In Melstone, Route 12 is known as Railroad Avenue even though a railroad hasn’t run through the tiny Montana town in more than 30 years. We learned this from the proprietor of a gas station where we had stopped to refuel our Jeep Patriot before heading back to see a baseball game in Billings.
I was pumping gas, so Andy got out to stretch his legs. Not long after his plane landed, we headed out to Sumatra – a ghost town in rural southeastern Montana – to see if we couldn’t find the Finch Ranch. Andy’s great-grandfather was a homesteader there, which was virtually all Andy knew about his great-grandfather, and it was a two hour drive from our hotel on the heels of a six hour flight. He needed to stretch out some.
As Andy walked around the grounds, stopping once to take a photo of a historical marker and second time to ponder a rather odd “don’t do meth” sign, the owner of the gas station came by to greet him.
“Bet you don’t know why I am here,” Andy offered.
“Well,” the man replied – his mop of white hair falling out the sides of a trucker hat. “You don’t look Sturgis.” That’s true – Andy looks nothing like someone headed out to join a world of bikers.
A quick chuckle later, Andy told him that we had just visited what used to be the Finch family ranch. Andy was the grandson of Richard Finch and his ancestors once owned a ranch in Sumatra. Andy pronounced it “Su-MOTT-tra”. The ranch was now gone – heck, the whole city was gone. There were a handful of falling buildings within a block of a post office that sat on the southwest corner of Sumatra Road and Route 12. The post office was new and had a paved driveway – the only pavement other than Route 12 we had seen for miles. It looked out of place compared to buildings in each of the previous four cities we had driven through on the way to the ranch. Only one building, so far as we could tell, was occupied – and that was a ground-level house and storage garage just to the west of the post office. As for what used to be the Finch family ranch, we could tell where the house once stood and found the remains of a well pump and a pipe sticking out of the ground that used to provide running water to the house. The land was maybe twelve miles north of what had to be old Main Street.
“I knew your family; Daniel Finch, his wife Lottie, and their kids.” The proprietor suddenly went from being friendly to being very interested in our visit. For Andy, he learned something. This was the first time he knew his great-grandfather’s name. “My dad – the Jake this station is named for – went to school with Richard Finch in Sumatra. His mom and his sister were teachers there.”
By now, I had joined Andy in the conversation. I introduced myself, and the man wearing a Welcome to Melstone tee-shirt (made to look like the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign) told me his name was Larry Zaharko, son of the man who had first set up his garage and service station in Melstone some 60-plus years ago.
At this point, Larry filled in some blanks about the area. More importantly, he told us that we should have driven out past what used to be Sumatra – he pronounced it Su-MATT-tra – to a town called Ingomar because there was this old restaurant there and it had pictures of the towns when they were bustling stops along the old Milwaukee Road. I remembered that railroad and its distinctive red logo. I had seen cars for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Puget Sound Railroad as a kid growing up near Chicago. I just didn’t know it once ran through all of these towns in rural Montana, too.
Our options were either heading back to Billings to see a baseball game where it was likely raining, or heading back east to learn more about Andy’s family history. Andy and I had been making nearly annual baseball trips for 25 years now, but over the last several years we had been adding more non-baseball side trips. In 2009, we did a huge Lincoln tour – mixing three baseball games with visits to a large number of Abraham Lincoln sites in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. In 2013, our Philadelphia baseball weekend included visits to Valley Forge and Independence Hall, as well as a bunch of Ben Franklin sites. Just last year, we skipped a minor league stop in Round Rock to drive into the central Texas wilderness to find the ranch owned by Coke Stevenson, a legendary Texas politician.
Naturally, we chose to drive east to Ingomar.
