Essay by Mark Matthews
Settlement – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine
The day I almost settled in Ingomar
by Mark Matthews
Highway 12 through south central Montana ran straight, but the mixed grass prairie gently undulated so I couldn’t see forever like I could across much of North Dakota.
My four-cylinder pickup had bucked a headwind all afternoon, straining to pull the trailer that contained my worldly possessions. Ten years ago, it seemed a long way to come to find a home.
Thunderheads trailing bridal-veil virga raced eastward, but produced no relief in this land of frequent drought. Spring flowers — the welkin lupine, garnet Indian paintbrushes, pale yucca — were already fading into tissue-paper skeletons. As the sun lowered, antelope prepared for a nightly dance of death with the scarce traffic on this narrow backroad. I was low on gas.
I almost missed Ingomar, but spotted the one-way-street-sized sign at the last moment, pointing to a cluster of blown-over, roofless, burnt-out buildings about a quarter mile off the highway. Ingomar had once been a thriving prairie town, built by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul Railway. In the early 1900s it claimed about 600 residents and the world’s largest sheep shearing plant.
The railway supplied the town water until it pulled up its tracks in the early 1980s. Already a busted town by then, Ingomar quickly paled to a ghost town. But, I had already learned my first lesson of the West. No matter how dead a town appears, there is bound to be a working watering hole at almost every highway dot on the road map. Ingomar was no exception.
The Jersey Lily Cafe, a brick building with a frontier town boardwalk around it, sat nestled amidst the dilapidation and abandonment. A gas pump mercifully stood outside. Once a bank, the cafe boasted high sculpted tin ceilings; the bar ran where the teller windows once stood.
The barmaid, about 30, thin with stringy blonde hair, wrinkled her nose when she squinted through her glasses. In a little alcove behind the bar she threw two pork chops on the grill. Not having talked to anyone in three days I was hungrier for conversation.
“How much does it cost to live around here?” I asked.
“See that yellow house over there,” she said pointing out the window. “You can have it for $100 a month for ten months.”
“Why would I have to move out in ten months?” I asked.
“You wouldn’t,” she said. “You’d own it.”
That took my breath away. I had about $1,500 in my pocket. To go to sleep in a house that was mine sounded like a dream come true.
After dogging down the pork chops, I eagerly crossed the empty town lots toward the little house. I couldn’t see much through the small dusty windows, but I could fantasize what I could turn it into. I would cut a picture window into the eastern wall, looking out over the prairie. There would be an alcove in the kitchen with a table and high-backed benches. The upstairs attic bedrooms would be white, with their windows wide open letting in the sage-perfumed summer night air. A wood stove would burn cottonwood in winter and the walls would be lined with bookcases.
Then I spotted the huge gutters circling the roof. They led to a large submerged concrete cistern in back. When I dropped in a pebble, there was no splash, just the tinkle of rock on concrete. And it was only June.
When I look back on that day, I am discouraged to think that I missed my best chance of ever owning a home — unless I move to a place like Ingomar, out on the fringes where Indians, loners, the politically disenfranchised and descendants of homesteaders who don’t want to pull up roots live.
The statistics are discouraging. When defining affordable housing as housing that consumes no more than 30 percent of a family’s income, the Montana Housing Partnership reports that most renters and families can’t afford to buy a home in Montana’s larger cities. Only 11 percent of homes for sale in those towns are affordable for 70 percent of the households.
It’s not much better in rural areas, where about 50 percent of the market is out of reach of most people. I wonder how many hardworking Westerners like myself share the realization that no matter how hard we work and try to save, land and housing prices will continue to escalate beyond our incomes.
Even though the prairie was beautiful that June evening I decided I didn’t want to live on the fringe. Like most people, I want an interesting job that pays enough so I can live in security, not luxury.
Ingomar has its own type of beauty, but as I waved to the barmaid, I couldn’t help but wonder if she lived there because she wanted to, or because she couldn’t afford to go somewhere else.
Mark Matthews lives in Missoula, Montana. He is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado.