Hunting for that Small-Town Gem
Some folks come to Trego for hunting and sport. But for the community who lives there, one destination has become a place to eat, drink, be merry…but also pick up supplies, learn to knit, play the ukelele, do yoga, enjoy the accordion festival, appreciate squirrels, and more. It’s the one place where everything happens.
“For some reason, they believed in it, and it worked...”
Trego was never supposed to actually be Trego.
Trego was never supposed to actually be Trego. One of the area’s first settlers—a Canadian named Octave Fortin—had bought a large piece of what we know as Trego. He planned to call it Fortine (now a small town just a few miles north). But a clerical error by the Great Northern Railways switched the names of both Fortine and Trego, and their new designations stuck.
The town of Trego (population 805) is nestled between Eureka and Whitefish in Northwest Montana. Originally a logging town, Trego is now a destination for hunters who come to the area in search of big game hunting, fishing, camping, and enjoying the stunning wilderness that surrounds the area.
Nestled almost smack-dab in the middle of town is a log building showcasing an expanse of green lawn surrounded by trees. Hanging outside is a sign that reads, “Don’t let our regulars scare you off.” Welcome to the Trego Pub & General Store. Part drinking hole, eatery (holy paninis!), and shop, the Trego Pub & General Store has become what can only be described as a community hub.
“Don’t let our regulars scare you off.”
When asked to describe his town, Todd Swan—who owns and runs the Trego Pub & General Store with his wife, Lani—bursts into laughter. “Well.” And he laughs again.
In the bustling pub, with its warm wooden interior, pints are being poured. A woman sits at a small loom, a large beer beside her. Someone else is crocheting, her head bobbing to the music. Outside, a band is playing. Next to the guitarist, a mother rocks a toddler in her arms. People are settling into small groups at picnic tables or on blankets on the lawn. There are more than your average number of tye-dyed shirts. A rousing game of volleyball is being played.
Next to the “stage,” an older gentleman is heckling the band’s singer to sing lower “in your Johnny Cash voice.” “Try it. I mean, it’s a perfect Johnny Cash song, but you’re singing it too high.”
Eclectic, warm, inviting, and endearingly weird, the Trego Pub & General Store knows exactly who its customers are and embraces it. Their activities are more plentiful and varied than anyone could reasonably ask for. There’s Thursday’s Knit Nights (“The muster for the scrupulous amalgamation of filaments, the tippling of titillating libations, and yammering”), the Backwoods Accordion Festival (“Hail Squeezer”) “Stitch and Bitch,” fly tying, ukelele lessons, “Squirrel Appreciation Day,” Vinyasa Yoga, and more. On top of that, there’s a regular rotation of live music and even the odd celebration of life. Like that for Leeroy Mee, who originally owned the land that the Trego Pub & General Store currently sits on.
When the Swans bought the property from Mee, it was intended to be commercial property for Trego. “He wanted Trego to be a community,” Lani says. “That was always his forethought…Because he knew that without something, the community would die out.”
Over the last few decades, small towns in America have faced challenges with struggling economies, families relocating to larger and more centralized towns and cities, and accessing quality healthcare, education, and more. For a while, it seemed people weren’t interested in a small town's slower, more leisurely pace.
For a while, it seemed people weren’t interested in a small town's slower, more leisurely pace... then the pandemic hit.
Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly the priorities and lifestyles of everyone shifted. More and more workplaces went to “work from home” models, giving many city folks a chance to continue employment but still be able to seek out a smaller town or rural area to live. And while, according to Inc., that’s good news for small towns, it comes with its fair share of challenges—things that small-town folks have already been frustrated by.
“Urbanites fleeing city cores for roomier and more expensive homes in cheaper and less densely populated locales has been a much-touted trend throughout the pandemic. And while the details of who is going exactly where are much debated, a quick look at sky-high home prices outside major urban areas (and probably a quick scan of what your own friends are doing) is enough to show that this shift is real…But the flip side for small towns may be newcomers hungry for engagement, community, and a more humane pace of life.”
And this may be what the Swans were hoping to create. With the arrival of a community-centric pub and store, they wanted to honor and serve their community and create a destination that might ensure the continued health and engagement of Trego’s citizens…not squeeze out profits.
“It wasn’t the typical model. You know, it didn’t have gambling machines, we were gonna close early, and not stay open until two [a.m.] and serve hard liquor and all that stuff. If we wanted to make more money, that’s what we would do, but that’s not what this was about.”
Now the Trego Pub & General Store is the place to go for a good pint, a mouthwatering panini, and to catch up on all the latest news—or learn how to crochet. As unique and unusual as it is, it’s a model that’s working, proving that sometimes it’s not about the bottom line at all. It’s that some businesses are at their best when they’re serving their communities, and vice versa.
“The business plan really wasn’t about maximizing profits,” admits Todd. “We had a vision that was something we wanted to do, and nobody—nobody—was enthusiastic about it.” He laughs.
Adds Lani, “And so Whitefish [Credit Union] gave us the loan.”
“For some reason, they believed in it, and it worked.”
Plan on being in the area and wanting to check out what’s happening? Check-in with the Trego Pub & General Store here.
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