Montana State University

Melstone residents are growing their city after years of dwindling population

September 8, 2008 -- By Carol Flaherty MSU News Service

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Calling itself the "The Little Town that Could," Melstone residents have begun growing their city after several decades of dwindling employment and population.

The community 90 miles northeast of Billings was incorporated 100 years ago, and, though its in-city population now rests at a number roughly equal to its age, Melstone drew more than a third of that number when it began a re-visioning and revitalization program in 2006.

Stimulated by several small pulses of money from the Northwest Area Foundation Horizons grant and working through Montana State University Extension, the changes are being felt throughout the city.

"It definitely changed how I look at the town," said Justin Brewer, a 17-year-old who was a facilitator on a committee looking at the needs of area youth. "I think it has a future now, and I didn't think so much before. We are already having new people moving in. I think it can work."

Tammy Brewer, chairman of the Melstone Chamber of Commerce, said the community has had three new families move to the area over the past year. Adele Field moved from the Los Angeles area to Melstone this spring and telecommutes for a marketing job New York. Ty and Becky Checketts moved with their two children from an Idaho dairy farm to a beef cattle ranch outside of town, and Kathy Hampton recently moved from Oregon. She has a home-based business and works at the school.

Field said she had wanted to live in Melstone since she was a child visiting her grandparents there on summer vacations.

"L.A. is so crowded, and there is more of a community feel here," Field said. "I don't know that there is anything I miss from L.A." However, she said that with no cell phone service to the area, she relies even more than most employees on her computer.

"I was surprised at how well telecommuting works. We're all over the country, but it is as if we are all together," she said of her co-workers.

For the Checketts' family, both the physical beauty of their new land and the small-town feel drew them to the community.

"I grew up in a small town," Becky Checketts said. "There is a feeling about small towns that I like."

Hampton said that her son had been living with relatives while attending Melstone High School. Though he graduated this May, she wanted to come back so her two younger children could go to school in Melstone, as well.

Youth are an important focus for the community. Cindy Brewer (Tammy's cousin) became involved in the Horizons Program after her son Justin was asked to facilitate a study group on the needs of teens. Melstone High School has 22 students, and most of the kids live outside of town. Multiple study circles agreed on the need for a teen center, which has now been developed.

"With staggered sports practices, we open up the center to give the kids a place to go. We offer food and on Fridays and Saturdays they have a place just to hang out and socialize," said Cindy, who heads the Melstone Community Youth Center Committee. They are working with the 21st Century After School Program funded by the Montana Office of Public Instruction to expand center hours and programs.

The Brewers and Field said the community center's improvements were only possible because of grants, community partnerships and the donation of a building by a church. The 21st Century grant was written after the Brewers and Field took grant writing skills training via a Horizons-sponsored workshop taught by Mike Vogel, MSU Extension housing and environmental quality specialist.

Most of the initial Horizons' grant of about $10,000 was targeted to eliminate barriers to leadership training and the visioning process. It went for items like transportation and child- or elder-care. On the other hand, the 21st century grant for $50,000 allowed the city to create the after-school program. The combined community, teen and senior center offers WiFi computer connections, homework tutoring, ping pong, bumper pool and a computer "X-Box" hooked to a big screen television with games, the most popular of which is an interactive rock-band. Services to senior citizens include Tuesday evening meals, pinochle games and socializing, and serves as a hub for community events, from the Melstone Centennial Celebration in June to a recent funeral.

"The Horizons timing was just right," Tammy Brewer said. "We had been working before to get some community cohesiveness, but we didn't know how to get there. We had this core group, but we were treading water and wondering what to do."

"We have really pulled together," Cindy Brewer said.

Horizons is more than a source of grants, said Dan Clark, the Horizons Program director at MSU when Melstone was accepted into the program in 2006. Horizons intention is to reduce poverty by developing community leadership skills and a shared vision. Once the goals were set, MSU Extension provided coaching and connected community leaders with resources and partners. The Horizons' grant also helped to fund a VISTA worker to help.

The town created a Beautification and Renovation Committee, which takes a broad view of its job. It has created gardens, removed abandoned vehicles and helped people fix homes damaged by a major hail storm in 2007.

A goal of a new business committee is to develop the local hardware-grocery store into a community co-op, a project being headed by Becky and Charley Jennaway.

"We really want to keep the store in the community," Becky Jennaway said.

She said that through Horizons, they connected with the Montana Cooperative Development Center in Great Falls. With its help, legal papers are being filed to allow shares in the co-op to be sold, with plans that current owner Anne Coles would continue to manage it.

An additional goal is to form a business incubator, to help people develop businesses.

"I had a flower shop when I lived in Billings," Tammy Brewer said. "The business incubator there was very helpful in the initial steps of creating a business. We want people here thinking of what business they can do out of their own homes. We need to take care of the people who are here first, but we also need to focus on bringing new people to live here."

The community now has a bi-weekly "farmers' market," which features crafts and produce, and the local FFA program is working to develop a steer manure packaging business.

Generally, communities smaller than 250 to 500 people have difficulty generating the person-power needed to work through the Horizons Program, Clark said. Melstone, which had an official population of 139 in 2006 but a door-to-door head-count of 100 people in 2007, drew 36 people in the initial Horizons programs.

"Melstone had enough highly committed people to proceed," Clark said. "It is making itself a better place to live."

Contact: Tammy Brewer, Cindy Brewer, Dan Clark (406) 994-6694 or