Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Road to Joe

Not that long ago America celebrated the Super Bowl, and one cannot think of these annual gridiron pageants without recalling its many heros. Among these is Joe Montana, the almost legendary quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who took his team to four Super Bowl victories and who was thrice selected as its MVP. But I am not here to talk football. Not today. Instead, I want to reflect on a trip to find the other Joe, Montana. Not the football player, but a small town . . . no, a whistle-stop hamlet and later a virtual ghost town . . . on the edge of the Montana badlands.

Last week I wrote about the importance of the road trip in general terms. This time I want to focus on one of those special revelations which occur when you arrive at a junction or a fork in the road and decide to travel down that road less taken. The reasons for taking one road over another can be many or few . . . specific or resulting from pure serendipity. Traveling down the road to Joe was a little of both.

Before I start down that road, however, a brief note bene: I have created a companion blog featuring poetry from my book-in-progress, Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret: Poems, 1971-2009. If you are interested, you can check them out at

And finally, I want to thank my wife Sally Ann for permission to use her wonderful photographs from our trip to Joe, Montana. She has a keen eye for content and composition . . . and my own eyes were on the lookout for cows in the road. You will know what I mean if you read on . . . .

A few years ago I read Jonathan Raban’s fascinating book, Bad Land: An American Romance (1996), his thoughtful meditation on the settlement of southeastern Montana following the arrival of the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railway during the opening decade of the 20th century. The construction crews often followed existing creek beds and coulees as they moved westward from the Dakotas into Montana and beyond. Eventually they arrived at O’Fallon Creek with cottonwoods standing sentinel along its banks. From there they followed the creek to its confluence with the Yellowstone River near Terry, Montana where it linked up to the Northern Pacific Railroad which had already been in existence for two decades.

I first came to these precincts back in the summer of 1970, on that first big road trip across Canada and the northern Great Plains. My friend and I were on a tight schedule on our return to Milwaukee, and the trip coffers, much like the landscapes we were traveling through, were a bit on the dry side, so we could not linger as long as we wanted. We had miles to go before we slept and so we quickly passed through eastern Montana on our way to the badlands of North Dakota where we would overnight. But there was something about this compelling topography of rocks, sagebrush, and overwhelming distances, and I pledged that one day I would return. Reading Raban’s book convinced me that I could wait no longer.

Joe, Montana is a recent phenomenon although the town itself had existed for almost a century when I finally arrived in the spring of 2007. If you look for it on the official highway map of Montana, you will not find it. In fact, were it not for Raban’s book, I would not have known of its existence. It was strange serendipity for my visit to Joe offered an interesting glimpse into an almost forgotten chapter of the settlement of the western United States.

The railroad’s route through the badlands of North Dakota and eastern Montana, and the establishment of towns at regular intervals along its route, were made on a map back in Chicago by men who had likely never ventured west of Minneapolis. “Nothing in the geography prepares one for the arbitrary suddenness of those railroad towns,” writes Raban. “For mile after mile, the sagebrush rolls and breaks.” Originally platted as a small grid in 1908, the town was first christened Ismay in honor of two young girls, Isabel and May, the daughters of the president of the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railroad. With the eventual arrival of settlers and homesteaders by rail, the town grew to include modest homes, a mercantile, a post office, a bank, a hotel, as well as the ubiquitous grain elevator and stockyard found in every railroad town. It even had its own newspaper. Farms were established near town and along O’Fallon Creek. As the railroad expanded westward, and as more settlers followed its path in search of land and a better life, Ismay grew and became prosperous. Nearby farms with fields of wheat and pastured cattle added to this prosperity.

The town’s name first became an issue in 1912 following the sinking of the Titantic almost a half a world away. J. Bruce Ismay, a managing director of the White Star Line, became synonymous with cowardliness when he pushed past women and children to take a seat in one of the lifeboats. The town’s name survived along with the town . . . for a few years, at least. A large cyclone struck in the summer of 1915 causing heavy damage in the town and the surrounding area, but once again Ismay persevered and by 1925 its population had grown to 420 souls.

People continued to flood into the area and more and more farms and ranches made greater demands on the water supplied by O’Fallon Creek and the subterranean aquifer. Crops began to wither and die as did the cattle, and many homesteaders abandoned their dreams to return home or to move farther westward, up to Terry or over to Miles City on the Yellowstone River. Native grasses and sagebrush returned but the land was much diminished from what it had been before the railroad came to the area. There was no reason to stay in or come to Ismay and the town began to die. Over the next six decades the population dwindled away and Ismay fell into disrepair. All that remained was the railroad, the grain elevator, some weather-beaten buildings, and a few hearty souls. There appeared to be no hope for Ismay.

