My husband probably thought I had found someone else. Why else would I keep going off Interstate 90 to a city where the 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 small town of about 250 people. But it wasn’t another lover, and it wasn’t the scenic grandeur or the bustling nightlife. The attraction – incredible as it may seem – was the Fishtail General Store.
Driving through Fishtail, you can’t miss the shop: it’s one of two or three businesses in town (depending on whether you count the post office), and it’s remarkably quaint.
Founded in 1900, the company is Montana’s oldest continuously open store. Owned and operated by Katy Martin for 22 years, the shop is a fixture in this rural community. “Katy is a force of energy and generosity,” says Nan Sollo, a longtime client. “This shop is a labor of love.”
At 72, Katy never stops moving — except to greet her customers. Her manager, Melissa Husted, likens her to a hummingbird: always on the go.
And while I’m not in the worst shape, I still struggled to keep up with her, collect a bill on Gatorades, and chase her around the store while internally nurturing the creative merit of a blurry portrait. Perhaps, I tried to convince myself, that would best represent her state of constant motion.
The store attracts people from all walks of life – from farmers and miners to CEOs and doctors. “We get local residents from our community as well as visitors from out of state and country,” Katy said.
And there’s almost nothing you can’t find here. Some are things you would expect: milk, soda, beer, chips, toothbrushes, tampons. Others, such as nuts, bolts, nails and screws, are sensible and offer some relief: “We try to have what people need so they don’t have to go to town to fix something,” Katy said.
But you will also find freshly made cakes, garden plates, steak and sausages, baby clothes, dog treats, toys, rock painting kits, puzzles, handmade soaps, games, spam and fresh fruit, local art, homemade peanut butter, micro beers, camping, fishing and hunting gear, PVC for nozzles, gasoline, reflective shirts and mining boots.
Yes, mining shoes. The Stillwater Mine, run by Sibanye-Stillwater, a multinational mining company, is 22 miles from the store, right 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 citizen groups has helped protect water quality and prevent industrial pollution. It has also created goodwill between the mining company and surrounding communities.
“The good neighbor agreement is a win-win situation,” says Doug Ezell, a regular customer. “It preserves the beauty and lifestyle of Fishtail and the surrounding region while allowing the mine to carry on its operations.”
The store’s relationship with the mine developed 15 years ago when, at the request of a mining employee, the store began serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Every morning around 3:30 am, shop assistants arrive to prepare for the first round of miners, who race past like a flock of birds at dawn – between 5:30 am and 6:15 am
The miners collect their hot coffee, prepackaged burritos and snacks before disappearing down Nye Road – dots disappearing on the horizon – as they set out for a day in the underworld. The night shift mining crew usually stops at the shop around 7:15 am at the end of the 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 overhead light.)
Later, the schedule changes: miners on the evening shift start their days and miners who start in the morning finish theirs. During those hours, burgers, sandwiches, Mexican food, pizza, homemade cookies, and more are offered.
Farmers are also welcome here.
“On any given day, a farmer may brand, move cows, or transport cows,” explains Melissa, the store manager. “We have a lot of farmers here who just come to buy groceries, snacks, water and beer to feed their crews.”
You don’t have to hang around the store for long to realize that everyone is there.
I met Chase Anderson and Brett Heggie, two day-work cowboys, or “pasture paramedics,” at the store as they added hot sauce to their breakfast burritos. Their job, as they explained it, is to identify diseases such as hoof rot or pink eye in individual cows in the herd.
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It was interesting to hear the cowboys’ take on the hit television series “Yellowstone”. “Taylor Sheridan” – the writer and director of the show – “did a good job of 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 on a daily basis, performing the tasks necessary to keep farming alive and well.”
While wandering around the store, I quickly befriended Katy’s stepson, Kirk Martin, the co-owner of the Fishtail Grind, which he co-founded the store with Luke Whall in 2017. Kirk and Luke were married at the Columbus, Mont. courthouse in April.
I also met some regulars: Sherry Winn, a speaker, author, leadership coach and two-time Olympic athlete in team handball; John Dinsdale, the owner of Beartooth Concrete, who told me he had recently lost his wife; Jan LaForge Flanagan, a Crow woman who told me she was recently married.
Bill Kalyn, a retired city park manager, was visiting from Canada. On the phone after I shot him he smiled and said he gets a lot of ripples for the portrait session. “We love visiting the store,” he said, adding that Katy stocks some unique items. One in particular that caught his eye was a beer can insulator. He said it wraps around your drink and looks like a small sleeping bag. His wife enjoyed the large selection of cards.
The goods in the store deserve attention. But perhaps my biggest takeaway is that the customers reflect the upbeat spirit of the place.
“People feel comfortable here,” Katy told me. “They stand in line and they talk. It doesn’t have to be about something big. They share their stories and what is happening in their lives. That makes us more compassionate.”
“And the fact that we have delicious food doesn’t hurt,” she added.