Ready, Set, Go! To Chester: Small prairie town fosters big time creativity
Story by CAROL BRADLEY
Photos by DARRIN SCHREDER
David and Shawna Jamison’s family had barely arrived in Chester last summer when Shawna and the four kids discovered, to their delight, a coffee bar at the Liberty County Library, where a cookie and cream ice rage can be had for just $3.
At the east end of town, a sparkling new swimming pool beckoned. The local arts center offers a 7-foot-long Yamaha piano if anyone cares to practice in style, and should any of the Jamison kids decide to take dancing, Catalina Carlon teaches classes. Her students are no slouches: come December, a group from Chester and Havre will head to San Diego to perform at the Holiday Bowl and march in a parade.
Despite a population of just 850 or so and a setting that feels light years from city life – on U.S. Highway 2 along the Hi-Line, halfway between Havre and Shelby – Chester is a magnet for music and art.
It’s first and foremost an agricultural town; an imposing silver grain elevator anchors the north end of First Street, Chester’s commercial hub. And it’s isolating. The nearest airport of any size is 100 miles south, in Great Falls. There’s no gourmet grocery, and dining-out options are limited to Spud’s Café for breakfast and lunch, and the Grand Bar for dinner. (The Inverness Bar and Supper Club is another 15 miles east).
But the tradeoff for residents is a creative clarity that seems to emanate from the scarcity of choices coupled with the anything’s-possible embrace of the sweeping, sand-colored prairie.
“I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything,” said Carlon, the dance teacher who grew up in New York City but has fallen in love with small-town life. “Living here you can find yourself a little bit better and be who you are. I think Chester offers exactly what I need.”
Chester got its start in 1891 when the Great Northern Railroad built a coal-loading station for its steam engines, but it really got going 20 years later when homesteaders flooded in. The first telegraph operator bestowed the name Chester in tribute to his Pennsylvania hometown.
Culturally, the town got an enormous boost when native son Philip Aaberg returned home in 2002. A Grammy-winning pianist and composer who combines jazz, rock, bluegrass and other elements to create an energetic and eclectic style, Aaberg, 65, grew up in Chester with his mother and his grandparents. When, as a young boy, he surpassed the local piano teachers, his mother, Helen Ann, put him on a train to Spokane every other Sunday through Tuesday so he could study under Juilliard-trained Margaret Saunders Ott.
Aaberg wasn’t the first gifted musician in town. His great-uncle played in a jazz band in the 1910s. Chester was the kind of place where “if you wanted to hear music, you made it yourself,” Aaberg said.
He and his wife, Patty, and their toddler son, Jake, were living in Oakland, California, but Aaberg missed his old life.
“I used to come back visiting family and as soon as I got over the pass into the plains, I’d start to breathe easier and I’d start to be inspired and I’d wonder why I wasn’t out here,” he said.
When the Liberty Village Arts Center invited him back to Montana for a year-and-a-half long composer’s residency, courtesy of a grant from the state Coal Tax Trust Fund, Aaberg found himself captivated by Chester’s homespun charm all over again. The family moved back into his grandparents’ house, which Aaberg still owned, and when the residency ended, they stayed put.
In the 12 years since, the Aabergs have started Sweetgrass Music, a recording studio located off a breezeway behind their house. Aaberg may be the only musician in America who’s managed to wedge a grand piano inside a grain bin, which is attached to the breezeway.
They’ve opened the Great Northern Bed and Breakfast – in a renovated homesteader’s cabin, at the far end of the breezeway – and recently they updated the second floor of the historic Westland Bank building on one end of First Street, where visitors can rent more rooms, share a common space and make their own breakfast in a full-size kitchen.
Their lodgings offer travelers to and from Glacier National Park a memorable place to stay. And for Aaberg, returning home has resulted in music that sounds both freer and bigger, a sound that seeks to capture the feel of that vast open space.