All of this changed in 1993. Once again an event hundreds of miles away impacted on Ismay’s chance of survival. Joe Montana, the star quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, who had missed most of the two previous seasons due to an injury, was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in April of that year and local Kansas City radio station KYSS began looking for a gimmick to commemorate this event. It contacted towns across Montana to see if any of them might be willing to change their name to Joe, Montana, at least for the duration of the football season. Many towns either ignored or refused the come-on, yet tiny Ismay, with a population hovering around 25 and the smallest town in Montana, grabbed at straws. Publicity stunt or not, the locals hoped this might bring new life to a town with more ghosts than people. Plans were put in motion to re-christen the town as Joe, Montana on July 3, 1993 while the radio station offered to fly the town’s people to Kansas City to watch Joe play. There was televison and newspaper coverage about Joe, Montana across the United States and there was even talk of bringing the townspeople to New York City to appear on David Letterman’s late night television show. There was so much attention that the town considered keeping the name after the football season was over. On July 3, a couple thousand people, for whatever reason, descended on Joe, Montana for the festivities. The local post office (yes, there was still a PO in Ismay) issued specially franked envelopes with the postmark “Joe, Montana.” There were T-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with the town’s new name. From all reports it was quite a day.

His own curiosity raised by these events, Jonathan Raban came to Ismay the following year while doing research for his new book on the coming of the railroad to the upper Great Plains. Despite all the ballyhoo from the previous year, the town was much in decay when he arrived, evidence that the earlier hopes of a renaissance for the town and its inhabitants never came to pass. Raban crossed the old wooden bridge over O’Fallon Creek and the single track of the Milwaukee Road, as it is now known. “I was in Ismay - or what had been Ismay but was Ismay no longer. The name on the sign had been painted out and replaced with Joe. Population 28. The only buildings of any substance were the old grain elevator and a new “cinderblock hangar . . . a white elephant” which was the recently constructed fire hall and community center for Joe, Montana. The inside of the unfinished hall was large enough to hold everyone living within a 30+ mile radius of town with plenty of room left over. The town’s people . . . the few who were still there . . . had hoped to repeat the “Joe Montana Day” festivities the following year, but no longer news, media interest in the town had evaporated. Also, David Letterman’s people allegedly reneged on the offer to bring the local folks to New York, a very sensitive subject Raban quickly discovered when he arrived in town. There was a parade, and fireworks that year, but only a few hundred people showed up, and they came mainly for the local rodeo.

So on a bright, sunny morning in mid-April 2007, my wife and I set off from Miles City and drove east on US Highway 12 into the Montana badlands. After driving some 60 miles through deep valleys, past colorfully striated mesas and hoodoos, and across vast expanses of clay gumbo terrain and sagebrush, we came to the junction with State Route 230, the Old Ismay Road. Here we found a small black on white sign listing the distance to various ranches, and to the towns of Ismay and Mildred. Looking at the mileages listed, it appeared that most of the inhabitants along this road resided between Ismay (6 miles) and Mildred some 16 miles beyond. Behind this sign was a much larger and substantial one with an arrow and bold red lettering: JOE MT.
We turned north and I was reminded of lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Cautious Man”:

He got dressed in the moonlight and
down to the highway he strode
When he got there he didn’t find
nothing but road.

The six miles between the main highway and Ismay/Joe is flat and almost featureless, save the rocks and the sagebrush, and when we arrived we found the town much as Raban did several years before us . . . “melting rapidly back into the earth.” There was no sign welcoming us, but there next to the railroad crossing at the edge of town, tied to a fencepost, was an old tire on which someone had painted an appropriate caveat COWS ON ROAD. Since leaving the highway, we saw not a single man, woman or child; just rocks and sagebrush and an occasional cow along the road to Joe.

If Ismay/Joe is not a ghost town, by all appearances it qualifies as one. There were no stores or other commercial ventures in town save the old grain elevator next to the railroad track and siding. A couple empty freight cars sat off to one side and there was a pick-up parked next to the elevator and occasionally I caught a glimpse of a man walking past an open door. Otherwise, we felt like we were the only ones around. There was no bank, and the post office had a sign on the door announcing it was closed. It looked like it had been that way for quite some time. The streets were still unpaved and some were deeply rutted. There had been traffic here at one time, but not that day. The only evidence attesting to the anticipated rebirth of the town back in the early 1990s was the large “community” center and fire hall. No longer the “cinderblock hangar” of Raban’s day, it was now cloaked in red siding with large lettering over the door: JOE MONTANA CENTER. The place was closed and locked. I peered though the window and it looked like it was used mostly
for storage. I saw no fire engines anywhere. I had a lot of questions about Joe, Montana, and so while Sally Ann took photographs - “it’s a sepia kind of town” she later told me - I wandered around town in search of a Joeite who might be able to answer them. There was no one to be found and that fact alone answered my most pressing question. “Whatever happened to Joe, Montana since 1993?” In simple terms, not much of anything at all.

The original Joe Montana, on the other hand, had a pretty good year after being traded to Kansas City in 1993. Despite some injuries he led the Chiefs to the play-offs and the AFC championship which it lost to the Buffalo Bills. He had one more season in Kansas City, and another trip to the play-offs before he retired in early 1995. Ismay/Joe had only one brief moment in the spotlight and that was it. There is not much to show for its century of hardscrabble life along O’Fallon Creek, and I suspect that when I return, if I ever return, there will be even less to look at. Probably more rocks and sagebrush . . . and a few more ghosts of the past. But I am glad we decided to drive down that road to Joe. Perhaps a cautious reminder of what can happen to the best of dreams.

NEXT WEEK: A Brutal Political Murder

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