Businesses, community grow in Grass Range

By: 
Jenny Gessaman
Reporter
A sign made of thick metal stands with the words "Welcome to Grass Range" punched out.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Rural Central Montana may not be the first place people expect to find growth, but Grass Range spent the last year bucking the stereotype of the dying small town.

 

Treats for townsfolk and travelers

One of the most noticeable changes sits on Hwy 87. The town’s old Texaco station has been remodeled, and the garage doors and oil pits have given way to two new businesses.

The Fox Den is the new bar and grill in town, and the owners are as new as their venture. Kelli and Tim Fox moved to Grass Range only six months before they opened their doors last November.

“We were not necessarily happy in our jobs in Billings, and we were looking for something else,” Kelli said.

Kelli’s mom lived in the area, and frequent family visits offered a solution to the couple’s problem. The Foxes left the city with a plan for a Grass Range bar and restaurant. From the start, the pair was clear on what they wanted The Fox Den to be.

“We like to think of ourselves as a restaurant that serves alcohol,” Kelli said. “We definitely wanted to be a place in town you could bring your kids.”

The couple also knew what they wanted on the menu.

“We cook as much as we can homemade,” Tim said.

The pair walked away from salesmen offering frozen alternatives, and split the work of making meals from scratch. Kelli produces homemade soups and desserts, while Tim tackles the menu’s other items. The Fox Den produces chicken strips from chicken breasts and their own handmade beer batter, and they smoke their own roasts.

Tim worked for a truck manufacturer in Billings, but doesn’t mind the career change.

“I’ve been cooking for a long time, and I just like cooking,” he said.

The restaurant setting does produces new challenges, though. Cooking large quantities, and even figuring out how many to cook for, was new to Tim and Kelli. Farm and ranch schedules also prevented the predictable lunch rush common in metropolitan areas.

“Grass Range is not the typical nine-to-five place,” Kelli laughed. “You take that, you wad it up and you throw it out the window.”

Tim found a silver lining, though.

“It’s been fun: It keeps you on your toes and it keeps you thinking,” he said.

 

There’s dinner, but what about the groceries?

The Foxes moved to town around May of 2015, opening The Fox Den late November of that year. In early 2016, Grass Range experienced another change: The town’s mercantile closed.

Located on Main Street, the store had been the only source of groceries for locals. While residents took road trips to stock up for the next week, Tim and Kelli found they had a challenge of their own.

The couple had renovated half of the old gas station, leaving half as a garage. After failing to lease out the space, the Foxes started drawing up plans for a bar room and dance floor. That’s when Kelli’s mom, Debbie Degner, stepped in.

“I had considered the store before, but I just didn’t jump on it fast enough,” she said.

The Main Street mercantile had gone up for sale shortly before it closed, and Degner had missed the opportunity. When it closed, she considered purchasing and reopening it, but decided otherwise after seeing the state of the building.

The town needed a mercantile, the Foxes had a space they needed to make money, and Degner wanted a store. The coincidence came out in Grass Range’s favor.

The family worked together to transform the remaining gas station remnants, replacing garage doors and pouring cement into old oil change pits.

“We essentially built a new building inside an old building,” Kerri said.

Like her daughter and son-in-law, Degner had a very specific vision in mind for her business.

“It’s an old fashioned, hardware-grocery-gift-little bit of everything,” she said.

Degner talked to the old mercantile’s owners, and hired one of the former employees, to get an idea of what to stock. The Ole’ Mercantile opened mid-July, and while watching customer preferences has helped, some parts of stocking are still being fine-tuned.

“Hardware has been a little bit more of a guess for us girls,” Degner laughed.

Degner’s even added some of the inventory after the store opened: Through another favorable coincidence, she was able to find a local supplier for pet food and sawdust.

 

Building on opportunities

John Ahlgren has delivered feed since 1995, but started Ahlgren Outfit Feeds when he bought into a company in 2002. Today the company has a main warehouse out at the Ahlgren ranch, as well as satellite dealers in Winifred and Roundup.

Ahlgren hired the Foxes to cater his family reunion, and a conversation about business and deliveries created an invitation to bring feed into Grass Range.

The couple sold Ahlgren the land behind their bar and restaurant, and Degner reached out to him about getting products for her customers. Construction on a small warehouse started in June, ended in July and brought Ahlgren Outfit Feeds to town.

Now Ahlgren comes in once a week to move bags of dog food, cat food, chicken feed and sawdust into The Ole’ Mercantile. Although it’s a new product, he has sold over 60 bags of pet food since the beginning of August.

Ahlgren has also gained a location more accessible for some customers, and Degner helps direct business to his store.

“That’s the nice thing about a small community,” he said. “Lots of times, she just gives them the key. Everybody knows how to run a skid steer and they load it themselves.”

Community and construction have been a thread in Ahlgren’s recent years, one exemplified not only by his business expansion, but also by Grass Range’s new arena.

Officially named the Grass Range Event Center, the arena resulted from two years of efforts, donations and volunteerism.

The town has an odd arena history, according to Ahlgren. One was built just south of the present arena in 1970, only to be torn down around 1979. A replacement was built north of the town that same year, but was demolished in 1985.

Convinced the community needed a place to gather, Ahlgren and Joe Delany asked the Grass Range Stockyards Board for land to work with. When the board said yes, the pair started plans.

They bought old bucking chutes from the Fergus County Fairgrounds, and later sent fliers asking for donations to the surrounding area.

“We got over $17,000, from approximately 50 people, in donation money,” Ahlgren said.

Ground was broken late that year, and on the arena’s Dec. 2 workday last year, over 20 people volunteered their time.

“I like to say we had seven people welding at one time,” Ahlgren laughed.

This spring, a set of bleachers originally built for the town’s 1970 arena were donated back by Winnett’s rodeo club, a sentimental touch to the new project.

“They were at the first big arena in Grass Range, and they were built in 1972,” Ahlgren said.

Donation became the theme as first sand, and then the crow’s nest and all the needed trucking were given free of charge. The pieces came together like a puzzle, creating a complete Grass Range Event Center.

Now Ahlgren reports the arena needs a calendar to keep its schedule straight, and is in use five to six nights a week. He is happy to see the community has a place to come together.

“When we asked the Stockyards Board in January 2015 if we could do this, Joe was specific on naming it,” Ahlgren said. “We wanted it to be the ‘event center’ so everybody was comfortable coming to it.”

That sense of community is one shared by the Foxes and Degner. Although the old Texaco station has been redone, it still has a space in the back that isn’t currently in use. Together, Kerri and her mom have held an ornament painting class there, and are planning to use it for a pumpkin-carving event.

“When we started, we said we wanted to be more than a restaurant or a bar,” Tim said, and Kerri helped finish the thought: “My goal for the first year of business is to be a big part of the community.”

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