Since its beginnings more than 60 years ago, Carter’s Camp has been a gathering place for locals and tourists alike.
Tired workers drop in for a refreshing brew after shifts at nearby Stillwater Mine.
Ranchers show up for the Saturday night prime rib special, perhaps starting the evening off with a bourbon ditch or Jack and seven.
Summer people order pizzas to go or bring guests in for a beer and a look at memorabilia and vintage photos.
The mine orders 15 lunches at a time for staff.
Tourists see the sign and stop for a refreshing brew and snack.
Carter’s is part of the landscape and has been since the Grant Smith family opened it in the post World War II days.
The familiar wooden building, set strikingly in the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains, has the authentic feeling of the old west.
It’s a little rough around the edges, as one part-time resident put it. You won’t find designer items on the menu, no foie gras or escargot. It’s more meat and potatoes offerings: tasty tacos, a succulent ribeye, delicious pulled pork sandwich, a generous chicken Caesar salad, and a fine hamburger. Satisfying, dependable, no frills. Kids eat cheaply. Orders can be split.
That’s all part of its charm offered up by Eric, Mike and RJ in the kitchen and Melissa, Jackie and David at the bar. Trudy Bowman is Austin’s capable manager, doing whatever is needed at the stove, bar or tables. Fabulous pies are baked regularly by Janet Helbert, whose treats fetch in the hundreds of dollars at fundraisers.
The food is enjoyable, the drinks are reasonably priced. The dining room is family friendly with a pretty mountain view. Service is cordial and accommodating. And there’s plenty of lore to lure a passer-by in for a few hours.
Recent owner Bruce Austin, with his doctorate in radiation biology, looks as if he should be holding court in a university lecture hall, not welcoming patrons to a local hang-out at “the end of the road,” as he puts it.
Indeed, Austin has served well in the academic world, most recently at Loma Linda University Medical Center where he was chief physicist for the radiology department.
He has served on national boards and commissions, has a chemistry background and degrees from both Grinnell and University of Iowa, and can talk social morality or wind and solar energy with the best.
Even juggling properties in Los Angeles, Ohio and various other holdings, Austin’s Montana roots grow deep. Born in Hawaii in 1945, Austin would live in Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio before moving back to Montana and rescuing Carter’s Camp.
In 1951, his family moved from Omaha to Billings and Parkhill Drive. In Montana, Austin’s physician father pursued his radiology career, paving the way for the eventuality of the Northern Rockies Cancer Center.
“I have fond memories of our trips through Yellowstone and up to this neck of the woods,” says Austin, known for his storytelling prowess and his professorial speaking style. Besides acquiring investment properties cross-country, Austin has an extensive collection of vintage buses and touring cars which he restores and shares with the community.
When his parents retired, Austin bought them a small cabin on the West Fork of the Stillwater on Limestone Road, while a larger mountain log home was being built nearby in the valley. Inheriting his dad’s love of the mountains, Austin now lives in their mountain-view home, just a few miles from Carter’s.
Longtime area residents, ranchers and businessmen have helped Austin research the building’s history and incarnations. Each of a half-dozen owners has put his mark on the enduring facility. The original name was the Corral Bar, opened by Grant Smith and Don Martin circa 1950 around the time of the Korean Conflict. (The name John Pardon also figures into the picture as a possible owner.) When Grant bought out landowner Martin’s interest, the bar became known as Grant’s Tomb, despite its warm and casual appeal. (Grant’s son and daughter-in-law Grant and Clara Smith, still live in nearby Absarokee.)
Local folks Terry Ekwortzel, Keith Martin and Ina Winge believe the present name dates back to the place’s 1962 owners, Slim and Elsie Carter, who built portions of the building, enhancing it with distinctive vertical logs.
Around 1969, the business was purchased by Clarence and Thea Braley and was operated by a family named Redlands. Other owners into the 1980s include Jerry and Deloris Currin and Fran and Gordon Currin, says Austin. Over a decade ago, Ken Kunz and an entity called Riverrock bought the property and the late Kunz, a talented artist, set up a second-floor studio at Carter’s and painted many murals for the facility. His artistic improvements enhance the walls and he added a small casino and family dining area away from the bar.
Austin, who purchased it earlier this year, spent $100,000 on a new roof, central heating, replacement of a worn tile floor, kitchen improvements and more.
“I’ve tried to preserve the ‘old’ feel,” says Austin. “People love the place and it has become as much a museum of mining activity as it is a bar, restaurant and gathering place.” A cross commemorates those who lost their lives in the mine, and mine signs, signals and name plates are jealously guarded by the patrons. When a vintage bell donated by miners disappeared a while back, “local outrage ensued,” says Austin.
With friends all over the globe from his radiology days, world travels and a four-year Air Force career, Austin entertains a fantasy. It involves inviting all his varied and far-flung international pals to Montana and a party at Carter’s Camp.
“As I consider the spectacle, we’d have dress ranging from turbans and robes to military dress and helmets, to black tie, jeans, native costumes and campaign hats,” says Austin, smiling. “We’d hear at least a dozen major languages as people discussed a dozen world religions. Politics would range from Marxists to communists with a few British Tories. Several tribal governments would be represented!”
And, he speculates, “those who would eat beef would surely all enjoy the mushroom and Swiss burger with sautéed onions.”