Remnants of the once-thriving Wheat Basin scattered all over Stillwater County

2006-11-18T23:00:00Z Remnants of the once-thriving Wheat Basin scattered all over Stillwater CountyLINDA HALSTEAD-ACHARYA Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
November 18, 2006 11:00 pm  • 

WHEAT BASIN - If the ghosts of Wheat Basin could whisper, the prairie wind would drown them out.

Columbus resident Ken Mesch wasn't looking for ghosts when he purchased what's left of the once-thriving community in northern Stillwater County.

Seventy-five years ago, the railroad stop boasted a bank, two lumber yards, a grocery store and a blacksmith shop. Today, the wind blows across the last vestiges of the platted town. The grassy triangle that once was Wheat Basin is marked only by a few greasewood shrubs and some crumbling foundations. But a closer look reveals old bottles, a railroad spike and the overgrown profiles of wide, graded streets.

"I wouldn't call it a failure," Mesch said. "I'd call it a success for its time."

During a visit last month, he paused to point out the large, rectangular foundation of the former dance hall. He seemed to savor what it might have been.

"That's the way you feel when you get out here and start thinking about the people dancing in that dance hall," he said. "You find bottles of whiskey out back. Those people were having a good time."

It's not every day that a town comes up for sale. Mesch, however, wasn't looking for history when he heard about the Wheat Basin property. Rather, the avid falconer was looking for a place he could hunt with his birds. When the 6½-acre townsite hit the market, his real estate agent friend never imagined Mesch would be interested.

"But the area intrigued me," Mesch said, explaining that he'd heard about the double murder that took place there in the 1930s. "I'm always looking for something different. That (the murders) was kind of a grabber. Then, when I found out 1,000 people lived in and around this community, I was floored."

Since purchasing the property earlier this year, Mesch has been prying into its past. He discovered it was platted in 1919 by a John Stolte, an "unmarried man," the deed notes.

Mesch also learned that the town flourished into the 1930s until drought strangled the region. By the

1940s, Wheat Basin had basically folded up shop. Over the next few decades, the buildings began disappearing, moved one by one.

"It's a ghost town, but it's spread all over this country," Mesch said.

The blacksmith shop was moved to a property closer to Rapelje, and the school was hauled to Fishtail, where it's being used as a shop. The Catholic church ended up as part of a house in the Blue Creek area of Billings, and the dance hall went to Molt, where it still serves as the community center. The safe, once the heart of the town's bank, now stands in Columbus' New Atlas Bar.

Recalling Wheat Basin

To fill in the blanks about the abandoned town, Mesch turned to longtime residents and the Museum of the Beartooths in Columbus.

George Bokma, Stillwater County's fire warden and courthouse handyman, remembers playing guitar in Wheat Basin's dance hall. The musicians would play until 3 a.m., then gather for pre-dawn breakfast, he recalled.

Bokma also remembers when the second grain elevator, the last remnant of the town, burned in 1997.

As Mesch collects history, he is on the hunt for photos of the town in its heyday. So far he has come up empty-handed.

"In those days, very few people had cameras," explained Ted Schuman, who grew up near Wheat Basin. "And if they did, they couldn't afford film."

One piece to the town's puzzle reached Mesch by a serendipitous route. When he asked friend and former Stillwater County commissioner Chuck Egan what he knew about Wheat Basin, the latter raised an eyebrow and paused.

"Then he said, 'I've been waiting six years to be asked that question'," Mesch recounted.

Six years ago, Harold Nordahl, who grew up near Wheat Basin, had given Egan a hand-sketched map of the town. Complete with a numbered "key," it delineated where the various buildings had stood. Nordahl has died since then, but Egan carried the rolled-up documents in the visor of his pickup until Mesch posed the question.

New dreams for town

The only two lots that Mesch does not own belong to the Lutgen family, whose patriarchs, Theodore and Joe Lutgen, ran the blacksmith shop. Cindy Messer Epperson of Columbus, Theodore's granddaughter, isn't interested in selling the lots. But she, too, is interested in preserving the town's history.

"I'd like to be part of that," she said. "I'd like to get people out there to reminisce."

Today, more than seven decades after the town's dreams started to fade, Mesch has come up with some dreams of his own. One is marked by two rows of saplings he planted this summer. As a member of the Montana Chapter of the North American Grouse Partnership, he hopes the trees will survive the alkaline soil to grow into a demonstration site for grouse habitat.

"It's kind of a demonstration, too, of what nature can do to reclaim itself," he said of the town. "In a very short time nature has taken it back."

But Mesch hears another calling from the whispers that once were Wheat Basin. He purchased a wood-bound journal and dedicated it to the people who lived in and around the long-ago community. He invites anyone with memories to contact him and write them down in the book.

"These are the last few years we'll be able to get that history," he said. "There are people who know something about this place. We're going to track them down."

Mesch can be contacted at kenmesch@msn.com or at 672-9906.


Double murder shocked Wheat Basin in 1937

By LINDA HALSTEAD-ARCHAYA

Of The Gazette Staff

For most locals, the name Wheat Basin invokes fond memories of a long-ago lifestyle. But for some, the town's name conjures images of a bloody double homicide that took place in 1937.

Frank Robideau, an itinerant farm laborer who had lived and worked in the area for several years, confessed and was quickly hanged for murdering the couple who ran the grain elevator there.

According to published accounts, Robideau was deep in debt after three consecutive years of crop failure. Angered when elevator operator Mike Kuntz refused to pay him for his share of 180 bushels of wheat, tensions spiraled out of control.

Robideau claimed that Kuntz pulled a gun on him. Officers who investigated the case concluded that Robideau had forced Kuntz to write him checks, and that he feared Kuntz was about to tell authorities. In any case, on Nov. 26, 1937, Robideau stopped Kuntz's car on the road and forced his way inside. Part way between Wheat Basin and Columbus, Robideau shot and killed Mike and Frieda Kuntz, then drove the vehicle back to Wheat Basin and parked it inside the elevator. At some point, he beat the Kuntz' 5-year-old son, Larry, and left him for dead.

The next morning, the young boy, badly beaten but still alive, crawled out of the elevator and fled to the store. Robideau, who happened to be at the store when the boy showed up, directed suspicions to a pair of "Okies." By the following day, Larry had recovered to the point that he could identify Robideau as the killer.

After hours of questioning, Robideau confessed and within three weeks a judge had sentenced him to death. At 1:10 a.m. on Jan. 15, 1938, less than two months after the murders, he was hanged in Columbus.

The event, announced with personal invitations, drew more than 600 people. Close to 400 of them squeezed into the machine shop, which stands to this day, to watch as the trap was sprung.

Don Nordahl, a lifelong resident of the country south of Wheat Basin, remembers the crime and remembers Robideau.

"I knew him well," Nordahl said. "I didn't think he was (that kind of person)."

But Evelyn Williams, also a longtime resident of the area, carries a different memory. Before Mike Kuntz was hired at the elevator, her father had sought the job.

"The Lord was looking out for us. Dad could have been killed," she said. "But I remember him (Dad) saying right away he knew who'd done it. He'd had dealings with Robideau before."

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