WINNETT — Winnett, Montana - population 188 - is the seat of Petroleum County. This quiet town is located about 52 miles east of Lewistown and 94 miles north of Billings. It is the seventh-least-populated county in the United States.
Surrounded by rolling hills of grass land, grazed by cattle, and ran by descendants of homesteaders – this community is being brought back to life.
Winnett ACES is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that is working to create an even more desirable location for the next era of Winnett residents.
It began with the relocation of the Odd Fellows building – moved only about 100 yards west down Main Street, it now resides in its permanent location.
“It's a really cool thing when we all get together and have a common goal it seems like we can accomplish a lot and it's really fun. I mean, you're standing inside of something that is supposed to be torn down and you know, it's going to be pretty cool. It's going to have an ice cream machine… and coffee.” Told Brent Smith, General Coordinator, Winnett ACES at a community potluck meeting.
Tuesday night, the ACES invited residents and out of towners to a meeting explaining what the organization would be up to for the coming month. A turn out of about 50, all for the common goal; to rebuild the town they love.
“If businesses can grow on its own. Our own children didn't have this business, and we'd like it to be better than it was for them so that they would have things to do to keep them here. Not having to drive 50 miles to Lewistown.” Shared Diana Brady, a Winnett resident and committee member.
The Odd Fellows building is only one part of the big picture for this organization and community. It has hopes to become either a coffee shop or ice cream parlor. While utilizing the upstairs area for apartments that create more affordable housing to generate revenue for the town and county.
Discussed in the meeting was the team of youth conservationists who will be working closely with Winnett ACES to protect the grasslands that are vital to the planet’s health. Winnett ACES representatives explained that working with ranchers to properly graze in this region and aerate the land to keep this precious ecosystem healthy.
A solid percentage of the 50 in attendance were children. The future of the community is in the crosshairs for the younger generation, especially for mother of five Katie Lund.
“…for instance, if this is a coffee shop or an ice cream shop or what kind of kid doesn't love those types of things, you know? And to have something in this little, tiny town is awesome. And exciting.”
Of the many ventures within the Winnett community, the new Petroleum County Community Center is under construction and expected to be completed in December 2022.
“…200 people I believe is what the capacity is going to be at.” Director of the Petroleum County Community Center, Lance Olson said.
The Community Center chair has big plans for this facility including wedding receptions, conventions, and already scheduled community plays. All in the purpose of creating more traffic and revenue for the town and county.
“People care about this community so much that they're going to be using it and using it frequently.” Olson added.
The community cares so much that two high school alumni donated five million dollars combined to the project. Luann Knutson, Co-chair of the Petroleum County Community welted with tears at the generosity.
“We were absolutely overwhelmed, overwhelmed and cried like I'm about to now because it was such an awesome, awesome thing for our community.”
The community center is one of the few wonders of Winnett; catty-corner sits the Petroleum County Court house, a century old marvel. The top floor is full with what some would say is “junk” yet it’s full of items are under-utilized and have nowhere to go. Old documents, town memorabilia, and furniture that will be cleaned out and the rooms will be turned into housing and office spaces.
“This part of it is going to be transitioning into housing... All the offices can use the conference room, but also you can invite your friends over and have a bigger dinner party.” Shared, Kelly Beevers, a Consultant with the Winnett ACES.
It may lack electricity and air conditioning for the time being, but it won’t for long. The Winnett ACES and county are navigating state and federal grant programs to fund the project.
“…we still needed about five or $600,000 to get to the last dollar. So, as a commissioner, I can feel comfortable that we can sign off and go ahead with this project.” Told Craig Iverson, Chair of the Petroleum County Commission.
“We're talking about rehabilitation of the building, a revitalization of the community to breathe new life into it. And especially in a county like Petroleum County, where there's such a low population and these housing or these community centers and locations are the hub of the community. Being able to provide a new use and a new function absolutely, just changes the way that people interact with the building.” Said Eric Newcombe, Historic Architecture Specialist, from a division of the Montana Historical Society.
Newcombe says that his goal in the project to protect the historic integrity of the Court House. It is important that Petroleum County members follow specific guidelines when it comes to preservations. He shared that the Winnett ACES and other partners are ahead of the game in preserving the town’s heritage.
To learn more or get involved, click here to visit the website.
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