Big Timber, the county seat of Sweet Grass County, is
situated along Interstate 90 about eighty miles west of Billings and 60
miles east of Bozeman.
Sweet Grass County has a population of about 3,760, of which, 1,800 live
in Big Timber. The residents are an interesting mix of people who have
lived here their entire lives together with a diverse assortment of
people who have come here from all over the country and in some cases
the world. A significant number of people have upscale second homes
here. Some of these people move here full time when they retire. Many
painters, sculptors, writers and history buffs live here. A number of
well-know stars from the entertainment industry live quietly here. For
more than a hundred years Big Timber has been home to the largest
Norwegian community in Montana, and their influence is visible.
Harlowton, county seat of Wheatland County, sits at the
junction of Highway 191 and Highway 12 about 44 miles north of Big
Timber. The city’s population is about 900 while the county population
totals 1,160. Wheatland County is largely an agricultural community.
Harlowton is a quiet country town populated by a mix of small
businessmen, working people and retirees.
Geography: The topography of our three county arc of
central Montana provides a diverse visual feast that enriches the
spirits and lives of both visitors and residents. From Big Timber, the
Absaroka Mountains rise up in the south and the Crazy Mountains dominate
the skyline to the northwest. Both ranges are truly spectacular. From
Harlowton, the rugged Crazy Mountains claim the southwestern horizon
while the Snowy Mountains hulk to the north. The Castle Mountains and
the Little Belts are also visible to the west and north.
The mountains meet the plains here in our part of Montana. The
western sector of our territory has mountains and plains interspersed.
Traveling east, this combination gives way to the plains of Eastern
Montana. Driving rapidly past, it is easy to dismiss the starkness of
the plains and miss both the wonder of the openness and the hidden
mini-eco-niches that dot the prairie. Here, the plains are frequently
broken by creeks and up-thrusts of sandstone that form bluffs and ridges
with pine covered slopes. This jumbled land has a quiet beauty of its
Recreation: Fishermen come from far and wide to test
the waters in our area. The magnificent Yellowstone River weaves from
west to east across Sweet Grass County. The Boulder River arises in the
Absarokas and flows rapidly north to the Yellowstone. Over the eons it
has carved out the beautiful Boulder Valley.
The Mussellshell River rises in the Crazies and the Castles then
meanders east and a hundred or so miles further east turns north and
runs into the Missouri. Martinsdale Reservoir and the lake at Deadman’s
Basin both provide good fishing and are filled from the waters of the
Big game hunting, bird hunting, trout fishing, summer pack trips are
popular forms of recreation and a significant part of our community
caters to sportsmen and visitors. There are a number of excellent guest
ranches and outfitters in the area.
Yellowstone National Park lies about fifty miles to the south of Big
Timber, as the crow flies—though it is somewhat further by road.
History: All three of the towns where our bank has branches started
because of the coming of the railroad. Big Timber is the oldest. Founded
in 1882, its original name was Dornix. The town began as a construction
camp for the Northern Pacific Railroad. The campsite sat near the
confluence of the Yellowstone and Boulder Rivers. The early day town
fathers had the foresight to move the town up onto the bench above the
rivers’ flood plain and changed its name to Big Timber. Local legend has
it that the name came from a reference in the Journals of Lewis and
Clark to the unusually large cottonwood trees growing where the
Yellowstone River meets the Boulder River. Clark passed through the area
in 1806 on his return trip to St. Louis.
started with the coming of the Jawbone Railroad which was quickly bought
out by the Milwaukee Road.
Economics: From the early days of settlement,
agriculture and mining have been the major sources of wealth. Both of
these pursuits are still major employers but the economy has broadened
and differentiated somewhat. Wind, tourism, retirement, telecommuting
and stone quarries are important parts of our economy.
Sheep and cattle ranching has always been a major industry in this part
of Montana. Ranching began in mid-to-late 1860s north of the Yellowstone
River. Settlement didn’t begin south of the Yellowstone until after 1882
when boundaries of the Crow Indian Reservation were moved further east.
In the early days, it was all open range without fences. Gradually,
homesteaders took up land and in time the range was divided with fences.
Dryland farming continues to be an important enterprise, particularly in
the general area where the three counties come together.
Gold was discovered up the Boulder Valley south of Big Timber as early
as 1864 but the area was part of the Crow lands and mining was not
developed until the late 1880s. Between 1888 and 1910 the mines
flourished, producing both gold and silver. Today none of these mines
are active. However, the East Boulder mine, part of the Stillwater
Mining venture, opened in the 1980s primarily producing platinum and
palladium. It is a major employer for the area. The Castle silver mines
which flourished in the late 1800s were located in the Castle Mountains
just west of what is now the Wheatland County line.
With a round house here and crews headquartered in Harlowton for about
70 years, the Milwaukee was a primary employer in the area until the
early 1980s. Montana Raillink operates a portion of the old Northern
Pacific Railroad tracks in Montana and employs a crew that works out of
A surprising number of people have their primary residence here and
either telecommute or actually commute to employment in distant places.
There are two gun manufacturing companies in Big Timber that make high
quality replicas of the historic Sharps rifles. Harlowton has Montana’s
Cream of the West cereal company. Invenergy Services operates a wind
farm north of Harlowton with 90 huge wind mills. At least two companies
quarry specialty rock in the Harlowton and Ryegate areas and ship it all
over the country.