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Artist's historic project enlivens Opheim
Photos courtesy Bill Hosko This is how the old homesteader's shack looked when Bill Hosko, a St. Paul, Minn., artist and part-time Opheim resident, came across it. He refurbished the shack and turned it into a visitor center. The building was found shattered by vandals on April 27. An investigation determined that a truck had rammed the 8-by-10-foot structure before it was pulled down with a cable.

The old homesteader's shack survived decades of northeast Montana wind, snow and sun.

After the wooden building was moved to the small town of Opheim and restored as a visitor center, vandals destroyed what the prairie could not.

Wind was the chief suspect when the building was found shattered the morning of April 27. Then, tire tracks were discovered. An investigation later determined that a truck had rammed the renovated 8-by-10-foot structure before it was pulled down with a cable.

"It was a brutal death for this cute little thing," said Bill Hosko, a St. Paul, Minn., artist and part-time Opheim resident who dreamed up the visitor center project.

The building was crushed, and so was Hosko. But he immediately began rebuilding. Members of the community, including local schoolchildren, pitched in with carpentry work and by raising about $1,500 for supplies. United Building Centers in Glasgow offered discounted lumber and hardware.

Today, Opheim is holding a grand-opening ceremony for its new welcome shack. The reincarnated visitor center looks just like the old one, but only a window, the shutters and a portion of the front steps could be salvaged from the original building, Hosko said.

The center is meant to be a tribute to the region's homesteaders, as well as a way to help the town of 111 attract tourists, Hosko said. The center will hold brochures, historical information and a guest book. Visitors will be asked to mark their hometowns with a pin on a map. Local students and volunteers will keep the center clean and stocked with tourist information.

Hosko is reluctant to talk about his role in the project. He would rather see attention focused on the local residents who have helped in recent weeks.

"The community now owns this, it's not just Bill Hosko," he said. "It's something the town can have pride in."

But it's hard not to focus on Hosko and his role in Opheim. Ever since he decided to buy property in the area six years ago, Hosko has had the town talking. A few have been annoyed by his energy, but many others are thrilled to see new blood in a part of Montana that has been experiencing a steady exodus of residents, said Muriel Granrud, who has lived in Opheim since 1951. Granrud and her husband, Evan, owned and operated Granrud's Lefse Shack until selling the business in the late '90s.

"There's a certain element in every town who don't want to see progress," she said. "A small town's gotta have somebody push ahead a little bit. He's got a lot of big dreams and energy."

In both culture and geography, Opheim is a long way from the reaches of Montana sought out by most tourists and vacation-home owners. There are no snowy peaks, steaming hot springs or misty forests of fir and larch.

Hosko, a Twin Cities native, decided to move to this corner of the state after seeing the film "Dances with Wolves." He was attracted by the open prairie and endless starry sky.

"It made me want to get away from everybody. … Somebody told me Opheim is the edge of civilization," he said.

About every other week, Hosko boards an Amtrak train in St. Paul for a 15-hour overnight ride to Glasgow, where his old Ford pickup awaits. From Glasgow, he drives about an hour north to a simple wooden shack on his 180 acres near the Canadian border.

There's no radio, TV or running water at Hosko's "Lonesome Prairie" property, which he shares with goats, chickens, cats, horses and dogs.

Hosko said he expected Opheim to be a retreat from his busy city life as an architectural illustrator. But he spends much of his time painting and restoring buildings along the town's main street. He has plans to open a second cafe in the town.

Hosko is not paid for his work. He does it to give something back, he said, and to help prevent Opheim from becoming a ghost town.

"I'm just trying to bring hope to this little town," he said.

A small group, however, thinks his efforts are worthless, Hosko said. They've told him as much. These are the people Hosko believes pulled down the original visitor center.

"I'm not angry about it," he insisted. "It's done. It's now being rebuilt."

Valley County Sheriff Glen Meier said little progress has been made in the investigation into the vandalism.

"Nobody is saying a word," Meier said. "I don't know whether it was a prank or a malicious destruction. … I really feel it was probably a prank gone bad. I don't think we have that type of people up there."

The outpouring of support after the incident is evidence of the town's respect for Hosko, Meier said. Everyone from schoolchildren to senior citizens helped rebuild the old shack.

"If they had animosity towards Bill, they wouldn't be doing that," Meier said.

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