Just after the turn of the century, a new branch of the Milwaukee Road railroad line came through this corner of Rosebud County, competing with the Northern Pacific Railway running to the south. Building the railroad immediately created jobs for people who would support the railway – first people to help with the grading of the land, then building bridges and finally laying track. After that, the railway needed mechanics and road workers, car loaders and ticket sellers. What the railway really needed, though, was customers. It needed passengers to ride the rails, and goods to get delivered from town to town. The federal government spurred future homesteaders by offering 320 acre blocks to willing settlers outside of the newly created towns. In 1905, nary a soul lived in the area. By 1910, a railroad spanned from Lake Michigan to the Puget Sound. Soon after, a number of people – mostly from the Midwest, but many others from places like Norway and Poland (the native land of the Zaharko family) migrated to towns like Sumatra, Vananda, and Ingomar.
The railroad encouraged people by supporting supposed research claiming that farming was possible in arid areas one would find here. For a few years, this was true. Timely and adequate rainfall contributed to fair wheat crops. The most successful farmers also raised sheep on their ranches. According to one book on Montana history, the tri-city area of Sumatra, Ingomar, and Vananda could shear 6,000 sheep in a single day – a valuable commodity to the US Army as it outfitted soldiers bound for Europe to help finish World War I.
Very quickly, small cities with as many as 1,500 people lived along the various rail stops – a new city every nine miles. In addition to the rail workers and the ranchers, many local shops and professionals arrived. Though most of the settlers had at most an eighth grade education, you would also find doctors, pharmacists, bankers, and lawyers hanging shingles along newly created streets.
The growth and bustle lasted from about 1910 to 1918 – and then ended in a hurry. Regular droughts and the end of the war killed off crops and demand for wool, which sent many people packing. By 1925, 75% of the people who had moved to the area were gone. Those that stayed – miles away from their original homes and families – huddled together and made the best of it. Good intentions, however, don’t cover issues for towns with little running water. In fact, the trains used to bring tank cars filled with water to support the towns. Ingomar today still doesn’t have much water – barely enough from a local well to supply about 10 families with running water.
Sumatra only survived because a high school was there. However, in the 1960s, the school burned down. A town that went from 0 to 1500 residents in less than a decade, then shrank to maybe 375 people after World War I disappeared completely in another decade. Long time residents retired and moved to places like Billings or Butte or Helena – or further away. The Milwaukee Road, after filing for bankruptcy in the late 1970s, decided to abandon the rail lines through Montana. Abandon only tells half the story – they actually came to Montana and removed the railway. Sumatra had gone from nothing to a boom town and back in just three generations.
Larry told us how the railway created and destroyed the towns of his youth, and had wiped out most of his current home of Melstone. As proof, he made sure to tell us to look for the old railroad grade as we drove to Ingomar. If you just looked for it, you’d see the ghost of the railroad.
He was right. You could see exactly where the railroad used to run – level grade topped or split hills and rose a few feet above the road. The rails and ties were gone – and so were many of the bridges. In some spots, you could see a rotted rail tie left behind along the grade, or a bridge support with no crossing. On one bridge, we saw weeds growing where steel rails used to be. Along with the ranch and town of Sumatra, the railroad was a third ghost we had uncovered.
The town of Ingomar was still standing, but was a shell of its former self. It was mostly deserted, except for maybe six functional buildings interspersed with twenty other buildings in various levels of decay. One of the functional buildings was an old bank that had been converted to a restaurant and bar called Jersey Lilly.
We walked in and found a handful of people talking to each other. A family reunion was starting and a few tables in front were being reserved. To be honest, nobody else was coming (our arrival was a surprise to the owners), so reserving the tables was unnecessary. Andy and I wandered through the restaurant, then back through openings to the two adjacent stores. There, in the last of the three rooms, I found a self-published book detailing the personal remembrances of some 400 families that once lived in both Sumatra and Ingomar. That became my birthday present to Andy. He found another book that had been written by the former Sumatra town doctor some sixty years after he migrated to Montana, and then was edited and published by his son in the late 1990s.
We also bellied up to the bar to enjoy a can of pop and a cinnamon roll. The owner of the restaurant brought us out what he called a Sheep Herder Hors D’Oeuvres, which was a saltine cracker with a layer of cheddar cheese, a layer of cut onions, and topped with a layer of thinly sliced oranges. We were both surprised that the concoction tasted pretty good.
