A Sense of Place: Ingomar, Montana


I am a localist who likes to travel. Which I guess is a contradiction of sorts. But life is full of contradictions, and I don’t recall Jesus ever saying there wouldn’t be paradoxes in life. Quite the opposite in fact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my early 20’s were spent working in small, out of the way places around this wonderfully vast and diverse place we call America. One of the smaller, and more memorable places that I had the great pleasure to spend an evening was the town of Ingomar, Montana.

It was in the spring of 1993, and I was doing work down in Colstrip at the Montana Power plant. It was my second trip to the area in the span of a year, and this time I happened to be working with one of my older colleagues from Denver, a wonderfully laid back, crazy ex-hippie named Steve S. Steve was spending a month in Colstrip and had made it a point to try to explore as much as possible. One of his trips was down to the Jimtown bar on the edge of the Rez, but I refused to accompany him on such an apparently suicidal mission, so that is a story for another time. The trip to Ingomar was also his idea.

We were staying in Forsyth, the 12 room hotel in Colstrip being full, and had heard from some of the locals that there was a place about an hour up the road that was an authentic ghost town, with only a handful of souls left in it. It was home to a saloon called “Jersey Lill’s” which served steak, and beer, and was known for being a bit of a throwback to an earlier time. One evening after work we piled into his Ford Taurus and made the drive up.

It did not disappoint. The history of the town is explained well in the following sign…

Welcome to Ingomar

Welcome to Ingomar

There were a handful of abandoned buildings, as well as a handful of homes & trailers that were still occupied, but most of the grid of streets were empty where the town had stood. Along the main street there were still two open businesses. A small general store, and Jersey Lill’s. Jersey Lill’s was staffed by a sweet  older lady who waited tables, and the cook & proprietor, who told us he had served in the Navy long before. He was noteworthy for his ingenious way of keeping his glasses on over his tight fitting white cap while working in the kitchen. He had rigged a piece of string around the back of his head between the earpieces, and a second string over the top of his head between the nose piece, and the string in back.

Main Street Ingomar

Main Street Ingomar

Now either my memory has failed me, or the name of the place has changed to “The Jersey Lilly”. But it appears to have it’s own website these days. Hard to believe, but nothing much about the internet surprises me anymore.

Anyway, back to The Jersey Lilly. The beer was cold, the steaks were fresh, and the sheepherder hors d’oeuvres (a saltine cracker with a slice of onion, and a piece of cheese if my memory serves me correctly) were oddly satisfying. Anyway, one of the other notable things about the place is that the bathroom is “out back”. Walking around the boardwalk behind the building there are two enclosures of stockade fence. In addition to the outhouse in the “men’s room” their is a urinal consisting of a piece of drain gutter nailed to the fence, slanting down into the hole.

The Jersey Lilly

The Jersey Lilly

Anyway, it was a memorable evening, as are most evenings that involve medium rare steak, cold beer, and peeing outdoors. I have traveled pretty extensively in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and I think its safe to say that those three things are the universal sign of a good time.

Places like Ingomar are what makes travel rewarding. I am amazed that in this age of globalization people can still make enough of a living in Ingomar to make it their home. As localists who like to travel, (which is as good a definition of an anthropoligist as I have seen) its important to remember when we visit places like Ingomar, that they do not belong to us. They belong to the locals, who are being gracious enough to share them with us. We can enjoy them, and share them, but cannot and should not try to own or consume them. Unfortunately, the west is full of little towns that once belonged to their inhabitants, who shared them with travelers only to be repaid by watching the travelers buy them up, and destroy the sense of place that made them special. This is not a phenomenon confined to the Aspen’s, Tellurides, and Breckenridges of Colorado. The name for it is exploitation, and it happens all over the world. (It happens in Jimtown down by the Northern Cheyenne reservation in a much uglier, and more despicable way.)

If you are ever in Eastern Montana, please stop on by and visit. I am sure they would welcome the visit. Have a steak, have a beer, share a coversation and enjoy the beauty and exhiliration of peeing under the stars. But please leave it as you found it.

All photos copyright © MontanaPictures.Net All rights reserved. Used with permission. Be sure to visit their website and checkout the stunning photography. They are gracious Montanan’s and willing to share.

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