Small Town, Big Heart: Making it Happen for Others in Rural Montana

They come together from divergent backgrounds, life experiences, cultures, traditions and political persuasions and cooperate like a wedge of Canada geese flying in faultless formation. Their goal is to offer townsfolk and visitors three full days of wholesome entertainment and recreation as they organize the largest event of its kind in Montana. The St. Regis Flea Market, held every Memorial Day weekend since 1985 hosts hundreds of visitors and vendors in the 13 acre St. Regis Community Park. And the price of admission is just a smile.

Although Montana ranks among the top 10 states when it comes to volunteerism few towns can compare with St. Regis, a neighborly community of about 300 residents nestled in the mountains of Western Montana. Although St. Regis lies just off Interstate 90 at Exit 33, it is usually ignored by motorists hurrying toward tourist destinations. However, those who glide off the Interstate and invest a little time at the Visitor’s Center will find that this small community serves big slices of amusement and recreation.

Starting with the annual St. Patrick’s Day Potluck and Dance, the events continue with an Easter egg hunt, Fourth of July Parade followed by a carnival and community-wide fireworks display (locally known as “group insanity”), a free Thanksgiving Day Dinner, Christmas Bazaar and New Year’s Eve Party. The list goes on, but the largest event, and the function that funds all the others is the Flea Market.

Every year, over 150 vendors fill the park and offer an eclectic array of goods. Many of the vendors return year after year. Ron and Linda Kindred of Clinton, Montana who have returned for over seven years and offer leather goods and military surplus, explain why they keep coming back. Ron jokes, “It’s like a disease you can’t get rid of.” But Linda adds, “Actually, it’s kind of like a family reunion. We have vendor friends that we meet here from Spokane, Helena, and Billings.”

However, it is not just the vendors who are drawn back to the Flea Market every year. Shoppers return from all over the Northwest seeking something special. But the Flea Market offers more than potential treasure. The food cooked and served by the volunteers is hard to resist. And why bother? For those not watching their waistline, every morning starts with an all-you-can-eat breakfast featuring hot cakes, eggs, sausage and bacon, all for six dollars. Shoppers who recover from breakfast can return to the concession throughout the day for snacks, hamburgers and more.

Monies earned by the Flea Market furnished materials to construct the St. Regis Community Center and Visitor Center in 2001. The 5,500 square foot building was built mostly by volunteers. In addition to community events, the Community Center is available for such functions as weddings, birthday parties, and family reunions.

For the volunteers of St. Regis, organizing the year’s events amounts to many hours of work. Why do they do it? Perhaps it is a sense of gratitude that motivates them, perhaps it is an expression of appreciation for the privilege of living in the Last, Best Place. Perhaps it is just a reasonable response to all that Montana is, an overflow of the heart. For most volunteers, it simply distills to loving the community and giving back.

Although some feel that volunteer work is often thankless, Flea Market manager Anita Bailey disagrees. “I have never felt that my volunteer work is thankless. I have always felt appreciated. And I love meeting and working with people.”

Community Council President John Cheesman agrees and adds, “I like seeing people working together to accomplish goals. This is the real deal: coming together for the betterment of the community and providing quality events throughout the year.”

Ida Alexander, who has helped out for over 25 years likes the feeling of accomplishment. “It’s such a wonderful feeling when everything turns out.”

Many of the Community Council volunteers have found volunteerism so agreeable that they want extra helpings. For example, 10 year Community Council volunteer Glen Koepke also helps out with Community Center maintenance, is a liaison with the Forest Service, and was the catalyst for creation of the Loge Nature Trail adjacent to the community park.

Although anyone with a St. Regis address is a de facto member of the Community Council, volunteerism is not limited to council membership. During the January snowstorm this year, townsfolk wielding snow shovels, steering snow blowers and driving snowplows joined forces. There was more snow getting shoveled, blown, and plowed than was falling from the sky.

St. Regis is a small town with a big heart. As John Cheesman says, “Almost everyone is willing to help out if you just ask them.”

Be sure to view a few of the photos made at the 2011 Flea Market – Just click “Flea Market Gallery” and select any photo to start the slide  show.

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