The farther one gets down Highway 200 toward Richey, the more frequent the single-fingered waves and head nods become from passing drivers. As the narrow road winds its way into real rural Montana, it’s like being led back in time. The nostalgic feeling is a welcomed one, especially once the road leads to Big Sky Hardware in Richey.
Jeff and Tonya Brost have officially owned the store for the past three years, but purchased it from Jeff’s parents Vern and Jan. It’s still a family affair, with Vern helping the couple in the summer while his grandson drives truck, then going back to Billings when farming season slows down in the winter. Now employing the third generation of the Brost family, it’s more than the glue that keeps their family going — it keeps Richey afloat as well.
“We help people and people help us,” Vern said. “This whole town is a family.”
The store opened around 1917, Vern estimated. He said during that time, Richey shipped the most grain in the world, back when they were a main stop on the end of the railroad.
“I came here to teach in 1968,” Vern said. He was the business teacher at Richey school.
In 1974, the eighth grade teacher and Vern decided to buy the store, then a John Deere dealer, from the owner who was trying to retire. In 1976, Vern quit teaching to work at the store full-time and two years later the former teachers bought the hardware store in Watford City. By 1980, they decided to split their halves, with Vern staying in Richey as the owner.
“We sold it in ’94 and in ’96 we got it back again,” he said. “I came back and ran it with Jeff. About a year later, Jeff said, ‘I can do it,’ and I went back to Billings.”
Vern recalled fondly the years when the store only received freight every two weeks by train and what a marvel it was when they began receiving shipments weekly by truck.
“Then they had an 800 number. It was great,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of leaps [in technology] over the time.”
In 1992, the store began carrying groceries when the local grocer closed. They bought the lumber yard in Circle when that closed and offer furniture selections that can be delivered within a couple weeks. It’s no wonder locals refer to it as the “Richey Walmart.”
Over the years, the store has had a unique adaptability for their customers. They’ve sold television sets, offered CB radio installation, sold lottery tickets, served as a UPS drop-off/pick-up for years and currently sell fish and game licenses. The store has also recently branched into cattle feed and fencing. There’s a toy aisle, paint, tools, oscillating fans, work gloves and even a small, fully operational hair salon at the back of the store.
Customers trickle in and out all day, purchasing items from garbage cans, to cans of coffee, frozen snacks, laundry detergent and other incidentals. It’s an impressive bit of business for a town that boasts around 200 in population.
“We go where people take us,” Vern said. “You’re not going to get all the business, but we have people that are loyal to us and that’s what’s kept us in business.”
Vern said they can get almost anything bigger grocery stores in the area can get as members of Associated Foods.
“The only thing we can’t do is fresh meat because we have nowhere to cut it up,” Tonya said.
With strong ties to their community, the Brosts are proud of the services they’ve been able to provide over the years, but Tonya said it’s not something she necessarily thinks about every day.
“It’s just a good way to make a living,” she said. “I don’t know what else we would do at this point.”
Big Sky Hardware doesn’t seem to be in any danger of leaving anytime soon. They hope to eventually knock down a couple old buildings next door and expand the store, opening up some shelf space for more merchandise.
“It’s the lifeblood of the town,” Vern said. “We feel responsible. If we’re going to be taking care of the town for my lifetime, we have to do the best we can. We’re not going to let it die on our watch.”