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Old West Beef Empires Launched Town Of Malta

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The Trafton Trail

The Trafton Trail offers scenic views of the meandering Milk River near Malta. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

U.S. Highway 191 climbs a steep grade out of the Missouri River bottoms north of the bridge at the James Kipp Recreation Area. As it gains the upper extent of the river breaks, a far-reaching, high plains landscape sprawls toward Canada 125 miles to the north. The Little Rockies rise directly ahead, and a rough, rolling prairie flows off to the east. From here, you will experience the vastness of the prairie, seeing firsthand why Montana received the nickname of “Big Sky Country.”

Continuing north, you head through historic landscape, once the domain of the nomadic Plains tribes, toward the valley of the Milk River and the agriculture and ranching community of Malta.

Between 1870 and 1900, this was the setting for the true “Old West,” and Malta might well be considered its capital. Trappers, cattlemen, cowboys and all manner of outlaws wandered through here. Cattle drives up from Texas brought the herds to summer on the region’s rich grasslands between the Missouri and Canada.

Malta was once the focal point of a vast beef empire and was founded to serve the area ranches. Big cow outfits held sway, and names like Phillips, Coburn, Matador (originally the Circle C Ranch), Reynolds Cattle Company and the Circle Diamond Ranch are all etched in Montana’s history.

In 1885, the first recorded citizen of Malta, Robert M. Trafton, established a trading post a few miles to the west of what would eventually become the governmental seat of Phillips County. The westward building Great Northern Railroad reached a place called Siding 54 on Aug. 13, 1887, and Trafton moved his store to the new town site in anticipation of increased business.

Cowboys and other solitary souls inhabiting these high plains of north-central Montana needed a Saturday night destination, and Malta became that place. And it was as wild as any western movie could depict!

The newly minted community needed a proper name. Railroad agents gathering in Minneapolis, blindfolded an employee and had him point his finger to a spot on the globe. Thus Siding 54 was named Malta after an island in the Mediterranean Sea.

The railroad helped the ranchers thrive, even after the days of the open range came to an end. In 1910, through the Homestead Act, thousands of would-be farmers flocked to the area. Malta prospered even more as harvests were bountiful, but the drought starting in 1918 and the Great Depression of the 1930s put an end to the dreams of most homesteaders, forcing them to leave.

While farming is historically important to the area, it is still primarily considered ranching country, with approximately 77 percent land base used as rangeland.

Modern Malta is a far cry from its raucous beginnings. This now peaceful agricultural center is presently home to about 2,000 residents, with the Phillips County Growth Policy stating that more than 100 young families have either returned or moved to Phillips County. Visit http://bit.ly/2VwC0Gp to read the Phillips County Growth Policy.

An active Chamber of Commerce and PhillCo Economic Growth Council (a grassroots economic development group) work to honor the rural roots of Malta and Phillips County while remaining resilient in their efforts to foster local commerce in spite of the fluctuating farm and ranch economy. Local leaders note that the farming economy has the potential for improving as cattle prices are up, and the lessons learned in tough times have helped people to be better farmers. Alternative crops, like chickpeas and lentils, are being planted instead of just wheat. In addition to farming, the natural gas industry and telecommunications play important roles in the local economy. With fiber-optics technologies, internet speeds of up to 1G and excellent mobile coverage, living and working remotely is the new opportunity for the region, even in the most rural areas. 

Author’s note:  Thank you to Anne Booth from Malta for helping to provide up-to-date information.