By Ruffin Prevost
When a travel reporter visited Cooke City, Mont. in June, general store owner Troy Wilson spent some time talking to her about the charms of the former mining town located just four miles from the Northeast Gate of Yellowstone National Park.
“She was into art and asked if we had any art galleries, so I told her about our new drive-through art gallery,” said Wilson, owner of the Cooke City Store.
Wilson sent the reporter to Cooke City’s trash collection and recycling center, where the supervisor has a habit of pulling out pictures, photos and other found objects of discarded art and hanging them up on the vast, blank walls.
“That wasn’t quite what she was expecting, so I thought it was pretty funny,” Wilson said.
Three months later, the tip has paid off for the town, with a mention of the “the trash-dump-turned-museum” as part of what makes Cooke City one of Budget Travel magazine’s 10 coolest small towns in America.
It’s the first time the town has made the magazine’s annual list, coming in 10th, said Donna Rowland, executive director of the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce, which also serves nearby Silver Gate, Mont. and the Colter Pass area.
“We’re just kind of still a simple, small, quiet Old West town,” said Rowland in explaining Cooke City’s appeal.
Being the smallest and most remote gateway town to Yellowstone may make Cooke City “cool” to some, but not every visitor appreciates the frontier lifestyle.
“There are definitely some challenges here we face that people who come here aren’t used to,” said Matt Schneider, owner of the Miners Saloon, which was mentioned for its beer and pizza in the Budget Travel piece.
Food and beverage deliveries come only once a week, or twice monthly in the winter, and the electricity is prone to unexpected outages, Schneider said.
But the big issue for many visitors is the lack of cell phone coverage in town.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Wilson said. “I get so mad at all the people who come into the store and say they can’t get cell service. I tell them to just relax, enjoy yourself. You’re in paradise.”
Roberta “Birdie” Williams, 88, has lived in Cooke City since long before there were cell phones, spending half a century without indoor plumbing in a log home built before there was a Yellowstone Park.
“People just think it’s a beautiful area, so they come back again and again,” said Williams, who was also highlighted in Budget Travel as the owner of the F.J. Williams Primitive Western Art Gallery, showcasing the work of her late husband.
With about 300 summer residents and 100 or fewer full-time winter locals, Cooke City was the smallest town on the magazine’s list, which included places with up to 9,000 residents.
“I guess the idea of a small town is relative,” said Wilson, who figured it was great to be on the list, but doubted whether it would translate to more visitors.
The past few summers have been busy in Cooke City, with hotels typically booked solid, but winters can be a struggle, particularly for businesses that don’t cater to snowmobile riders, the town’s source of winter tourism income.
“I don’t know how many people plan their trips by Budget Travel magazine,” said Wilson, whose family lives in Billings, Mont. from October through April. “Plus, I don’t know if it’s that popular of a magazine.”
“My wife had to go to four or five places in Billings just to find it,” he said. “But she bought all four copies they had.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].