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Bill Troutwine: My Last Montana Winter

Bill Troutwine is well settled on Barnett's Creek, in northern Adair County. Time was when he was sheriff of Petroleum County, Montana. But the year of the blizzard came and the temperatures which locked in 18 degrees below zero, and he'd had enough. That a few other factors, As well as the fact that one grandson, Luke, asked his mother, 'What ever happened to Papa Sheriff? Did he die or something?' sealed the deal to return to Kentucky." Now, he writes, 'Even though, we miss Montana a lot, things just seemed to fall in place to make us believe we are where we are supposed to be.'
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By Bill Troutwine

I donít mind moderately cold weather, but temperatures can reach a point where I believe no one enjoys it, and that last winter in Montana was enough for me.

The last winter I spent in Montana, was the most severe winter in 20 years. It started with a very heavy snow fall of about 48 inches. Then we had severe winds reaching 50 MPH. Coupled with this, the bottom literally fell out of the thermometer. Temperatures reached minus 44 degrees. Snow started drifting in some of the low areas. Where the roads crossed valleys, snow drifts reached as much as 20 feet deep. All roads, including interstate highways, were closed due to the snow drifts.

At the time of the storm, I was sheriff of Petroleum County located in Central Montana. Petroleum County is nearly 1700 square miles in area. The total population is around 500 citizens. It is one of the most remote counties in the United States and the least populated county in Montana. All county officials except for me lived in remote areas on large ranches. In the remote areas where most of the large ranches are there is no cell phone coverage. So making contact with any other county officials was impossible until we were able to open roads to them. However I lived in Winnett, the county seat, and so did the only two road crew employees. Until the roads were opened and communications were established every operation of the county laid directly on my shoulders. With the help of the great citizens, two very hard working road crew guys, and the grace of God we made it through without losing one single life.

When people here talk about how bad the weather is and how cold it is, Donna (my wife) and I laugh and think about the Montana winter of 2003/2004. You have no idea what cold is until you spend 8 or 10 hours out in minus 40 degree weather with howling winds blowing ice particles and snow in your face. It stings like birdshot from a shotgun, but that is a good thing, because if it still hurts that means your cheeks arenít frozen yet. Setting in a vehicle with the heater running full blast and you still freeze. The inside of the vehicles may have reached a temperature of around zero, and that was the warmest place we had while working on the roads. We spent 8 to 10 hours a day like this until we finally met the road crew working our way from Billings. . .

Motorists were stranded in remote areas

Motorists were stranded in remote areas, with no way to reach any shelter. If it had not been for cell phones, there would have been lots of lives lost. I got constant calls from 911 dispatch telling me of people stranded in remote areas. I tried to think of a way to get to the stranded people, when I came up with the idea of using the county owned front-end loader to dig our way to the stranded people. A front-end loader is nothing more than a bulldozer on 4 big rubber tires. We would take this loader and bulldoze our way through the snow until we reached the stranded motorists, load them in the loader, and bulldoze our way back to town. It was very slow going, and it would take us about an hour to cover three miles. With the wind still blowing as we bulldozed through the snow on the road, it would drift back in less than 5 minutes.

High winds continued for three days and nights

The wind continued for three days and nights, and I spent those three days with almost no sleep, rescuing stranded motorists. We filled the only hotel in town with stranded people, and I started taking people to the courthouse and letting them sleep in the basement. The only restaurant in town was running out of food. Local citizens were giving extra meat they had left over from hunting season to the restaurants so they could feed all the stranded people we now had in town.

The winds let up after three days, although the temperature remained around minus 40 degrees. I felt we could probably start clearing the roads. Hopefully, with the wind gone, we would be able to remove enough snow to open the roads and keep them open.

The County Manager (Judge Executive), and all County Commissioners lived out of town. The phone landlines were down, so I had no contact with any of them, and they had no contact with anyone in town. I was the only public official available. Everything was on my shoulders, as far as rescue, how to house and feed the stranded people, and how to get the roads open.

Worked on road to Billings for two days

The two other county employees, who lived in town, used the front-end loader and the county road grader to start clearing the road leading to Billings. We worked on that road for two days. I would run a truck back and forth from town hauling fuel out to the road crew.

We spent another week opening up all of the rural areas. In some cases, ranchers had started opening their roads with their own equipment, making our work a lot less than we had first thought. For eighteen days, the temperature never got warmer than minus 10 degrees. When it finally reached zero, it felt like a warm front, and people were moving about as though it was spring. When most of the ordeal was over, I finally, got some time to relax and get warm to the core of my body for the first time in almost two weeks.

It was time to retire, to head back to Kentucky

I told Donna I thought it was time I retire. I said, "I'm 60 years old, I'm tired, and it's just not fun like it use to be. Let's find us a farm and move back to Kentucky and spend time with the family."

Both Donna's mother, and my mother were aging, and we felt a need to return and be involved in their care. As well as the fact that one grandson, Luke, asked his mother, "What ever happened to Papa Sheriff, did he die or something?" With a statement like that how could you not take notice?

In March, my oldest daughter, Melissa, began looking for a place for us to live. She found a farm that would accommodate a runway for my airplane. We bought the farm, sight unseen, except for the picture and descriptions on the internet. We relied on Melissa's opinion, and we bought the farm.

On June 1st 2004, I retired, and Donna left her very successful beauty shop. We sold our Montana house and property and moved to Adair County, Kentucky.

Donna and I started new careers in our son-in-law's ophthalmology practice in Somerset. Donna used her artistic talent and skills and is very good at assisting patients to select glasses that look nice on them. I had a 2 week orientation in grinding lenses and became a self-taught Optician. I have to give Melissa a lot of credit. She worked very hard and picked a farm that suited us. She and my daughter, Penny. painted the interior of the house. Donna said they selected the colors of paint, she herself, would have picked to paint the rooms. Donna and I really enjoy our farm.

Even though, we miss Montana a lot, things just seemed to fall in place to make us believe we are where we are supposed to be. - Bill Troutwine

This story was posted on 2014-01-12 10:16:48
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Bill Troutwine: My last Montana winter

2014-01-12 - Montana - Photo by Bill Troutwine. "A look down into town just before we started to dig our way out. Notice the streets. There are no tracks because no vehicles had moved in three days except for the county front-end loader and my snowmobile!" - Bill Troutwine
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My last winter . . . a view of our house

2014-01-12 - Montana - Photo by Bill Troutwine. "A view of the side of our house after the storm" - Bill Troutwine
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My last Montana winter: The road to Billings

2014-01-12 - Not KY 206 - Photo by Bill Troutwine.
Bill Troutwine
of Pellyton, remembers the winter which influenced his decision to move to back to Kentucky. Above "This is the road to Billings, 100 miles away, after we cleared it," he writes.

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