Vananda and Ingomar, Montana
We like to get off the beaten path as much as we can when traveling. So here we are, driving down the two lane Route 12 in Montana. Desolate just got a new meaning, but this road turned out to be quite a wonderful adventure in the end.
At Vananda Road, about 20 miles northwest of Forsyth, MT, we found an abandoned “village.” I put that in quotes, because that it had been a town at all was difficult to imagine, but there were a number of falling and fallen down buildings, an old mobile home, a school bus, and one stalwart, seemingly undamaged stone building, notably a school. At first we thought it might be an Indian Mission School, but upon further investigation we found that it is the last remnant of the town of Vananda, MT.
This from the website Lost and Found Montana: “The town of Vananda in northwestern Rosebud County emerged like many towns in Montana at the beginning of the 20th century – it began as a station stop in 1908 as the Milwaukee railroad constructed its line through Montana. As the Milwaukee moved west, people followed on the hopes and dreams of homesteading. In 1921 the town had a three-story schoolhouse, a bank and the start of a bustling town.” In 1923 the bank closed and became the post office. By 1939 they had added several general stores and a grain elevator and had a population of 60 according to the Montana State Guide Book (circa 1939). These railroad-based homestead towns felt the pinch of the arid soil and 1930s dust-bowl draught. The homesteaders left even more quickly than they had come. The post office operated until 1959 and the railroad was abandoned in 1980.
Twenty-five miles on down Route 12, we came upon a cow loose on the verge. Loose or roaming cows are commonplace in the west. But this particular cow was in a great quandary. She had made it across a fence to greener ditches, but had left behind a very upset bull calf who could not negotiate escape.
Of course we stopped, was there any question, and Becky was immediately out of the RV to try to fix the situation while the calf bellowed and the cow grazed. Our presence (a 32 foot long, 10 foot high, Class C Motorhome) made the cow move away and made the calf very distressed. So we left and went in search of help….and that’s when we discovered Ingomar….50 miles from Forsyth, but the “Only Place to Sleep in 100 Miles.”
OK, two women traveling, worrying about a cow and her bawling calf, a situation which probably happens all the time in Ingomar, Montana…were we really going to stop and report this? Will we be run out of town on a laugh track? On the other hand, parked at the entrance of the old town is a Milwaukee Road train car. We, being from Milwaukee, we took it as an omen. We pulled in and found a smattering of old decrepit buildings with a few that look still lived in and the Jersey Lilly Saloon and Eatery. The historic plague says that Ingomar was once a pretty lively place. “Upon completion of the Milwaukee Railroad in 1910, Ingomar became a hub of commerce in the area bounded by the Missouri, Musselshell and Yellowstone Rivers.”
Ingomar’s boom was just about the same story as Vananda’s. Ingomar became known as “Sheep Shearing Capital of North America” because of its location between the summer and winter pastures. In 1921 a “devastating” fire took out the main street which had to be rebuilt, but soon the depression was upon them and the draught of the dust bowl in the late 20s and 30s all took their toll and the town slowly decreased in number and size. The final blow happened when the Milwaukee Road stopped its transit across the northern tier of states. Today only the school, one store and the Jersey Lillie are still fully standing all on the National Register of History Places.
So there we were in Ingomar, parked next to their “Central Park” and still thinking about the cow and bull calf. “How’d you like a sarsaparilla at the Jersey Lillie?” I asked my beloved. “Um…sure,” she replied hesitantly. “Maybe we can tell them about the cow,” I lobbied. “Yes, OK.” So we made our way to the rope pull of the door feeling a lot like we were now really in the old west. Pulling open the door revealed a fantastic old saloon. AND a woman barkeep…thank heavens, I thought. Now don’t get your hackles up…there’s a reason I was glad it was a woman.
“So what’ll you have?” Could this get any better? Becky ordered a diet coke, and I got my first and only bottle of Moose Drool Beer bottled right there in Montana.
After a few minutes of looking around at the tin ceiling and the brass foot rail and the wooden, mirrored back bar, I spoke up. “So there we were driving along,” I said to the barkeep, “And up ahead we see a cow in the ditch on the wrong side of the fence. So we stopped and on the other side of the fence was a little bull calf….” She interrupted in a serious tone, “Where was this?” Becky said, “Mile marker 139.” “You know the mile marker?” I asked. She smiled. “I’ll call someone,” said the barkeep, and she was on the phone in flash telling “someone” that a cow was on the road. Now a male barkeep would probably have done the same thing, I would guess, but probably not without some teasing about city slickers worried about steers (at least that’s my experience). This was painless, woman to woman, with understanding that we had had a few bull calves of our own.
- The bar had originally been the bank of the town and we could see the big vault door now purely a decoration as far as we could tell. We looked around and found in a side room, a museum with pictures of old Ingomar in its heyday. For a while they kept hope alive with a bison roundup and drive from “up north” to Ingomar and back. And then a rodeo. They sheared sheep, too, until the cattle pushed all or most of sheep out.
As we left the Jersey Lilly, I was very glad that the bank/bar had survived, at least to our visit. A little bit of the old west, a good bottle of beer at an antique bar, and a sympathetic barkeep. Just the kind of stop that lifts a person’s spirits.