A Portrait of Agriculture in Rural Montana | Helmville, Montana: A Community Profile

by Mark Spero with Rick Graetz

Ever since Europeans began settling Montana, agriculture has been the economy’s life blood and number one industry. Mining for precious metals jumped started it but farming and ranching were sustainable. And although factory farms are cropping up, and companies have replaced many family ranches, there are still many communities where local ranches and farms are alive and well. One of those enclaves is Helmville, Montana, population 30 people in town and about 300 in the surrounding area.

Set in the handsome pastoral valley of Nevada Creek, it sits below the east slopes of the Garnet Mountains and a short distance west of an unnamed range carrying the Continental Divide. Ovando is 18 miles to the northwest.

From the east, Helmville appears as a sparsely populated one street town, but with two churches, a post office, school, community center, volunteer fire department, restaurant, and bar, Helmville’s community is much more than that. While one road – State Highway 271 – is the only thorofare, this is a vibrant community and a gathering place for ranchers and farmers who populate the valley and beyond.

Before Europeans arrived, native tribes – the Kootenai, Salish, Nez Perce, Blackfeet, and Pen d’ Oreille passed through valley. At the time, the nearby Blackfoot River was known as Cokalahishkit, “The River of the Road to the Buffalo.” These tribes interacted with each other and travelled the river corridor eastward across the mountains to the Montana prairie to hunt bison.

Some of the earliest of these immigrants to settle the lush bottomlands were from Ireland, and as the town grew, families brought their relatives here from Europe. As early as the 1860s, a few ranches were established, including Henry Helm’s. The settlement obtained its name because Henry wrote to the federal government to request a post office. When in 1872 he received notice establishing the town and postal service, the name had been filed as Helmville.

Nevada Creek that skirts the town’s sunrise side saw placer-gold mining; those discoveries also attracted people to Helmville. In 1887, Washington Stapleton found the first “colors” and thereafter more claims were established. A ditch from the creek was dug to bring water to the finds.

In 1938, to control flooding and provide irrigation water, the state built a dam creating Nevada Reservoir although on maps it is labeled Nevada Lake, a more appropriate name. This attractive body of water is about 10 miles southeast of Helmville.

As the town took hold it was originally situated in the meadow just a short distance to the east. Before the dam that now holds back and controls the waters of the lake, Nevada Creek would flood so the town shifted a bit to west to its present location.

Ranch in Helmville Montana
Helmville, Montana | Rick and Susie Graetz

Two of the first families to settle the area were the McCormicks and Gearys, some of whom still live and work in Helmville. The Geary ranch dates back to 1867 and is the oldest one in the valley. It started when John Geary who came to America from Ireland in 1863 to partake in the gold rush stayed on and created a homestead. John Geary married Marianne McCormick.

Helmville’s Irish Catholic origins have remained an important part of the town. People come together at St. Thomas the Apostle, not only for religion but also to connect with friends. Like many small towns, the church is central to the community.

A school is essential to the well-being of place, and Helmville’s provides kindergarten through 8th grade before children need to be bussed to Drummond High School 21 miles to the southwest. About 10 – 15 students attend any given year. The school hold three classrooms, with several grades in each room taught by three teachers. Very good exposure for students in a younger grade hearing their older classmates reciting work they will take on in ensuing years; perhaps this might be described as education at its best!

Helmville Labor Day Rodeo weekend is one of this hamlet’s major events attracting people from many parts of the state who come to experience rodeo at its finest. A tradition for nearly 60 years it is two days of bull riding, team roping, and steer wrestling, along with many other events.

Mention Helmville and the Copper Queen Saloon comes to mind. It’s a meeting place for the community and the surrounding country. Supposedly it was moved to where it is now in 1978 to begin business under the current name. But there was a bar well before this one.

In about 1900, Irish immigrant Mike McCormick, and his brother-in-law Dave Coughlin opened a store-saloon at the original Helmville location. Mike McCormick later married Maria McAndrew Jordan, widow of Pat Jordan. Pat Jordan had been partners with J.R. Quigley, in the Quigley-Jordan Saloon in present day Helmville. Maria and Mike went into the bar business together, creating McCormick and Sons Bar. Sons Michael J. (Adge) and Bill had the bar until the mid-1960’s.

In 2018, Katie Geary who grew up in Helmville and her husband Tommy Applegate bought this venerable establishment from the owner of 21 years, Tami Foell. The couple returned to Katie’s roots to raise their family in this great environment. She is part of the long-time Geary clan and ranch and as multitasking is necessary in a small rural place, she, her husband, and brother help manage the ranch as well as the Copper Queen.

Often described a “real Montana bar” with a true old-time western atmosphere, the place adds much to Helmville, serving as “headquarters for every event the town hosts – rodeo, baseball tournaments, basketball tourneys and weekend get togethers. And as a watering hole and restaurant, folks travel here from surrounding towns to enjoy the food and good people who make the business work.

Softball Tournament in Helmville - 2 spectators on 4 wheelers
Helmville Softball Tournament | Rick and Susie Graetz

Ranches in the valley are mostly multi-generational, and the folks who own and operate them are set on keeping their natural surroundings as beautiful and intact as they have always been. Nevada Creek drainage, the waterway that flows from Nevada Lake to meet the Blackfoot just north of town is on the western perimeter of the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem and hence this landscape is critical for wildlife migration.

A major project in these efforts has been the restoration of Nevada Creek near where it joins the Blackfoot. The Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited and other organization have been working with the Stitt family, ranchers near Helmville since 1976, for over a decade to stop erosion. The Stitts had been losing land to the creek, and the soil erosion had been compromising the health of the
trout that migrate up from the Blackfoot. Like any successful conservation project in the state, it took work from Montanans from all backgrounds including local families, and school children from the valley and various other organizations to stop the degradation of Nevada Creek. Now, this waterway is a flourishing fishery.

Powell County of which Helmville is part of, has instituted some well-thought-out zoning requiring a parcel of land in this area to be at least 160 acres to be developed. And conservation easements established through the Montana Land Reliance and The Natures Conservancy go a long way towards halting sprawl while protecting human and wildlife habitat. And for those wishing to develop in town, one-acre parcels can be built on.

Off the beaten path coupled with the simple beauty of this valley is an asset that may be called backroads Montana with pride! The issue though is what can attract younger folks who were born here to come back to town and stabilize it and the school. In general, the local consensus is they wish to remain a ranching community but realize that other job opportunities are needed to keep families here. This rural community offer possibilities to encourage those whose journey to tomorrow began here, to return home and connect with markets around the globe. Their exposure to the world beyond Nevada Creek Valley could serve them well to incubate ideas. Are cottage industries possible?

Editors Note: We thank the following Helmville folks who helped us gather information for this essay: Katie Applegate, Mary Ann McCormick McKee, Brooks Phillip, Chris Ross and Diane Krutar