There’s a lot of empty space in Montana, so when you throw a dart at a map of the state, there’s a good chance it’s going to land in a place like Lennep.

BY SARAH GIANELLI | PHOTOS BY JENNINGS BARMORE

 

Located a couple hours northeast of Bozeman at the foot of the Castle Mountains, Lennep was once a stop on the Old Milwaukee Railroad. Today, only the ghosts of a general store and schoolhouse remain and, standing in stark contrast to the time-ravaged buildings around it, the oldest Lutheran church in the state.

For the second installment of this magazine’s dart toss series, I did some reconnaissance before heading up to the abandoned townsite to ensure that I’d connect with someone who lived in the area; and get inside that church, a stately white and blue steepled affair.

Like many a Western town, whether thriving or a shell of its former self, I would learn that Lennep’s history runs much deeper than the paint peeling off the structures that once comprised a community.

First, I called the Meagher (pronounced “Mahr”) County Sheriff’s Office, but, located a good hour away in the town of White Sulphur Springs, the dispatcher didn’t have any information about Lennep. “Isn’t that a ghost town?” she asked.

Eventually, I tracked down a former pastor of the Lennep church, who lives in nearby Harlowton.

He gave me the contact information for a woman named Alysha Moe over in Two Dot—later described by a local as “easy to find, hard to leave”— who, the pastor said, was acquainted with most people in the area.

“No, no, I’m not the person you should talk to,” Moe said. “You need to call Gail Berg; she really knows the history of Lennep.”

Over the phone, Gail told me I should meet her husband, Rick. “I’m not a native,” she said. “I’ve only been here 45 years.” Rick belongs to the fourth generation of one of the original Norwegian families that homesteaded the area in the 1870s.

We made arrangements for the Bergs to meet me at the church the following day.

A plaque explained that the store, which also housed the post office, opened in 1914 until shuttering its doors in the 1960s, when Lennep seems to have relaxed its grip on remaining a viable township.

 

Lennep lies on the short but scenic Montana State Highway 294, a 30-mile stretch of gentle curves and rolling hills that runs along the Pacific Extension of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, also referred to as the Old Milwaukee Road.

Turning onto a gravel road hugged by a shrub-choked creek, the former mercantile loomed straight ahead, an old wooden Lennep sign still nailed to the pale yellow building. A row of rusty mailboxes sprouted from overgrown grasses along its base, a single Amazon package teetering on top, an indication that human life was near, if not in Lennep proper. A plaque explained that the store, which also housed the post office, opened in 1914 until shuttering its doors in the 1960s, when Lennep seems to have relaxed its grip on remaining a viable township.

I circumnavigated the building, peering through the dusty storefront windows before wandering around back where precarious, half-missing steps led to a slightly ajar door.

The dingy interior was thick with hazy shafts of light, bird droppings, and downy feathers that floated into the air with little coaxing. Wishing I had a respirator mask, I ascended an uncertain staircase to the second floor.

One more door creaked open into a spacious empty room that probably served as the mercantile storeroom at one point. It had the look of a ballroom now, exaggerated by a curious pair of white roller skates artfully arranged like an abstract sculpture in the center of the wood floor, crispy leaves having collected around it.

A stone’s throw to the west was the former schoolhouse. Windows were broken, junk was scattered around the building and, based on the tattered recliners in the front room, it looked as if someone had been squatting there at some point.

Rick explained that we were standing in the heart of the South Fork of the Musselshell River valley, uninhabited by white people until 1877 when a Norwegian named M.T. Grande brought 3,000 sheep to the area from Idaho.

 

Just to the north was the church, prim and pristinely preserved. A few minutes after my arrival, the Bergs pulled up in a pickup.

Easily 6-foot-5, Rick cut a handsome figure, a rancher in cowboy boots, hat and Wrangler jeans, but dapper too, with a bandana tucked into the collar of his blue, pearl-snap shirt like a Western ascot. He and Gail joined me on the steps, Rick striking the pose of the silhouetted cowboy before cracking open the history book in his head.

Rick explained that we were standing in the heart of the South Fork of the Musselshell River valley, uninhabited by white people until 1877 when a Norwegian named M.T. Grande brought 3,000 sheep to the area from Idaho. He was soon followed by a handful of other families from the same valley in Norway.

Later, Rick told an amusing story about when the Lennep Norwegians first mixed with Norwegians from another valley who had settled nearby. One of the men who came to Lennep to work returned home and said, “I don’t think this English is going to be too hard to learn; I can already kind of understand it.” He didn’t realize that the Lennep Norwegians simply spoke a different dialect of their native language.

In August 2016, Trinity Lutheran Church celebrated its 125th anniversary, and nearly 200 people came to Lennep for the associated services. Today, the church holds services twice monthly.

