Exploring Malta Country

by Rick and Susie Graetz

US 191 climbs a steep grade out of the Missouri River bottoms north of Fred Robinson Bridge. As it gains the upper extent of the river breaks, a far reaching, high plains landscape sprawls towards Canada 125 miles to the north. The Little Rockies rises directly ahead and a rough, rolling prairie flows off to the east. You’re heading through historic landscape, once the domain of the nomadic Plains tribes, towards the valley of the Milk River and the ranching and farming community of Malta.

Between 1870 and 1900, this was the setting for the true “old west” and Malta might well be considered its capital. Trappers, cattlemen, cowboys, and all manners of outlaws wandered through here. Cattle drives up from Texas brought the herds to winter on the regions rich grasslands between the Missouri and Canada. It was once the focal point of a vast beef empire and was founded to serve the area ranches. Big cow outfits held sway; names like Phillips, Coburn, Matador and Phelps are all etched in Montana’s history.

Indians called the future townsite “The Big Bend” as the Milk River turns in a half-circle near here. The first “citizen” was Robert M. Trafton out of Minnesota, who came to collect the bleached bones of slaughtered bison.

In 1885, Trafton established a trading post a few miles to the west. By then what would become the seat of Phillips County was called Siding 54, soon to be a station on the westward building Great Northern Railroad. The steel road reached the siding on August 13, 1877. In the meantime, Trafton moved his store to the new townsite in anticipation of increased business. Cowboys and other solitary souls inhabiting these high plains of north-central Montana needed a Saturday night destination; Malta became that place. And it was as wild as any western movie could depict!

The newly minted town needed a proper name. Railroad agents gathering in Minneapolis, blindfolded an employee and had him point his finger to a spot on the globe. Thus Siding 54 was named Malta after an island in the Mediterranean Sea.

Citizens felt that empty buildings on Front Street shouldn’t be allowed, so a community owned, clothing store called “Family Matters” was started. This has been an investment in the overall commonwealth, not just in one store, says Anne Boothe.

The railroad helped the ranchers thrive, even after the days of the open range came to an end. In 1910, through the Homestead Act, thousands of would-be farmers flocked to the area. Malta prospered even more as harvests were bountiful, but the drought starting in 1918 and the Great Depression of the 1930s put an end to the dreams of most of them and they were forced to leave. While farming is important to Malta today, it is still considered cow country.

Modern day Malta is a far cry from its raucous beginnings. This now quiet agricultural center is presently home to almost 2,000 folks. After a decline due to agricultural downturns, it appears that the population has now leveled off.

Anne Boothe, former Executive Director of the Phillips County Economic Growth Council and the Chamber of Commerce Manager, is an optimistic Malta booster. She cites many positive achievements of the community in spite of problems with the farm and ranch economy, the loss of jobs from mining in the Little Rockies and the destruction by fire of the high school on Christmas Eve 1995.

As for the fire, the community with the help of insurance, went to work and a bigger and better school was built. Boothe points out that the farming economy has the potential for getting better as cattle prices are up, and lessons learned in tough times, have helped people to be better farmers. Alternate crops, like chickpeas and lentils, are being planted instead of just wheat.

Citizens felt that empty buildings on Front Street shouldn’t be allowed, so a community owned, clothing store called “Family Matters” was started. This has been an investment in the overall commonwealth, not just in one store, says Anne Boothe.

A state-of-the-art movie theater with surround sound is joined by a healthy variety of other businesses, including a lumberyard, bulk plant, three banks, plenty of eateries and several motels.

Then there is tourism. Malta is a great base camp to explore some of the most unique prairie environment in Montana. To the south there is the immense Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the spectacular Missouri River Breaks, Fort Peck Lake and its 1,600 miles of shoreline, the Little Rocky Mountains with their colorful mining history and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation home to the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre nations.

Seven miles east of town, Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge is a premiere haven for waterfowl. It lies in the central flyway of one of the great winged creature migration routes of North America. Beyond Bowdoin, Nelson Reservoir offers good boating and fishing.

Back roads leading north of town to Loring, a small picturesque community six miles from the port of Morgan and the Canadian border, pass through scenic river breaks of Little Cottonwood and Cottonwood creeks as well as segments of the Milk River bottoms.

You won’t see many people as you wander through this land, but you’ll hear the sounds of history and you’ll probably encounter plenty of deer and antelope.