Homesteader Days may not be what it used to be, but the changes aren’t all bad.
Live concert performances by Blackhawk and Aaron Tippin kick off the annual celebration this weekend at Homesteader Park between Huntley and Worden.
It’s the largest annual fundraiser for the Huntley Project Lions Club, and one of the largest fundraisers for any Lions Club in Montana, according to Lions Club member Bethany Hein.
The event honors homesteaders who settled the area after the Huntley Project Irrigation Project was opened in 1907. Homesteader Days began in 1964 as a way for farmers and ranchers from around the project to get together to drink and socialize, Hein said.
“It was the community gathering event of the summer,” she said.
The original homesteaders are long gone now, and the number of farmers has decreased as the size of farms has increased. Now it has become a largescale community event headlined by top country performers.
When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band played at the concert, Hein said, vendors sold a hundred kegs of beer. They sold that much even when the event was just a gathering for ranchers and farmers, she said.
But while some old-timers mourn the loss of authenticity, the annual concerts still are a large social attraction, she said. Concert goers stake out their ground under the shady trees in Homesteader Park, then wander around to visit and buy beverages. It’s a free-flowing, loosely structured, casual vibe, Hein said.
“The venue makes the concert,” she said.
According to a 1996 report by Timothy A. Dick of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Huntley Project was founded on land purchased by the federal government for $1.15 million from the Crow Indian Reservation.
President Theodore Roosevelt opened the land to farmers on May 21, 1907, allotting them plots ranging from 40 to 160 acres. A drawing was held to allocate the land, but only 76 of the first 1,000 names drawn completed filing. According to Dick, many of those who registered were curious residents of Billings who just wanted to see what number they would draw and had no intention of farming the land.
Restrictions on entry were removed in August 1907, and the project slowly developed. According to the Huntley Project Museum website, farmers longing for land came to the project from all over Europe and the eastern United States. The town sites of Huntley, Ballantine and Pompeys Pillar were all created by the government to handle shipping and supplies.
The land was irrigated with water from the Yellowstone River obtained through a 10½-foot-tall diversion dam—a noted hazard to boaters on the river—near Huntley and a 32-mile main canal. Labor problems, defaults by subcontractors and flooding hampered development of the project, as well as poor harvests in its early years.
A post-World War I depression pushed down crop values, and the population of the district was cut in half, to just over 1,000, by 1923. The problems began to be resolved with improved crop years and creation of the Huntley Project Irrigation District in 1927.
“Success of the project,” Dick wrote, “can be attributed to the ambitions and determination of the settlers who overcame strife to become successful farmers.”
That ambition and determination will be celebrated beginning at 7 p.m. Friday when Blackhawk performs, followed by Aaron Tippin and then the Bucky Beaver Ground Grippers.
Blackhawk is a country band founded in 1992. Its latest album, “Brothers of the Southland,” released in 2014, was the band’s first album in 12 years following the death of founding member Van Stephenson in 2001.
The band has never had a No. 1 hit in the United States, but four of its songs made the top five on Billboard’s country charts: “Every Once in a While,” “I’m Not Strong Enough to Say No,” “Like There Ain’t No Yesterday” and “There You Have It.”
Aaron Tippin signed his first record contract in 1990 and his first single, “You’ve Got to Stand for Something,” was a top 10 country hit. His hits include “There Ain’t Nothing Wrong with the Radio,” “That’s as Close as I’ll Get to Loving You” and “Kiss This.”
Local favorites Bucky Beaver and the Ground Grippers transform the concert into a dance when they take the stage following the headliners.
Tickets to the concert cost $40 at the gate, which opens at 6 p.m.
Saturday’s events at Homesteader Days begin with the two-mile Homesteader Run at 8:15 a.m. and continue until well after dark. Gates open at 9 a.m., a crafts sale gets underway at 10 a.m., and a parade begins at 11 a.m.
Other events include a carnival, cow pie bingo, a teen dance at 9 p.m. and fireworks at dusk. Admission for the parade and carnival is $2.
Greased pig wrestling at 6:30 p.m. draws four-member teams who try to place a pig inside a barrel in a pit filled with water and 500 pounds of bentonite. Hein, herself a competitor, said it isn’t too hard, but she declined to discuss details.
“I can’t tell you my trade secrets,” she said.
The beer garden is open from 11 a.m. Saturday to 1 a.m. Sunday and includes live music by Exit 53 at 8 p.m.
All events are at Homesteader Park, off U.S. 312 near the Southern Agricultural Research Center at 748 Railroad Highway. For complete details, go here.