In 1877, only nine people lived in the "Norwegian Settlement" north of Big Timber. Three log cabins were the beginning of Melville, named for Col. Melville, the famed Arctic explorer. Mail was collected in a cigar box for the Stage to pick up on its way to Bozeman.
Odd miners from Virginia city purchased land and sent word to their relatives in Minnesota of the abundant water, grass, and timber so much like their native Norway. The first child of Norwegian descent was born in November 1881. The Midwife used an oilcloth from the table to shelter the mother and baby until the men finished the sod roof on their new home. The first postmistress, Mrs. Puett, kept her prize stallion in a specially made stall in her kitchen to protect him from Indian raids, which continued as late as 1880. As more settlers arrived, the first English-speaking school in Sweet Grass County was established in Melville in 1882. The school was used for all church and social functions, including the first election in the Melville Precinct. Of the 14 votes cast in the election, nine were Republican, five Democratic, and no Populist or Prohibition votes were cast. By 1883, Melville was receiving weekly mail from Big Timber.
In its heydey, Melville had a flour mill, a cheese factory, a hotel, at least four saloons, two stores, and a drug store. The railroad in Big Timber made such luxuries as dried fruits and green coffee available. From its humble beginnings, Melville was destined to earn the reputation as one of the toughest little towns in the state. The individuals who helped it earn that name were such men as Mel Jewell, Charlie Brown, Sim Roberts, and "Tench" Hannon. It became a saying that if you wanted to get out-fought, out-rode, or out-run, come to Melville. Melville was the gathering point for miles around for Saturday night dances. Horse racing was especially popular in Melville, where stakes were high, not only for money but cattle and horses, too.
The settlers organized the first Lutheran Congregation in the State of Montana in 1885 and built their Church in 1914. There were 18 services held at the Melville Church in 1915—two in English and 16 in Norwegian. Then, in 1924, church minutes were recorded in English for the first time. At the annual meeting in 1932, it was voted to allow women members of the church to vote and hold church office. A resolution was also passed that "fewer sermons be preached in Norwegian".
Bad winters and droughts or good weather and high prices—you never know what will happen in the ranching industry. People have come and gone in "the Settlement". Most of the supplies are purchased in Big Timber now. The Melville school is in session and the church still stands in its place at the foot of the Crazies. There have been changes in the town, but the country remains largely the same as it was when the first settlers found this wild and beautiful country. Soak in the peaceful vastness of the prairie, and imagine the early days of the cattle and sheep ranches built by the Norwegian settlers of Sweet Grass County.
Reprinted from Sweetgrass Chamber information sheet.
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