Most strangers who pull their vehicles into the Mosdal farm’s driveway are lost and asking for directions.
That’s because the small white house on Mosdal Road is not on a well-traveled route. However, it does have a claim to distinction as the home closest to the far west corner of Yellowstone County.
Nineteen-year-old Victoria Mosdal, who was eating a slice of pizza on the east-facing deck of the home on Wednesday night, was pleased to learn of the notoriety of the location. Her great-grandparents homesteaded the land. She has strong roots here that keep pulling her back, as well as a deep love for the wide open sky.
“It’s a gorgeous place to live,” she gushed. “It’s really the big sky country. You can see the sky all the time.”
Adding and dividing
Visiting the four corners of Yellowstone County — the points farthest north, south, east and west — tells a colorful story about who we are as a community and as a people. Yet our county of residence seems the least important of all the geographic locations we identify ourselves by. If someone asks where you are from, who ever names their county? More often, a city, state or even country is named, not a county.
Yet in traveling to Yellowstone’s four “corners” a tale unfolds that may identify residents better than any city, state or country description. It is a narrative illustrated by large round hay bales spread across fields like a child’s scattered Tinkertoys, of an old bird’s nest dangling from an abandoned windmill and of Mosdal’s vast sky adorned with an ever-changing palette of clouds.
When Montana was first created in 1864, the entire state was divided into only nine political counties — now there are 56. Yellowstone County was the first of six to be carved out of the larger Custer County on Feb. 26, 1883. The idea was to make it easier for Billings residents to transact county business without traveling to Miles City, the seat of Custer County. By 1892, Yellowstone County covered almost 6,000 square miles, thanks to the addition of Crow Reservation lands. Yet it would be carved up several times over the ensuing decades, right up until the 1970s, when it settled at 2,635 square miles.
Shaped like a heavy-handled stew pot, Yellowstone County’s handle trends to the northeast paralleling the Yellowstone River’s arc. The very farthest point north is found in this handle, a square-mile point at the peak of stair-like boundary lines that descend to the east.
The shortest route there from Billings is to drive east on Interstate 94 about 55 miles to the small town of Custer. From there, travelers turn on to State Route 310, pass fields of shoulder-high corn and cross the Yellowstone River. Then it’s a roller coaster 23-mile ride up and down sagebrush, pine and juniper hills, past grain fields and retired oil wells, and around scattered sandstone bluffs before reaching Melstone Road.
Melstone Road turns straight north and soon travelers have to leave Yellowstone County to reach its northernmost point by road. It is evident this is cowboy country by the free-ranging black angus in the road and the cowboy boot- and spur-decorated gravestone at the neatly mowed Cabin Creek Cemetery. Also adorning the grave is a coiled lariat and short length of rusted barbed wire.
Only about a mile farther down the road, a right turn onto little-traveled Knapp Road raises talcum-fine dust into the air. Stopping atop a pine-covered hill only about eight miles south of the small town of Melstone is the farthest northern point of Yellowstone County. At one time, Yellowstone County stretched all the way north to the Musselshell River. So why was it later pulled back to here, this odd point almost 90 miles from downtown Billings, where songbirds trill in the trees and waist-high grass bends to the breeze?
More people have visited the eastern boundary of Yellowstone County than any other compass point. That’s because it’s located in the middle of Interstate 94 on a bridge over the Bighorn River.
This site is not far from where the first fur trading fort was established in 1807 in what would become Montana. Manuel Lisa’s fort, staffed by about 50 men, sat near the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers. With this in mind, it could be said that Montana commerce first began in this corner of Yellowstone County where Lisa’s men traded for furs with area Indian tribes.
Commerce is evident at this location now by the multitude of semi trucks that roll past carrying loads of everything from Twinkies to two-by-fours. Drivers can now log more miles in a day than Lisa’s crew did in weeks.
It’s also significant that this corner of the county is where the Bighorn and Yellowstone river’s blend. The two streams have been the lifeblood of farms, ranches and towns throughout the county’s history – first to water mainly crops and livestock, and now to slake the thirst of the state’s largest city.
The southernmost point of Yellowstone County can also be found in a field — again highlighting the area’s essential ties to agriculture despite its largely urban population.
The 2013 census estimated Yellowstone County’s population at 154,162. Of that, 109,059 lived in Billings. With Yellowstone’s 2,633 square miles of lands, that means there are 56 people every square mile. Yet in Billings alone, there are 2,399 people per square mile, meaning the land is a lot less occupied outside of Billings’ city limits than it would appear by mere accounting.
Yellowstone’s southern point is reached by traveling south out of Billings on Blue Creek Road — past well-tended yards and the Briarwood Golf Course — until reaching State Route 418. Route 418 is the road to the Crow Reservation town of Pryor. About halfway there, East Pryor Creek Road turns off to the south and climbs to a plateau where cows grazed under threateningly dark clouds and a nearly full moon, the Pryor Mountains rising in the distance.
Yellowstone County gained this land in 1892 when President Harrison opened the then 1.8 million acre Crow Reservation — the largest of the seven reservations in Montana — to white settlers. That’s when Yellowstone County swelled to its largest size.
During the following years, though, corners and edges of Yellowstone County were lopped off to feed surrounding counties’ growth or establishment. The majority of the Crow Reservation is now in Big Horn County, but one of the most important sites to the Crow Tribe remains in Yellowstone County.
Route 418 runs parallel to Pryor Creek, named by Capt. William Clark during his 1806 exploration of the area in honor of Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor. But the Crow refer to the stream as the Arrow River. It was along the stream that the Crow won a defensive stand against a larger onslaught of Sioux warriors intent on wiping them out. A historic site along the road with interpretive panels recounts the battle.
Cowboys, Indians, fur traders, settlers, farmers and ranchers, their contributions to Yellowstone County are etched upon the landscape from north to south, east to west. The boundaries may seem artificial and even insignificant at times, but they define a large and diverse community worthy of being proud of.
As her siblings, cousin and others gather around, Victoria Mosdal extols her Norwegian heritage and the place that her great-grandparents chose to put down roots.
“It’s really quiet and Billings is right there,” she said, pointing southeast.
Although she said she’s traveled to many other places, none has captured her imagination quite like the big sky of Yellowstone County’s prairie.
“I live out here, of all places,” she said. “I chose to live out here. Other places just don’t have a sky like this.”