The owner suggested that we talk to the last residents of Sumatra, Dan and Meredith Clifton. They lived in the building just west of the post office. Talking to strangers was easy for us – Andy and I spent a portion of our lives in journalism where talking to complete strangers was a daily part of our jobs. We had no problem talking to anyone we could see. However, knocking on someone’s door seemed a little too intruding – especially as afternoon turned to evening – so we passed on meeting the Cliftons and headed to Billings instead. Besides, we were armed with stories and books to read.
We took a few pictures of town and headed back to the hotel.
Along the ride home, Andy read aloud through the two books we had picked up. The reunion book contained a bunch of stories about his great-grandparents as well as a few photos of them and their homes. The second book was a treasure trove of stories about the founding of town. Written by Dr. Kent Midgett, the book is filled with his memories of the scores of families that settled in Sumatra – some who stayed and many who left. His son, Douglas, took his father’s stories, filled in some holes with other local history, and then published it about 15 years ago.
At our hotel, I broke out the laptop and started hunting for other historical references. The internet is a wonderful source of information that genealogists can use to find stuff – and finally we had names to use in searches. Using NewspaperArchive.com, we dug up old obituaries of Daniel and Lottle Finch and those of Daniel’s brothers and sisters. Ancestry.com gave us access to census records and other documentation. And some woman named Brenda King Finch had done a bunch of other legwork, compiling a website called FinchDNA.com – apparently she married into the family and started assembling their family history. Andy will be reaching out to her to share stuff we found, too.
We also looked into the history of the Milwaukee Road – and the stories we read matched that told to us by Mr. Zaharko.
Isaiah Finch, the son of an English immigrant, had lived in Pittsburgh most of his life coping with grief. He lost a wife and child within five years of his wedding. Remarrying and adding more children to the household, he tried making changes to his fortune. First, he moved south and tried farming in Virginia before moving back to Pittsburgh to help an ailing father. Around 1911, he had enough of the steel city; farming suited him better than rolling steel. Already nearing 50 years old, he picked up his growing family, Isaiah fathered thirteen kids – eleven that survived childhood, and moved west to Sumatra, Montana where he settled a 320 acre homestead north of the city.
The Finch Ranch can still be found on topographical maps – it’s a local landmark, even if not a historical one. You can see how it might have been able to raise sheep – driving out there, there are hundreds of bulls and cows grazing on the land. Isaiah would teach his sons well – they would be among the few who survived the city’s decline – and a well helped provide some running water to manage crops and a house.
Two of his seven sons were drafted into World War I, including Daniel Finch. Isaiah was the person who worked the draft board for this part of Rosebud County – he signed Daniel’s official draft form. When Daniel returned from the war, he met a young widow named Lottie Panena and her daughter, Gilda. Daniel was smitten – he married the young school teacher, adopted her daughter, and set up shop on his own farm in Sumatra. After more than 40 years in the area, and with most of their friends already gone (either heaven or other cities), they retired to Billings. Their daughter, Betty, took over Lottie’s job teaching at the school – until it burned down and she left town for Billings, too. Betty’s older brother, Richard, had bailed even sooner. By the time Sumatra’s high school had burned down, Richard was in Independence, MO – and raising Andy Finch’s dad. Daniel died in 1967 – three years before Andy was born, and about ten years before the last few families were leaving Sumatra for good.
The best part of the story is how we nearly missed it. We had seen the ranch, taken some pictures, and were ready to go do what we love to do as much as anything: watch baseball. Instead, a chance encounter with a local resident changed our plans and made the trip memorable – especially so for my friend.
Andy Finch knew very little of these ghost stories – nothing about his great-grandparents and the remains of a ranch where his grandfather grew up; nothing about the ghost town of Sumatra; nothing about how a Midwestern railroad contributed to the birth, life, and death of these cities and how they all changed and shaped the lives of his family – and likely would still not know any of this had we not stopped for gas at a quiet service station in Melstone. We didn’t even notice the missing railroad the first time through.
Instead, a friendly chat with a complete stranger helped us find the three ghosts who put Andy in touch with his family history.