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This small-town farmer is going to Washington

Times Staff Writer

Big Sandy has had its moments in the sun.

Local boy Jeff Ament made good a few years ago as the bassist for Pearl Jam. The town’s “chief claim to worldwide fame,” as resident historian Keith Edwards puts it, is the Big Bud 16V-747, a custom-made behemoth that the Guinness Book of World Records lists as the largest tractor on Earth.

But in recent years, the story in Big Sandy, as in countless other farm towns across the Great Plains, has been one of loss.

So this week’s win by Jon Tester -- a wheat and lentil farmer who also has done stints here as a custom butcher, soil conservation board member, high school basketball referee and music teacher at Big Sandy Elementary School -- was huge.

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The 50-year-old Democrat eked out a win over Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in Tuesday’s midterm election and is headed to Washington come January.

Tester’s Western roots are genuine and about as deep as can be: He has never lived anyplace other than the family farm, which his grandparents homesteaded here in 1916.

“No question about it: This is a big deal,” said Conrad Heimbigner, manager of Big Sky Auto & Ag. “I don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican ... this is pretty cool that we have a United States senator from Big Sandy.”

In an interview, Tester agreed that his hometown could use some good news.

“It’s very typical of rural Montana,” the senator-to-be said. “It’s struggling to survive.”

Residents describe local history by ticking off what’s gone: two of the three banks, the “picture show,” also known as a movie theater; several restaurants and two-thirds of the student population, which peaked back in 1920. Big Sandy High School is so small that the football team plays the eight-man version, as many Plains towns do.

“Fewer farmers, fewer kids,” said Edwards, 88, a retired wheat farmer, founder of the Big Sandy Historical Museum and a onetime cattle-drive partner of Tester’s late father, Dave.

Some here are hoping Tester -- who sports a trademark flat-top -- can draw attention to the plight of dying farm towns, and perhaps even generate some solutions.

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Others are not so sure.

“It’s a hoot, but I’m not sure it’s going to make any darn difference in the long run,” said Charlie Briggs, a retired miner who was nursing a beer at lunchtime the other day at the Redneck Club & Casino, a Main Street hangout. “I’m not sure that anything can really help turn this town around.”

Big Sandy, a town of about 700 in the north-central part of the state, is ringed by grain silos. It takes its name from a nearby creek, which the Blackfeet called Un-es-putcha-eka; white settlers opted for the “Big Sandy” translation offered by an Indian guide.

It is classic amber-waves-of-grain, Big Sky country -- spectacularly beautiful on a blue-sky day and tremendously foreboding when the sky is shades of gray and a chill, dusty wind blows.

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In the early part of the last century, people like Tester’s grandparents couldn’t get to places like Big Sandy fast enough. For a time, until the late 1920s, the free land, plentiful rain and abundant harvests made for a sort of paradise.

But then came the dust bowl, and many settlers left in droves.

“Forty miles from water and 40 miles from wood, now I’m leaving Montana for good,” read a sign, now famous, that was left behind by a member of the Big Sandy exodus.

Still, many folks held on and made a go of it.

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Tester, who is 6 feet tall and pushing 300 pounds, farms organically on his 1,800-acre spread here -- and he clearly loves it.

“I do a lot of my best thinking right here,” he told a visitor over the summer, on the last day of the harvest.

More than one person here compares him to Jimmy Stewart in the famous 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

But, said Edwards, “I wouldn’t carry that analogy too far. I don’t think it’s realistic to idealize the farmer these days. He’s not a straw-chewer; he’s a businessman. He’s out to get the last buck, even out of the federal government,” which gives farmers subsidies.

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“Besides, you don’t get to be the president of the Montana state Senate by sitting around on your butt,” Edwards added. Tester ran for state senator eight years ago and quickly rose up the ranks in Helena, the state capital.

Several people laughed when asked whether they would have thought 20 years ago that the burly butcher cutting up their cow would wind up in the U.S. Senate. But, they said, they detected clues to Tester’s ever-rising ambitions over the years.

“I could tell Jon was getting real smart about politics when he decided to stop refereeing basketball games with me several years ago,” said Verlin Reichelt, 56, a neighbor and fellow farmer.

“I asked him why, and he laughed and he said: ‘Verlin, I’m a politician now. And no matter what you do, if you’re a referee at a high school basketball game, that’s going to lose you some votes. So I’m out.’ ”

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sam.verhovek@latimes.com


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