Sometimes traffic down Fromberg's main drag consists of speeding tumbleweeds.
But after decades of decline, a handful of business owners are betting that the Clarks Fork Valley town southwest of Billings can make a comeback.
Every other building along the main street, a single block of West River Street off U.S. Highway 310, is boarded up.
New life, though, is sprouting in this farm town.
Three years ago, Chris and Rich Lee bought and remodeled a former bank building at 10 Montana Ave., and opened the Fromberg Fitness center. Last fall, another businesswoman opened the town’s only café, Tomahawk Bakery & Gifts, and a third woman started a beauty shop called Strandz Salon, so the Lees' building is full.
“We opened it up and older ladies had tears in their eyes. They remembered Fromberg the way it used to be,” Chris Lee said.
After four decades, Carbon County legend Shirley Smith sold The Little Cowboy Bar and Museum, and retired to Bridger. But she still shows up for happy hour every night, so many customers don’t know about the change. The new owner wants to bring in new customers and expand Smith’s treasured and eclectic collection of local cowboy and rodeo lore.
Another woman is trying to reopen an antique shop. And several months ago, the senior citizens moved into a building near the Cowboy Bar.
Three years ago, auto mechanic Kevin Rysavy moved Samm’s Automotive from Red Lodge to Fromberg and is building a 40-by-60-foot shop behind his house on Lovers Lane.
“I’m building it so I can work on farm equipment, and I’m putting an overhead crane in,” he said. “We found a house for cheap, and I like the little town.”
After teaching herself how to craft leather half a century ago, Marge Taylor moved her business from home to her Leather Legends shop. For 15 years, she’s sold chaps, her favorite creation, other leather art and whatever attracts her eye, including antique turquoise-and-silver jewelry.
Across the street, Everett Edwards still runs his blacksmith shop as he has for half a century, fixing farm equipment and creating metal art from other people’s junk.
But Fromberg is a split town when it comes to redevelopment, said Mayor Ed Warner-Combs, who owns several buildings badly in need of renovation or demolition.
The state fire marshal gave the mayor, a retired school teacher and superintendent, until Aug. 15 to demolish the seriously sagging wooden building that marks the entry to Fromberg’s main street. The false-front wooden building was sagging when the mayor bought it in the early 1970s and it now looks ready to fall in on itself.
“I just traded and played in it and sold whatever I had to sell,” he said, including cars and trucks.
The mayor owns another abandoned building, but said a farmer ran his Oldsmobile into the middle of it and repairs would be too expensive.
“It’s a good little town,” he said, “But the money isn’t there to spruce it up because there wouldn’t be a business to go in there to repay you in your lifetime.”
Warner-Combs said he and his wife have invested in Fromberg, spending $175,000 remodeling the historic brick house in which they live. And as Fromberg’s economy has shrunk, they bought up all the houses on their half of the block.
Taylor pointed out her front window past the chaps she is making for September's western artisan show in Cody and past a wall covered with 1950s and '60s rodeo bronc rider photos. Across West River Street is another vacant structure that used to be a fire hall, a Laundromat and a liquor store.
“If you had an injured cow or a horse and you didn’t care for it, they’d have the humane society after you. This is no different. You make your neighbors suffer,” said Taylor, who is living in and remodeling the building next to her shop.
In its heyday, Fromberg had a coal mine and nearby apple orchards fed a processing facility. The town also had a lumber yard, several banks, two grocery stores, service stations, a hardware store, barber shop, a Montana Power office and four bars. The brick and pickle factories also are distant memories.
The town still has two churches and two active bars, the Cowboy and Two Bears Tavern & Eatery across the street.
A relatively new business, the Stake Your Claim Restaurant and Casino on the highway, is closed most of the time, the mayor said.
That history doesn’t dampen the optimism of the new business owners.
The Lees moved from Billings to Fromberg 13 years ago and their three sons graduated from Fromberg’s school, which lacks a good weight room, according to Chris Lee.
So they opened the fitness center where members of the school's sports teams get free use of the cardio machines and weight rooms and other students pay $10 per month. Teachers get the same discount as seniors, $23 per month.
“They get stressed and they are really happy to have some place to go,” she said.
Fromberg Fitness even has a trainer, Wendy McCall, who was born in Great Britain and teaches classes five days a week, including many for seniors.
“They are in their 60s and 70s, but they can kick my butt,” Lee said.
On an icy Tuesday morning, two of the gym’s first members, Phyllis Jensen and Betty Petri, were finishing their daily workout.
“We’ve got homesteader rights,” Jensen said.
Lee said the center has done well.
“We now have 40 to 50 members, and that’s about all that we can handle,” she said.
In January, Alese Walter, who grew up on a farm near Edgar eight miles away, opened Strandz.
“I didn’t think I’d own my own salon right after beauty school, but things just kept falling into place,” she said. “Chris and Rich let me do what I want. It’s awesome.”
Sue Melker opened the Tomahawk Café, named after the horse that helped her recover from a stroke a decade ago.
“I owe my whole life to Tomahawk Joe. I came out of the Indiana hospital not able to walk or talk,” she said. “He’d get down on a leg, pick me up with his neck to rock me into the saddle and swim with me.”
She plans on opening a horse therapy business this summer.
Melker is getting ready for a rush of custom graduation cakes along with her popular homemade caramel and cinnamon rolls. Her mom recently moved to Fromberg from the East Coast to help out.
The mayor said he's never wanted to leave after moving to Fromberg in the 1960s.
“I love the town. I’ve raised two law-abiding families in this town,” said the mayor, who remarried after his first wife died.
Someone might reopen a convenience store with gas and groceries in a few years or restart the coal mine, he said.
“My last move will be from here to the cemetery in Rockville,” the mayor said.
Calling Fromberg's business progress a comeback is too strong right now, he said.
But business owners with new ideas are taking a chance on Fromberg.
Randy Wike, an Alaskan oil field worker with Montana ties, now owns several buildings in town. Last year, he bought the Cowboy and hired his cousin, Lori Wike-Skov, who was ready to give up on corporate life, to move to Fromberg to run the bar.
“We have a very busy happy hour, other than that it’s a quiet bar,” she said.
Summer business is starting to pick up and the cousins have plans to add pizza and sandwiches, Schwans ice cream treats and suckers for the kids. They also plan bigger changes, possibly involving the adjacent lot with the mayor's condemned building — property marking the entry to Fromberg.
“Our vision is to buy that land and put in a Montana casino with a breezeway for smokers and expand the museum and bar,” Wike-Skov said. “But we want to walk that fine line between keeping the charm, the history and still make money because it’s expensive to keep this little joint open.”