By Brad Reynolds
On March 13—Friday the 13th—2020, Governor Steve Bullock announced the first four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Montana.
It’s felt a bit like Friday the 13th ever since.
In recent months, we have seen sickness, panic, isolation, and even death. But so too have we witnessed hope. When schools shut down, community leaders stepped in to ensure that no child went hungry. Networks were created, on Facebook and elsewhere, to connect local businesses to their customers, easing their burden. It’s been a rough year, but Montana has positioned itself to come out of this crisis stronger than many states, due in part to our community-mindedness.
“COVID didn’t force people to think locally; it just amplified it,” says Andy Ferrin of Great Falls.
He and his brother, TJ, manage Ferrin’s Furniture, a fifth generation business in the Electric City’s historic Downtown. Nearby, their mother, Sue Ferrin, and TJ’s wife, Cortney, operate Belles and Lace Bridal. Andy is also a partner in Downtown’s Enbär Cocktail Lounge and The Block Bar & Grill. Each of the family’s businesses was temporarily shut down during the pandemic. Each has since reopened with support from the community.
“I think this has shown us how interconnected we all are,” says Andy. “People want to support their friends and neighbors.”
Nearly 300 miles northeast, Sam Von has been similarly inspired by his community.
“Glasgow is amazing,” he says.
Sam and his brother, Jeff, own and operate a handful of businesses in Glasgow, but their most beloved is Eugene’s Pizza, which has been a community staple since 1962. When social distancing guidelines went into effect in March, Eugene’s Pizza altered its business model to accommodate curbside drop-off and home delivery. With this has come one of the busiest periods that Sam has ever experienced.
“We’re going through a thousand large pizzas every two weeks,” Sam says in astonishment. “I think all the people in town have supported all the local businesses. I know they’ve supported us!”
Sam notes that living in a small town makes supporting local businesses a necessity. Superstores are sparse, and many consider that a good thing.
In Montana’s larger communities, local businesses have always faced challenges competing with corporate retailers. Those challenges are underscored now more than ever.
“Food and labor costs have gone up about 4.5 to 5 percent in general because we’re paying for things like sanitizer, Kleenex, and additional payroll for our team to take extra precautions cleaning,” explains Brett Wiensch, owner and operator of the 1889 Coffee House in Helena. “If you look at other businesses on my street, they’re franchises or corporate. This is an independent, family-owned business. We don’t have that safety net.”
Funds can’t be shifted from one location to another when you only have the one location. To weather the pandemic, small businesses have either had to shut down, increase prices, or get creative.
Brett went with Option 3.
“One thing we did was partner with Jorgenson’s [Inn & Suites],” he explains. “Their guests couldn’t eat in their restaurant, but they could come across the street and pick up breakfast here. People who hadn’t been here before gave us a try.”
In fact, the 1889 Coffee House has served a lot of first-time customers through the pandemic.
“The community has made a true difference supporting local businesses through this. New guests have given us a shot because we’re local, and we’ve won them over with our service and quality. That’s what’s carried us through to where we are,” says Brett, admiring his hometown. “I love it here.”
When you live in Montana, you pull through because you want to pull through. Getting to live and play under the Big Sky is worth any challenge you may face.
“Some days it’s going to hail. Some days it’s going to snow a crop down. But we’ll keep going,” says Shirley Wilson of Townsend.
For sixteen years, she’s owned and operated the Creative Closet, and her whole life she’s been in agriculture.
“Fires, floods, grasshoppers, whatever—it trains you stay positive through something like this,” she says.
Shirley and others in Townsend are doing their part to spread their optimism and hope to others. Every Wednesday, the Creative Closet hosts a small gathering of women who share stories, laugh, and work on quilting projects, which they often give away. The group frequently donates “comfort quilts” to a community member who has been afflicted with an injury, illness, or loss of a loved one.
Through the pandemic, community members have come to Creative Closet for fabric and elastic bands to make face masks for those in need.
“It’s a little something to lift people’s spirits,” says Shirley.
Maybe that’s the best that can be expected of any of us in 2020—simple acts of kindness: shopping at a Mom & Pop to help them stay afloat, tipping better than usual for good service in a troubling time, or sending a gift to someone in need of a smile. So long as we continue to support one another, the Treasure State will endure.
“Who knows?” says Shirley. “We might’ve learned a few things when we come out the other side.”