“The intrusion of noise and city life not only takes more time out of your schedule, but it diminishes your intellectual capacity in the sense that it just takes a lot of energy to keep that stuff out,” Aaberg said. “There are some people who are stimulated by the city. I’m one of those who is overwhelmed by the city. And what I’ve discovered here is that I get a lot more work done.”
His free Christmas concerts draw audiences from miles around.
Chester has its own public radio translator, which in rural Montana is a fairly big deal. It has a fitness center and a monthly book group. Until she moved to Helena, Trudy Skari coordinated an Japanese flower-arranging Ikebana club.
More than two dozen artists from a 60-mile radius display their work at the Liberty Village Arts Center, one of the first organizations of its kind in the state. The center operates out of what used to be St. Mary’s Catholic Church, built in 1910, and it’s the ideal place to stock up on the striking landscape photos of area residents Dean Hellinger and Janice Hendrickson, the metal yard work of Lowell and Denise Strissel of Hingham and more.
Chaille Hooley, a Chester native now living in Kalispell, has also begun selling stunning photos of the nearby Sweetgrass Hills. Tucked on one shelf are jars of homemade pickles and jam, and each December the center hosts a Christmas Village featuring the works of 16 vendors.
What you won’t find at the center are the delicate paper artworks of Katie Twedt. Cancer took the popular Rudyard art teacher last summer, on her 62nd birthday. The town memorialized her with a festive picnic at the Rudyard Park, where more than 200 mourners donned bright colors and dined on, among other things, chicken skewers with Thai peanut sauce (Katie had specifically asked that Tater Tot casseroles not be served.) Within two weeks, friends and neighbors had bought up every bit of Katie’s paper art the Arts Center had.
The catering was Patty Aaberg’s orchestration and something she enjoys. When “Julie and Julia,” the homage to Julia Child came to theaters five years ago, Patty hosted a dinner party featuring some of Child’s recipes. Diners then drove to the Hi-Line Theater in Rudyard to watch the movie, where Patty surprised every member of the audience with another Child recipe, pesto-stuffed mushrooms, which she’d driven over earlier in the day. There were plenty to go around.
In case Hi-Line living does start to feel a bit detached, Chester has an answer for that, too. Each year the Liberty Medical Center’s Foundation sells 300 tickets at $150 apiece as a fundraiser for the hospital. The event nets $25,000 or so, and once a month ticketholders have a chance to win a trip for two somewhere fun: to Hawaii, Costa Rica, the Kentucky Derby – the foundation delights in coming up with surprising destinations.
“People can’t wait to see who won,” said Rlynn Rockman, who runs the local funeral home. “We put it in the paper the very next day.”
Shawna Jamison spent a couple of years in Chester as a toddler and was happy to return when her husband, David, got the job as principal of the K-12 Chester-Joplin-Inverness School. She’d heard good things about the town, and not just because 20 neighbors gathered on moving day to help them unload. She’s thrilled with the children’s selections at the library, not to mention those lattes and Italian sodas.
The library delivers its drinks to the clinic, the post office and the school, and they’ve proven so popular that the proceeds have paid for a new ceiling, lights, shelving and windows.
“The Hi-Line people definitely use our library,” librarian Teresa Fenger said with a smile one recent morning as she watched a handful of patrons file in, take their seats at the computer stations and log on to find out what was happening in some other part of the world.
Carol Bradley is a frequent Montana Magazine contributor. She writes from Great Falls.
Ready, Set, Go! To Chester, Montana
Chester is located on U.S. Highway 2 halfway between Havre to the east and Shelby to the west. Chester has approximately 850 residents and serves as the county seat for Liberty County.
Chester is home to the Liberty Village Arts Center, the only arts and cultural center for a more than 60 mile radius. The center hosts exhibits and events throughout the year.
The Prairie Painters, a group of local women artists, are scheduled be featured in an art show in September. In October, the center plans to present its annual quilt show.
The Liberty Village Arts Center, located at 410 E. Main St., is open Tuesday through Friday from 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., and Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information, visit libertyvillagearts.org.