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Rural resilience in friendly Fortine

October 28, 2017 GMT

On a crisp fall morning, business is brisk at the Fortine Mercantile.

Bonnie Howard, a transplant from Michigan who has fallen in love with four-wheeling, handles the regulars at the front counter, chatting easily as she rings up items.

In a cubicle at the back of the mercantile, Jeanne Ward is cutting steaks in what might be the smallest butcher shop in Montana. She makes beef jerky and sausage for the general store, cuts steaks and grinds hamburger for area restaurants and has garnered quite a following of loyal customers.

These days the Fortine Mercantile is easily the busiest place in this small town that sprang up along the railroad at the turn of the 20th century.

The community, which interestingly has nearly doubled in population since the 2000 census, subsisted for decades on the logging industry that brought the Ksanka mill to the outskirts of Fortine in 1955. Plum Creek bought the mill from Jim Hurst Sr. in 1971 and operated it on a 110-acre sprawling site until shuttering the mill in 2009 as the timber industry continued to wane in Northwest Montana.

While the Ksanka mill closure certainly knocked Fortine for a loop - it employed 74 workers - this is a community that knows about resilience and figuring out how to make a living in a rural landscape.

That busy meat cutter at the mercantile, for example, worked at the Ksanka mill for 18 years and then retrained as a legal administrative assistant, though she never went to work in that profession.

“I happened to be here [at the mercantile] one day and they needed a meat cutter,” she recalled. “I told myself if I really want to do this, I’ll learn it.”

So Ward watched videos, made phone calls and learned how to be a meat cutter.

“I love it,” she said.

It’s not uncommon for Fortine-area residents to work two or even three jobs to pay the bills.

Jamie Carlson is employed at The Vintage Warehouse, an antique shop in the old mercantile building. But she also helps out her sister, Renee Tost, who owns the pie shop next door.

“That way I don’t get sick of one job,” Carlson said.

Fortine Mercantile General Manager Chantel Anthony has worked at the store for 15 years and stepped into the manager’s shoes a year ago.

“It’s a big job,” she admitted. “I got me a notebook” to keep track of it all.

Mercantile owner Betty Stinger built the store 21 years ago and moved the business to the U.S. 93 roadside, a strategic move that gives the store plenty of traffic. Before that the Fortine Mercantile operated in “downtown” Fortine.

The old mercantile building, with its hardwood floors and tin ceiling, is now the perfect backdrop for an antique and collectibles business owned by Michelle and Scott Smith.

Stinger still has her finger on the pulse of the mercantile.

“Betty is here for whatever we need,” Anthony said.

The mercantile is really several businesses in one. The Sawmill Bar & Games at the back of the store is one of two watering holes in town. There’s also a full-service deli and, of course, the meat shop.

“We’re quite the team,” Anthony said about the staff of 22 employees. “We’re a family. Our motto is this is a family one-stop shop.”

The store promotes locally made products, too, such as Pinecone’s Lip Flappin’ Rub, a special blend of seasonings for chicken and pork.

LIFE IS a little more laid back on Meadow Creek Road, the main street of Fortine. Deer gather on the road as if checking in with one another before dispersing to nearby fruit trees for a mid-morning meal.

The pie shop rolls into action by 8 a.m.; the antique store opens a little later.

A couple of blocks away Jerry’s Saloon, at the 9-hole Meadow Creek Golf Course, is another prominent business in town.

The Fortine area also is home to the H.A. Brewing microbrewery and taproom up Graves Creek Road.

Stonehenge Air Museum, a nonprofit aviation museum that displays more than two-dozen vintage aircraft including the world’s only airworthy MK47 Seafire, is located on private property in the Fortine area. It offers pre-arranged tours.

While the golf course, brewery and air museum are popular neighborhood amenities, much of the social life in Fortine revolves around the Fortine School.

Enrollment is up to 85 students and has grown so much the school district had to purchase a 24-by-40-foot modular unit that is being set up this week.

“We are growing,” Principal Laura Pluid said. “About a third of our enrollment is from out of district.”

There are any number of reasons parents choose to send their children to school in Fortine.

“For some kids, to come to Fortine where you know every teacher, that can be very appealing for some kids,” Pluid said.

She moved to Fortine fresh out of college at the University of Montana, and didn’t intend to stay. Then she met her husband, had two kids and now is in her 26th year with the Fortine school.

Pluid does double duty as a school administrator and teacher. Her schedule varies, but right now she’s teaching eighth-grade math and first semester music. She’ll oversee the school’s greenhouse operation during the second semester.

The school greenhouse, built with community donations, offers students vocational-agriculture instruction. A huge plant sale at the end of the school year provides money to maintain the facility.

Classes at Fortine School typically are combined, unless any single class size is too big, like this year’s kindergarten class that boasts 17 students.

The school is spread out among several buildings. A century-old traditional white schoolhouse accommodates grades one through four and the library. A big brown building directly behind offers a gymnasium, space for lunch, seventh- and eighth-grade rooms and a computer lab. Yet another white building, a modular unit, is where the fifth and sixth grades have class, and a teacherage behind the gym houses the kindergartners.

It’s no surprise that Fortine School offers a preschool program a few days a week as a community service.

“In this area child care is so difficult to find,” Pluid said. “We saw a need, and it helps everybody.”

There’s an after-school program, too, overseen by a woman Pluid calls “the nicest lady on earth.”

Fortine School is the hub for community dinners, concerts, picnics and fundraisers.

“It is so community-oriented,” Pluid said. “The school is such a focal point ... It’s for everybody in the community.”

The Fortine Community Church next door to the school also serves as a community center for various functions.

“We do allow local organizations to use our facility if they need a place to meet,” Pastor Cade Bichel said. “We try to be as accommodating as possible.”

Bichel has been the pastor at the Fortine church for 11 years. “We fell in love with the people,” he said.

What stands out in Fortine is the kindness its residents tend to have for their neighbors, he said.

Pluid agreed, remembering how the school custodian went above and beyond the call of duty during last winter’s heavy snowfall, plowing out those who needed help.

Several locals noted how generous Fortine folks are in time of need.

“We just had a benefit for a boy I taught many years ago, and raised $61,000,” Pluid said, sharing that the young man in his 20s was severely injured in a car accident.

“Everybody bands together,” she added.

That was the case this summer when many Fortine area residents were affected by various wildfires. Pluid and other teachers were among those evacuated during the Gibralter Ridge Fire. When the time came to leave, people arrived to help.

That’s how it goes in Fortine time and time again.

There’s a fair amount of concern for one another,” Bichel observed.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.