s point about the area’s economic resilience. Take Jared Brown, who started his contracting business BBG Contractors in 2008 and now employs more than a dozen people, or the Kanta family, whose masonry business on the south side of town has been hiring since the 1940s. That’s in addition to smaller shops like Seiler's Hardware on Main Street, the several banks, bars and restaurants, as well as the medical clinic — not to mention the numerous self-employed locals who run businesses out of their homes.
From a wages perspective, these jobs might not single-handedly pay enough to buy a new car or a house with a yard. But they typically pay enough to allow locals to continue living in Three Forks. And for many, that’s good enough.
• • •
Wheat, water and change
One of those who stepped in to fill the void left by the railroad was Dean Folkvord. The son of a wheat farmer, Folkvord grew up in Helena and graduated from MSU before acting on his long-held desire to open a bakery using his farm’s grain. Wheat Montana’s first storefront opened on College Street in Bozeman, but Folkvord and his wife soon decided it made more sense to move the operation as close to the farm as possible.
Visible from the highway, the resulting processing plant/bakery/deli is situated just south of the family’s now-11,000-acre field of wheat off U.S. Highway 287. The operation has expanded markedly since its inception in 1993, and distributes its breads all over the West.
Sitting behind the large polished wood desk that takes up most of his office — a small room connected to the deli — Folkvord, wearing a puffy vest and blue Wheat Montana baseball cap, has the straightforward nature of a career businessman.
All told, Wheat Montana employs 190 people, many from Three Forks, but a good chunk who make the drive from nearby communities like Harrison, Cardwell or Toston. They’re not alone: roughly a third of workers in Three Forks commute more than half an hour each way, which suggests that, while local employment might be strong, a healthy segment of workers are looking beyond their hometown for higher wages or different jobs.
As the business has grown, Folkvord has diversified. In 1997 he built a subdivision, a 14-lot expanse in Broadwater County. In 2010, he renovated and reopened the historic Sacajawea Hotel, which, on many nights, is the busiest place in town (“As the Sac goes, so goes Three Forks,” one resident said). The family is also renovating the old Rainbow Motel in Bozeman and is in the process of building out a 10-lot residential subdivision on Front Street in Three Forks.
As Folkvord sees it, you can’t talk jobs and business in Three Forks without first mentioning the elephant in the room: housing.
“We need affordable housing, big time,” he says. “You cannot put a value on that.”
Roughly half of renters in the area devote more than 30 percent of their monthly income toward housing, the widely accepted benchmark for affordable housing. The median price for a single-family home was $250,000 in 2017, up nearly 25 percent from the year before.
There are lots for sale within city limits, though not many, and their prices, spurred by Bozeman’s top-heavy real estate market, are rising. Lots that went for $10,000 or $15,000 a decade ago are now being sold for twice that.
“It’s all a function of Bozeman’s growth,” Folkvord says.
Diane Fuhrman, a real estate agent born and raised in Three Forks, says many of the people looking to buy houses are either relocators from the Bozeman area in search of cheaper rent, or new arrivals to the valley who were scared off by high prices in the shadow of the Bridgers.
“Housing has gone up something terrible in the last two years because more people from Bozeman and Belgrade are moving out here because, for them, it’s affordable,” Fuhrman says.
Part of the issue is geography. Blocked in to the north, east and west by its eponymous trio of rivers, much of the city sits on a floodplain requiring that, per state regulations, developers must build above the hypothetical water line. These costs add up, Folkvord says, sometimes tacking an additional 20 percent to a project’s price tag. Outside city limits, in Broadwater and Gallatin counties, the need for septic and well water systems typically offsets any savings developers might see by avoiding the floodplain in the first place.
Kelly Smith, a Three Forks native who wears many hats, including city treasurer, deputy city clerk and resident floodplain expert, says that that the town hasn’t seen a flood claim since the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began requiring insurance for homes in the floodplain back in the 1980s. Essentially, Smith says, because there’s been no major flood in recent memory, it’s hard for even longtime locals to understand the reasoning behind the stringent red tape.
“There are more costs involved now. And there are more restrictions on subdividing,” she says. “It’s good for some, bad for others.”
The city has created what it calls a “development doughnut” that stretches into the farmland around Three Forks city limits — a double-edged attempt to encourage landowners to sell off or develop their property to increase housing stock and eliminate county sprawl. But so far, none have bitten.
What Three Forks’ land constraints do offer is a natural buffer against rapid, uncontained growth, a tradeoff many are willing to take. While the population jumped from 1,500 to 1,900 between 2010 and 2015, the spike came after a 50-year period of relative stagnation.
But for a town full of people accustomed to knowing their neighbors and recognizing every face at the bank, the change is noticeable. Denny Nelson, another member of the City Council, moved to Three Forks in the 1980s for reasons that were echoed around town: priorities like a strong sense of community, quieter lifestyle and the running joke that the traffic lights are always green (the town has no traffic lights).
“Anybody who you talk to who’s been here a number of years will make that same statement, that there are a lot of new faces at the basketball game or at the café,” the 75-year-old Nelson says.
These new faces, Nelson argues, are changing Three Forks’ culture, intentionally or not.
