Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, like 100 years ago…
…a man named Joe Mason and his lovely wife successfully platted and registered the town of Fishtail Montana. Now Joe had purchased the land from Don in 1907, who had purchased the land in 1903 from one of the 4 original homesteaders of this area, John Mauer, who filed on the land way back in 1895. There has been a post office established in Fishtail since 1900. There was also a store, saloon, blacksmith shop, hotel, and livery barn. When John first came to town the area of Stillwater County that he homesteaded was still part of Carbon County. It wasn’t until March 24, 1913, after fighting opposition from Sweet Grass, Carbon, and Yellowstone counties that Stillwater County was born. In John’s days you had to follow an old county road about a quarter of a mile outside of Fishtail, then turn south, go up the hill behind the old school house, and then over the hills to the East Rosebud River and then on to Red Lodge, just to file any official paperwork.
It may seem silly to us now when you can fly across the country in just a few hours, but back in the days when Fishtail was just becoming an actual town they supported a thriving hotel, which was located where the Cowboy Bar & Supper Club is today. It was a large white building with a bar, restaurant, lobby, and living room on the first floor, and sleeping quarters on the second floor. Across the entire front side of the building was a long wooden porch. There’s a story that says that after the cowboys had “relaxed” a little at the saloon they would race their horses up and down the length of the porch, waking all the guests. In 1917 prohibition was enacted and the bar had to close up shop. That, combined with automobiles becoming more and more prevalent, the Fishtail hotel closed its doors.
Across from the hotel was a two story pool and dance hall that also fell victim to hard times, and was sold to Grant Hammond along with the store in 1916. He quickly turned the former bar into a mill that made flour and other grain products from local crops. The flour was put into white cotton sacks with “Stillwater Cream” printed on them. A few of these sacks still exist today, but sadly the mill does not. The building was purchased in the 1970s with the intent of reopening it as a restaurant, but the county wouldn’t grant the permits for water and sewer services, so they dismantled it.
The one seemingly constant fixture in the history of Fishtail still standing today is the Fishtail General Store. The present building, although enlarged and improved upon over the years, housed the first post office in Fishtail, which was established in the early 1900’s. The new mail route was needed to accommodate the many settlers coming into the area. The store has changed hands often throughout the years, but has offered hand baked goodies, fresh cut meat, and the other necessities needed to survive in the area, including dynamite, but more about that later. It even survived its competition, Arney’s store, which was open in the 1920’s and also housed a cream station where the cream could be stored until it was shipped off to Butte. The Arney’s store and cream station were located where the current Hanna Hall & Fishtail library are now housed.
In the 1940’s the Lehner family had a meat butchering building in the Fishtail Community building. In reading the “Early Fishtail Community Hall History” by June Trees, we learn that in order to keep his meat cold Lou Lehner had a large metal container that looked like a coffin. It had double sheathing so that ice could be put in the space between the walls in order to keep the product cold. After it was no longer needed to hold meat, the owners of the Fishtail Store buried it in the back of the store and gave it a new purpose, to store dynamite! The store sold dynamite to many people for many purposes. It was needed to blast out ice jams in the West Rosebud River in the winter to prevent the town from flooding, to accelerate the digging of a new well, and even for the grave diggers to make their work a little easier.
According to the book “Names on the faces of Montana” by Roberta Carkeek Cheney, Fishtail may have gotten its name from a Mr. Fishtail in the area. However this is not supported by the long-time locals such as Bernice Lesnik, who has complied the history of Fishtail from stories she recalled either from those living, or that had been passed down through the generations. The other option given in the book, and supported by others, is that it was due to a geological formation near Dean that resembles a fish’s tail.
One thing’s for sure, for a little town you’ve always been able to find everything you need. Whether you’re looking for groceries, entertainment, handmade gifts, or a place to gather with friends, Fishtail’s still got it, 100 years later!