 

In 1886, silver and lead were discovered 7 miles west of Lennep in the Castle Mountains, and the boomtown of Castletown popped up around the mines. Rick’s great- grandfather had a butcher shop there; its crumbling stone foundation is still visible in the brush across the road from nearly a dozen houses with caved-in roofs leaning at gravity-defying angles.

“By 1889, 2,000 people were living there,” Rick said. “Maybe the biggest city in Meagher County history, even by today’s standards.”

The challenge for the Castletown miners was transporting the ore to a smelter—it was so heavy that it took two six-horse teams to haul a single load out of the steep mountains south to Livingston.

“They were crying for a railroad from the beginning,” Rick said.

In the early 1890s, a man from Chicago named Richard Harlow ventured to build a railroad up to Castletown, eventually reaching within a couple miles of the encampment.

But in 1893, the silver market crashed, and Harlow decided the only way to save his railroad was to continue the line down the Musselshell toward the town that would later be named after Harlow himself.

“The Norwegians still are the ones who stayed around after the boomtown Castle disappeared,” Rick explained. “And of course, the Norwegians, being their state church of Lutheran, had to have a church here and they formed this church in 1891. They met in schools and little towns and people’s homes until they finally built this building in 1914.”

Narrow and tall, the church shines white in an open field, surrounded by farmland and dirt roads leading to remote ranches. Its pointy steeple reaches up toward the heavens as if in prayer, buoyed by the music its parishioners have been filling the nave with since its construction.

In August 2016, Trinity Lutheran Church celebrated its 125th anniversary, and nearly 200 people came to Lennep for the associated services. Today, the church holds services twice monthly.

At the time of the anniversary, the church was in need of a new roof and steps. “It’s amazing how the money flowed,” Rick said. “People really value this as part of their heritage … people that don’t live here, haven’t lived here, but their ancestors lived here,” he said. “The memories perpetuate this unique community.”

Rick led the way inside the church—the interior like a red velvet-lined jewelry box, with accents of gold and stained glass. Based on the visitor log, thick with a list of names from across the country and world, Trinity Lutheran remains a place of respite and peace for passersby from near and far.

After placing his cowboy hat on a high beam at the church entrance, Rick took a seat at the piano and played a Lutheran hymn, showing off the fine acoustics of the high-vaulted ceilings, and the musical heritage that has run through generations of his family. Rick’s grandfather played the organ at church services for 65 years; Rick’s been doing the same on piano for more than four decades.

"Not much left of the little town of Lennep, but all those early Norwegian ranches are still going–they’re in their fifth and sixth generation."

 

“So, we’ve got over a hundred years covered out of the 125 years of the church history,” he said. “But everybody sings, everybody plays something—music’s been a big part of this valley and still is.”

The church has no running water—that’s what the outhouse out back is for—but the bell in the belfry still rings, the heavy pull of the braided rope strong enough to lift a small person up off the ground.

Rick went to school in Lennep for eight years. He pointed out the “toboggan hill” they used to sled down, and the river they’d skate on during recess. His kids attended the schoolhouse for kindergarten through grade six.

The passenger train stopped passing through Lennep in the ‘60s; the store and post office closed soon after. The school followed suit in 2010, the area’s dwindling population no longer able to sustain it.

“Not much left of the little town of Lennep, but all those early Norwegian ranches are still going—they’re in their fifth and sixth generation,” Rick said. “It’s kind of a unique Montana valley in that respect.”

The only job Rick’s had other than working the family ranch was when he got drafted after graduating from Montana State University in 1970, he said. “So, pretty narrow background, but deeply rooted in the South Fork of the Musselshell soil, that’s for sure.”

His and Gail’s kids, and their children, are now carrying that heritage into the sixth generation, area ranching having shifted from sheep to cattle in the 1950s.

Rick and Gail unloaded some hay bales from the bed of their pickup, making room for me to hop in back for a quick trip to the nearby cemetery, where the majority of headstones are etched with the names of Lennep’s original settlers: Grande, Voldseth, Zikmund and Berg, each family having selected a plot closest to their ranch.

“We probably know most of the critters in here,” Gail said. “I suppose we’ll probably be buried here too.”

We pause at the grave of Lennep founder M.T. Grande, who passed in 1930.

Rick points to the land spread out in the shadow of a butte shaped like a rooster comb. “You can see why he picked that [property] as the first settler in the valley.”

Gail untangled the branches of Lennep’s family tree, explaining that the intertwined roots of the community can be traced back to Karen and Martin [Grande], who weren’t able to have children of their own. “In those days, with all the big families, they ended up adopting a Berg,” she said. “So, the Grandes, the Bergs and the Voldseths are all kind of in this melting pot together.”

Before parting ways, I thanked the Bergs for bringing Lennep’s history to life, and for being so generous with their time.

“You’re welcome,” Rick said, tipping his hat. “Thanks for hitting Lennep on the dart board.”

Sarah Gianelli is the former senior editor of Mountain Outlaw magazine.