“People want the services of the place they came from,” he says. Bozemanites’ expectations for what a community should look like, as well as their sometimes chafing holier-than-thou attitudes “are drifting this direction,” he adds.
“I would never want to see the growth in Three Forks that Belgrade and Bozeman are seeing. Growth is necessary, but I want to see controlled growth.”
There’s some sense here that the proximity to Bozeman’s growth — in touching distance but not the direct blast radius — is what has allowed Three Forks to maintain its economic and spiritual individuality when compared to Manhattan or Belgrade. Most people said they only make the 30-mile drive when they have to, and even then rarely go farther into town than Target or Costco, a stone’s throw from the highway. The phrase “necessary evil” was trotted out on more than one occasion.
“You become self-protective of your environment,” says Crystal Turner, the city’s other clerk and deputy treasurer. “You have to in order to fit in.”
This is more than just self-preserving nativism, though; the relationship between the two cities has always been like this, more or less. When Townsend was growing up, he says his family would take two trips per year to Bozeman — “the big town” — once to do their Christmas shopping and once for their annual doctor’s appointment.
Bozeman’s growth has brought with it a perception, shared by some Three Forks residents, that the city has outgrown not only itself but the state as a whole. “Make Bozeman Montana Again,” reads one of many pithy bumper stickers. If Bozeman 60 years ago was so starkly different to Three Forks as to earn the nickname “Big Town,” it’s not hard to imagine the new epithets its neighbors have for the state’s fastest-growing city.
Growth in the valley, however, has undoubtedly benefited Three Forks. The days of soliciting freight hoppers to work in the cement plant are long gone; there are enough hands to fill jobs in town. Plenty of people commute into Bozeman for work, but not too many that it’s become a measurable drain on the Three Forks economy.
New residents appear to be looking beyond the town’s relative affordability to the same reasons that brought people like Nelson. The school, for one, is a big draw. Jamie Taylor moved to Three Forks from Harrison, about 20 miles south, so her two children could go to school there.
“There was so much more to offer,” said Taylor, who works as a server at the Iron Horse Café on Main Street. “It’s still a small school, but there are a lot more programs and possibilities, academic opportunities. Things my teenager would never have gotten.”
It’s easy to talk up small-town values and the importance of ambiguous terms like community, but for Three Forks residents, tangible examples come easy. There are the town’s large events — the rodeo, Christmas stroll, high school sports — all of which are hugely popular and always well-attended. Then there are numerous instances of locals uniting behind a cause, like when teenager Gavin Foth wasseriously hurt in an ATV crash last fall, or the the deaths of Montana Highway Patrol Trooper David DeLaittre (who has since beencommemorated with a parkon the west side of town) andBroadwater County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Mason Moore.
On the wall in City Hall hangs a gridded map of Three Forks, with small boxes marking every home in the city. Inside the boxes are the handwritten names of the homes’ occupants, like some sort of Three Forks Marauder’s Map.
“That’s the reason people live in a place like Three Forks,” says Mayor Steve Hamilton. “You don’t move to a small town by accident, you come with a purpose.”
Like many in town, Hamilton has a second job: teaching high school science. While chatting during his free period, several teenagers milled around Hamilton’s classroom, which is full of textbooks, scales and comical photos of Hamilton cautioning students to be careful when using equipment.
Speaking about the future, Hamilton, whose grandfather also served as mayor, is calmly optimistic. He tallies the city’s recent achievements: a new $7.5 million sewer and water treatment facility, its impressive trails system (12 miles and growing) and a healthy budget (the city recently paid of $400,000 in debt early). There’s plenty still on the to-do list, including developing a capital growth plan in partnership with an economic development group, and putting a school expansion bond to voters. Being so close to the county line, there are the occasional hiccups with fire or police services, and there’s a longstanding need for EMS volunteers. But Hamilton is confident the city can do it all while “making sure we don’t lose the character we have.”
“Maintaining that character and enhancing it is one of the big priorities we have. That doesn’t mean shutting off growth, it just means growing in the right way,” he says.
• • •
A tricky act to follow
Three Forks owes much of its existence to the railroad. The same economies that were born out of the railroad industry helped the area continue to thrive after it left.
On a recent bitterly cold afternoon, a train clattered its way down the tracks south of town, its whistle sounding like some kind of reminder. A few of the old railroad buildings, one of the first things you see entering Three Forks, still stand, having found new life as a museum, a Chinese restaurant and a casino.
Finishing his coffee, Townsend admits it’s difficult to point to exactly why Three Forks has grown while so many other small Montana towns have struggled to keep their heads above water. Luck and timing certainly play their parts, and the proximity to a flourishing metro like Bozeman has provided the town an economic buoy. But still, he says, there’s something intangible that has contributed to its success. And it’s this force, the one that propelled the town forward despite the loss of the railroad, its seminal industry, that will keep Three Forks chugging along well into the future.
“Three Forks will do alright. It’s a survivor,” he says. “There’s a certain pride in small towns where people want their home to not necessarily be the glitziest place, but not have it be known as a town that failed.”
“What do you want your community to look like in 20 years? You look at other communities and say ‘We don’t want that to happen to us.’ Did anyone think Bozeman would grow the way it has? Of course not. But there’s a good lesson there.”
“Can you predict the future? No, you can’t, but you can try to prepare for it.”