Montana’s smallest county making big changes to save town, expand housing

Winnett ACES started with locally produced food, moved on to affordable housing, historic preservation

By: - July 10, 2022 9:17 am

Kendall Morgan Wojcik of Winnett ACES looks over the top floor and restoration that’s being done to restore the Odd Fellows building in Winnett, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Petroleum County has fewer than 500 people in it, making it the least populated in a state that is still regarded in many places as “frontier.”  It’s the seventh most rural county in America, and its county seat, Winnett, has a population of 200.

But the county and the city are doing more to build and preserve the town and address problems like affordable housing and economic development than counties many times its size. A group, Winnett ACES, an acronym for Agricultural Community Enhancement and Sustainability, is in the midst of transforming the Main Street of the cattle community into something that other communities dream of.

Hammers bang against lumber and the sound of machinery moves materials at what will become the Petroleum County Community Center – a facility that’s already paid, plus an endowment that will help keep it clean and up-to-date.

A sign in front of the construction for the Petroleum County Community Center which was being constructed in June 2022 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

The building that stood where the new center is being built was the longtime home to one of the earliest buildings in the community, constructed about the same time the town was founded in 1917. It’s known as the “Odd Fellows” hall, but was at one time home to junior high and senior high classes, a pharmacy and a clothing store.

For the past 30 years, the building sat vacant and was used as storage. Nearly everyone in the community had a memory of when the building was a community gathering spot. The Winnett community wished that something could be done with it, and it was one of only a couple of buildings that spanned back to the town’s founding.

So, Winnett ACES asked the county if it could have the building. That required the nonprofit group to buy new land for it, move it, and place a new foundation for it – not a cheap task. But, knocking the building down meant losing a key part of the town’s history, and building a new structure – with the cost of construction – would probably cost more.

One of the unexpected benefits of the spike in construction materials was it made it more attractive and cost effective to move.

For seven-and-a-half months, Winnett ACES set about fund-raising to get enough to find new land, new foundation and moving.

The old Odd Fellows Hall in Winnett, Montana, one of the oldest buildings in town which is now being saved and restored by Winnett ACES (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Future plans for the building will be to renovate it so the second floor can be used as a three-bedroom apartment, helping to ease a housing shortage that has penetrated deeply into Montana, even in its most sparsely populated county.

“We want people to move here and then we don’t have any place for them to live, so that’s kind of hard,” said Laura Nowlin, the operations coordinator for Winnett ACES.

If one idea has unified the group, it’s the hopes that a coffee shop and ice cream store can be developed on the lower level, turning the old building once again into a community gathering space.

“The community wants to be here – in this building again,” Nowlin said, as she was setting up a Nerf gun course for a youth activity recently.

Recycling the courthouse

And that would be more than enough for almost any size Montana community. But the group is also working with the county in one of those much touted public-private partnerships. The Petroleum County Courthouse and the county occupies most of the main floor of the stone structure building just diagonal from the new community center.

The upper level of the county building is a mess of old furniture, haunted house posters and a few bookcases filled with legal case law books from when the county attorney was housed there.

Winnett ACES will soon begin to remodel much of the space, transforming it into three different living spaces and a host of offices, several for the growing group, which has experienced such support that it now boasts two full-time and three part-time employees.

The Petroleum County Building which houses court, the Sheriff’s Office, the clerk and recorder, and will soon have office space and living space in the top level which will help pay for and sustain the county offices (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

When it’s completed, the upper level of the courthouse will feature office but also apartments, complete with an outdoor deck with sweeping views of the area. A now covered skylight will be restored, and Nowlin, who has a background in historic preservation, said a wide dark room now will be a large conference room – again, for the community use.

The five office spaces are already rented.

The total project will cost around $1.75 million, with $600,000 coming from a Community Block Development Grant that helps with affordable housing for those on income restrictions.

Yet the renovation also has more than the benefit of office spaces and more housing: The rent money will pay for maintenance cost and utilities of the county. It will also help with the leaking roof of the building that was constructed in 1917.

“We want people who come here and like it to be able to live here. We want people here,” Nowlin said.

It takes a village, city and county

Nowlin said the key to the success was the group has been led by community members who grew up and loved the city and county, but realized something was needed to build it up or possibly lose it.

The first program that was successfully launched had nothing to do with ice cream shops or community centers – it was an initiative to make sure that community-grown food and beef made it into the school, something that makes a lot of sense where cows outnumber people in the county.

That kind of literal grassroots effort has galvanized community support and set the group working to build the community with the help of volunteers, staff and a dedicated group of funders, including former Winnett high school graduates, who love their hometown, even if they no longer live in the area.

Even though the group focuses on land use, preserving the soil, and boosting agriculture, much of the work doesn’t have quite as much to do with soil, cows or nutrients.

“None of the conservation helps without the people,” said Kendall Morgan Wojcik, a trained soil scientist who serves as the Winnett ACES education and outreach coordinator.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.