Ekalaka – A Montana east of the mountains outpost
January 20, 2023
A historical sign on the edge of town states Ekalaka was established in 1885 by a bison hunter who set out to erect an "edifice for the eradication of ennui." His wagon became stuck in the snow, and that's the point where he started the underpinnings of a community. His explanation was "Hell, any place in Montana is a good place for a saloon." He unloaded the lumber he had in the wagon and commenced construction on the spot. However, the town wasn't named after this initial resident but rather for the wife of one of the first white settlers in the area, a Sioux woman named Ijkalaka.
Although a saloonkeeper founded Ekalaka, the country grew on cattle. The first herds came through from Texas and Wyoming in the 1870s, and by the 1880s big ranch outfits were in place. The rich grasses of the area supported huge bison herds and later were prized for cattle grazing. Sheep were also a mainstay of the early-day economy. At one time Carter County led Montana in sheep production.
If Miles City is the capital of southeast Montana's cowboy country, then Ekalaka is next in line. This Carter County seat of about 400 people is the gathering spot for ranchers and other folks from a wide expanse of territory. Often this land was called "Miles City's south side," as it was south of the Yellowstone and east of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow territory.
A two-block-long Main Street encompasses, amongst other businesses, a café, bank, two motels, one bar, coffee shop, the old Masonic Lodge and the Ijkalaka Grocery, named after the namesake for the town. The 6,000-square-foot Carter County Museum, also on Main street houses dinosaur bones and the collection of Bucking Horse Memorabilia from the famous Tooke Bucking Horse bloodlines.
Opechee Park and Camp Needmore, an old Civilian Conservation Corp camp that the county now oversees and can be rented out for events like 4-H camp and family reunions, or weddings is a highlight of the area.
Prairie stretching from Ekalaka in all directions is some of the most beautiful mixture of landscapes in Montana east of the mountains. Most prominent are several sections of the far-flung Custer-Gallatin National Forest including the Long Pines, Ekalaka Hills, Chalk Buttes and Medicine Rocks State Park.
While these places may not be mountains to folks in western Montana, they're tall landmarks out here. The high points in most of them reach upwards nearly 700 feet above the surrounding topography.
Just southeast of Ekalaka, the Chalk Buttes, are a collection of buttes and hills, with a high point of 4,140 feet. They're forested up to the rims of their flat tops – an oasis on the almost treeless plains stretching out for as far as the eye can see. Like other vantage points out here, Native Americans used them for religious purposes and vision quests.
Many legends have been recorded about the area, including the story of Starvation Butte. It is said that an Indian woman climbed it, and as she reached the top, her footing crumbled beneath her. Unable to return, she died of starvation. Fighting Butte was the site of a skirmish in which Sioux chased a hunting party of Crows to the top. Backed to the steep edge of the table of rocks, the Crows were forced to leap to their deaths when the enemy set the top ablaze.
On the southern edge of town, the Ekalaka Hills are another rise of limestone. A road climbs through them to the edge of their precipitous south side, where far-reaching views into Wyoming and South Dakota can be enjoyed. Their highest point is 4,111 feet.
The Long Pines, a partially timbered island uplift in far southeast Montana, begin about 15 miles southeast of Ekalaka. Several unimproved roads lead into the area. There are campsites in the Pines but very little water. The same situation existing in the Chalk Buttes and Ekalaka Hills. Very soft limestone surface rock soaks up any liquid.
Capitol Rock, so called because it resembles the nation's capital, stands out on the far eastern edge of these hills. It's a massive deposit of light-colored volcanic ash. The routes leading to it require a four-wheel-drive vehicle with clearance. It perches high up on the cliffs and crags of the Long Pines, providing homes for hundreds of eagles, hawks, and falcons, including the rare merlin falcon.
Medicine Rock State Park is 12 miles north of Ekalaka. Sacred to the Indians, it is managed by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Here's a mix of twisted and odd-looking formations, some towering 80 feet above the prairie. Tribes gathered here each fall to call on the medicine spirits they believed lived in these rocks to protect their hunters. The Sioux name for the Medicine Rocks is "Inya-oka-la-ka," meaning "rock with hole in it." Strong winds coming from the west have over the eons continued to etch holes and other sculptures in this easily eroded sandstone.
Rick Graetz is a member of UM's Honors College faculty and a Senior Fellow in UM's O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Susie Graetz is an author, photographer and editor and is a retired Senior Fellow of UM's O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West.