Capturing the Joyful Spirit of a Montana General Store


My husband probably thought I had found someone else. Why else would I keep detouring off Interstate 90 to a town whose population is smaller than my daughter’s high school class?

Even though I’ve lived in nearby Bozeman for 28 years, there’s something provocative about Fishtail, Mont., a tiny town with about 250 residents. But it wasn’t another lover, and it wasn’t the scenic grandeur or sparkling nightlife. The attraction — however unbelievable it may seem — was the Fishtail General Store.

If you drive through Fishtail, you can’t miss the store: It’s one of the two or three businesses in town (depending on whether you count the post office), and it’s strikingly quaint.

Founded in 1900, the business is Montana’s oldest continually open general store. Owned and managed by Katy Martin for the last 22 years, the store is a fixture in this rural community. “Katy is a force of energy and generosity,” said Nan Sollo, a longtime customer. “This store is a labor of love.”

At 72, Katy never stops moving — except to greet her customers. Her manager, Melissa Husted, compares her to a hummingbird: always on the go.

And though I’m not in the worst shape, I still struggled to keep up with her, racking up a tab on Gatorades and chasing her around the store as I internally entertained the creative merit of a blurred portrait. Perhaps, I tried to convince myself, that would best convey her state of constant motion.

The store attracts people from all walks of life — from ranchers and miners to C.E.O.s and doctors. “We get locals from our community as well as visitors from out of state and out of the country,” Katy said.

And there’s almost nothing you can’t find here. Some are things you might expect: milk, sodas, beer, chips, toothbrushes, tampons. Others, such as nuts, bolts, nails and screws, are sensible and provide a measure of relief: “We try to have what people might need so they don’t have to go to town to fix something,” Katy said.

But you can also find freshly made pie, yard signs, steak and sausages, baby clothes, dog treats, toys, rock-painting kits, puzzles, handcrafted soaps, games, Spam and fresh fruit, local art, homemade peanut butter, micro beers, camping, fishing and hunting gear, PVC for sprinklers, gasoline, reflective shirts and mining boots.

Yes, mining boots. The Stillwater Mine, run by Sibanye-Stillwater, a multinational mining company, is 22 miles from the general store, straight down Nye Road. (The company also operates the nearby East Boulder mine.) A good-neighbor agreement signed between the mining company and a coalition of environmental and citizens’ groups has helped protect water quality and prevent industrial pollution. It has also created good will between the mining company and the surrounding communities.

“The good-neighbor agreement is a win-win,” said Doug Ezell, a longtime customer. “It preserves the beauty and lifestyle of Fishtail and the surrounding region while allowing the mine to conduct its business.”

The general store’s relationship with the mine evolved 15 years ago when, at a mine employee’s request, the store started serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

At around 3:30 every morning, store employees arrive to prepare for the first round of miners, who sweep through like a flock of birds at sunrise — between 5:30 a.m. and 6:15 a.m.

The miners gather their hot coffees, prewrapped burritos and snacks before disappearing down Nye Road — dots dissolving into the horizon — as they head out for a day in the underworld. The night-shift mining crew usually stops by the store at around 7:15 a.m. at the close of their day.

When greeted and asked how he was doing, one night miner, Austin Jensen, simply said, “It’s blinding.” (His eyes were still adjusting to the aboveground light.)

Later, the schedule flips: Evening-shift miners start their days, and morning-start miners finish theirs. On offer at those hours are hamburgers, sandwiches, Mexican food, pizzas, homemade cookies and more.

Ranchers are welcome here, too.

“On any given day, a rancher could be branding, moving cows, shipping cows,” explained Melissa, the store manager. “We have lots of ranchers around here who just come in to buy groceries, snacks, water and beer to help feed their crews.”

You don’t have to hang around in the store for very long to realize that everyone is included.

I met Chase Anderson and Brett Heggie, two day-working cowboys, or “pasture paramedics,” at the store as they were adding hot sauce to their breakfast burritos. Their job, as they explained it, is to identify illnesses such as hoof rot or pink eye in individual cows among the herd.

It was interesting to hear the cowboys’ take on the popular television series “Yellowstone.” “Taylor Sheridan” — the show’s writer and director — “has done a good job portraying small parts of the real West,” Brett said. “The show has shed some light on the fact that real working cowboys are still here, daily, doing the tasks needed to keep agriculture alive and well.”

While lingering around the store, I became fast friends with Katy’s stepson, Kirk Martin, the co-owner of the Fishtail Grind, which he established with Luke Whall inside the general store in 2017. Kirk and Luke were married in April at the courthouse in Columbus, Mont.

I also met a range of regulars: Sherry Winn, a speaker, author, leadership coach and two-time Olympic athlete in team handball; John Dinsdale, the owner of Beartooth Concrete, who shared with me that he’d recently lost his wife; Jan LaForge Flanagan, a Crow woman who told me she was recently married.

Bill Kalyn, a retired urban park manager, was visiting from Canada. On the phone after I photographed him, he laughed and said he is getting a lot of ribbing for the portrait session. “We enjoy visiting the store,” he said, adding that Katy keeps some unique items in stock. One in particular that caught his eye was a beer can insulator. He said it wraps around your beverage and looks like a tiny sleeping bag. His wife enjoyed the large selection of cards.

The goods in the store are worthy of attention. But perhaps my biggest takeaway is that the customers reflect the joyful spirit of the place.

“People feel comfortable coming here,” Katy told me. “They stand in line and they talk. It doesn’t have to be about anything big. They share their stories and what is happening in their lives. That makes us more compassionate.”

“And the fact that we have great food doesn’t hurt,” she added.

Janie Osborne is a photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. You can follow her work on Instagram.