01 Jun Images of the West: The Fishtail General Store
As I detour from Interstate 90 and drive down the rural road toward Fishtail, Montana, my daily concerns diminish to distant contours in the rearview mirror, and my focus turns to the colorful frame ahead.
Like scenes in a motion picture, images from the road can pass by quickly: a community church, newborn calves, an old red barn, Red Barn Lane, a lifelike silhouette of a cowboy on the hillside, the awe-inspiring Beartooth Mountains, and the cool vintage facade of the Stillwater Lodge in the tiny town of Absarokee.
But you can’t miss the Fishtail General Store. It’s one of only two or three businesses in town — depending on whether you count the post office — and it’s strikingly quaint. Founded in 1900 and owned by Katy Martin since 2000, the business is a fixture in this quiet community. “Katy is a force of energy and generosity,” says longtime customer Nan Sollo, adding that the store “is a labor of love.”
In the back of the establishment, near the kitchen and deli counter, hundreds of names are etched into a large, rustic wood table. The table is a hub — a place to gather — and the signatures reflect the diverse people that visit the store: ranchers, miners, doctors, CEOs, and remote workers.
Customers come to enjoy everything from a homemade meal and the company of a neighbor to the large selection of items available for purchase; there’s almost nothing you can’t find. You might expect some things, such as milk, butter, eggs, beer, chips, and toothpaste. Others, like nuts, bolts, nails, and screws, are sensible and provide a measure of relief. “We try to have what people might need so they don’t have to go to town to fix something,” Martin says, using the word “town” in a relative sense, referring to the larger city of Billings, an hour’s drive away.
But you can also find fresh-made pie, yard signs, baby clothes, dog treats, shoelaces, wood glue, snake repellant, mousetraps, matches, buttons, Hula-Hoops, huckleberry mints, puzzles, rock-painting kits, sewing kits, garden seeds, a handwashing timer, dice, Spam and fresh fruit, local art, homemade peanut butter, microbrews, PVC for sprinklers, gasoline, reflective shirts, sporting goods, and mining boots. Yes, mining boots. The Stillwater Mine is 22 miles from the general store, straight down Nye Road.
Every morning around 3:30 a.m., store employees arrive to prepare for the first round of miners, who sweep through like a flock of birds at sunrise. The miners gather their hot coffees, pre-wrapped burritos, and snacks before disappearing down Nye Road — dots dissolving into the horizon — as they head out for a day in the underworld.
Ranchers also frequent the store. “On any given day, a rancher could be branding, moving cows, or shipping cows,” explains general store manager Melissa Husted. “We have lots of ranchers around here who just come in to buy groceries, snacks, water, and beer to help feed their crews.”
When I visit the store, I become fast friends with Martin’s stepson, Kirk Martin, co-owner of Fishtail Grind, an espresso bar he established with Luke Whall inside the general store in 2017.
I also meet a range of regulars: Sherry Winn, a speaker, author, leadership coach, and two-time Olympic athlete in team handball; John Dinsdale, the owner of Beartooth Concrete, who shares with me that he’s recently lost his wife; Jan LaForge Flanagan, a Crow woman who tells me she was recently married; and Bill Kalyn, a retired urban park manager who’s visiting from Canada.
On the phone, after I photograph him, Kalyn laughs and says he is getting a lot of ribbing for the portrait session. “We enjoy visiting the store,” he says, adding that Martin keeps some unique items in stock. One, in particular, that caught his eye was a beer can insulator. It wraps around your beverage and looks like a tiny sleeping bag. His wife enjoyed the large selection of cards.
The variety of goods is worthy of attention, but perhaps most important is that people feel comfortable stopping by the store, says Martin. “They stand in line, and they talk. It doesn’t have to be about anything big. They share their stories and what is happening in their lives. That makes us more compassionate.”
Compassion, conversation, community, and storytelling are indeed alive at the Fishtail General Store. And perhaps they are also key to a well-lived life. At least, that’s how I’m thinking about things on the drive home.
Near Columbus, as I get closer to the interstate, the sky is clear and blue, the clouds so close I feel like I could reach out and touch them.
Janie Osborne discovered Montana on a spontaneous cross-country road trip. More than 25 years later, she is based in Bozeman with her husband and two children and regularly takes photos for commercial clients and national titles, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, and others.