A True Small Town Setting: Willow Creek

Friday Jul. 1st, 2011

Are we there yet? Willow Creek is tucked in the backdrop of the Tobacco Root Mountains with a view of the 10,604 foot Hollowtop Mountain. The distant horizon is snow capped mountains with green pasture land and roaming cattle grazing through the lush green grass.  Gravel roads lead to and from the town winding through pasture land.

Willow Creek is located 6 miles south of Three Forks, on the far western edge of Gallatin County. Many other communities in the county have grown and changed, but not Willow Creek. It is still a small, quaint, beautiful, western community. No stop lights, no stop signs.

Willow Creek is named for the willows that grow alongside the creek through the area. Clark named the creek, “Pholofiphers River”, later named “Willow Creek”. The town started in 1864. In 1920 Willow Creek was a thriving town of some 400 people, the second largest city in Gallatin County.

Like any good Montana community, Willow Creek has a post office, church, fire hall and a bar. One of its most fun events are monthly summer Art Walks, a perfect evening event.
The 2011 Art Walks include Willow Creek’s three art galleries and the Fire Hall full of artists. Included in the Art Walk is a weaver, jewelry makers, photo artists, an engraver as well as other crafters. There are guest artist in the galleries and fire hall.

Willow Creek Art Walks take place the third Friday of the month during the summer; next art walk is July 15th, 5-9pm. Willow Creek Art Walks is where summer relaxation and art come together.
Leslie Drawbaugh is one of the organizers for the event. She is a local artist. After raising her family of six children, she has found herself at MSU getting her teaching degree. Leslie currently teaches adult beginning drawing classes at the Emerson in Bozeman.

The Willow Creek Gallery, a fine arts store, http://willowcreekgallery.com is filled with a collection of artwork, pottery, sculptures, metalwork, and jewelry. As you step onto the porch it is apparent that many a spring and summer days are spent on the porch shade enjoying the artwork discussing life over a glass of iced tea. Don Kast, the gallery owner, talks with locals and visitors to the gallery sharing his life and love of art and the city of Willow Creek.
Aunt Dofe’s Hall of Recent Memory, http://auntdofe.com located at 102 Main Street in Willow Creek is filled with art, some old, some new. Dave Kirk the owner has about 40 different artists represented in his gallery. Dave bought the building in 2000 when his aunt passed away. He brought her ashes back to her home, Willow Creek. Dave was born in Michigan moved to San Francisco and now resides in Willow Creek. Dave had Montana connections through his great grandfather who was superintendent of Holter Dam.

Willow Creek the Community
The grain elevator as you enter town is a historic landmark for the little town. Methodist church, art galleries, fire hall, Willow Creek school, Willow Creek Café and Saloon as well as Willow Creek Tool Sales line main street.
Willow Creek is the unlikely home for Willow Creek Tool Sales Inc., which sells wood-working and wood-processing machinery in a seven-state region. The business fills a 12,000 sq ft, 100 plus year old building on Main Street. Across the street is a woodworking training shop that brings in clients and customers from across the country.

Willow Creek School is a K-12 school with an enrollment of 70 students. Willow Creek Broncos is a Class C school with football, basketball, volleyball and cross country sports.  Stanley Gordon West’s novel about Class C basketball, “Blind Your Ponies,” is set in Willow Creek. The novel explains the importance of a small town, ranching, the culture of a small town and the ability for a small town boy’s basketball team to bring the community together.

Willow Creek is home to Montana Rose Band which plays American music, steeped in blues, country and western music. 2011 represents 21 years that Montana Rose has been together. Montana Rose plays throughout the Rocky Mountains and is a top cowboy band. Eight recordings and their music being played in over 30 countries is just a part of their success. Husband and wife Kenny and Claudia Williams are the founders of Montana Rose with guitarist Rick Winking, Kenny on bass, Claudia on acoustic guitar and vocals, and drummers Mark Wittman and Mark Dixon. To catch Montana Rose check out their schedule at: http://www.mtrosemusic.com.

A main draw to Willow Creek is the Willow Creek Café and Saloon. Serving ribs that many argue are the best ribs this side of the Mississippi is their specialty. This café and saloon has carved out a niche since opening in 1977. They are located in a 1910 building with a ceiling of pressed tin. The walls are covered in floral wallpaper. The first thing to pay attention to is the chalkboard of meal specials and a wine list that is impressive to the wine expert.

A simple menu of burgers and steaks draws a local crowd, Bozeman and Butte residents as well as visitors to the area. Homemade soups and hand cut meats top the menu for great food as well as homemade desserts daily. Reservations are encouraged (406-285-3698) as the small 10 table restaurant can fill up quickly.

So next time a road trip is on your list of things to do. Get in your vehicle and motor out to Willow Creek for a walk down a small Montana street. Step into history & enjoy the best ribs this side of the Mississippi.

Pamela D Bussi is a photojournalist that loves the small towns of Montana. She was raised on a farm and ranch in northern Montana. She attended Shelby High School which was 43 miles from her home tucked in the Sweetgrass Hills in northern Montana. More of her work can be found at: www.pamelabussi.com.