I’m not sure if I should even refer to Shonkin, Montana as a town. It’s primarily a community center building and an elevator but believe me, it was a hopping place this weekend.
Located in Chouteau County, Shonkin was one of the towns that participated in the county-wide Christmas celebration. It requires a bit of gravel road driving to get to Shonkin but the drive provides some varied and beautiful scenery. Well worth it.
I started in Great Falls, took the Highwood turn off of US Hwy 87, drove through the town of Highwood and then after a few miles turned at the Shonkin sign. This area was fairly flat and the road was surrounded with grain fields. That began to change and all of a sudden I was in the foothills of the Highwood Mountains.
My speed wasn’t high but I sailed right past a small hand-painted sign on the ground announcing Shonkin. I had seen a lot of vehicles (mostly pickups) at a small building but wasn’t sure if that was where I wanted to go. Well, I put the car in reverse, backed up and drove up to the building.
As I entered the building I could sense the wonderful aroma of home cooked soups. It was warm and cozy thanks to a stove in an adjoining room. And I could hear some good old country music – two accordions, one violin and one guitar. They were playing a song my Grandma used to play on her old upright piano. Wow, memories came flooding back. Craft and homemade food vendors lined the room and everyone seemed to know each other. After a bit of shopping – couldn’t pass up a small plate of divinity – I left and walked over to a field where a local rancher was giving free haywagon rides.
I met Jerry and Billy, two of Lacey Creek’s Clydesdales, and they would be the horsepower for my wagon ride. Big horses! One weighed 2,150 pounds and the other a bit more. Jerry, 18 years old, used to be the lead horse in a well known eight-horse hitch. Billy is 17 years old and both were a beautiful sight. The owner said each horse has a distinct personality. Jerry is smart and kind. Billy is more aloof but always ready to go. Considering their ages they are pretty spry but their beautiful manes had streaks of gray and their owner pointed out that their backs are beginning to sag a bit.
Five of us took the haywagon ride and the Clydesdales’ owner gave us a lot of history of these big beautiful draft horses. Although Clydesdales come in many colors, we’ve grown used to seeing the Budweiser Clydesdales and they have strict color and conformation standards. Clydesdales are one of the four breeds of draft horses. Belgians and Percherons are the old breeds and Clydesdales and Shires are newer. We learned that Billy was a swing horse, able to cross his front feet to turn in a long hitch.
Speaking of the horses’ feet, I was fascinated by the size of them, the different colors on their ankles and legs, and the long horse hair near their hooves. Their owner explained that you would normally wash them so the white looked whiter but in December in Montana weather can get chilly. Billy and Jerry stay in a modern draft horse barn each evening but baths aren’t the best for them this time of year in this climate.
We toured around a field with Jerry and Billy obeying voice commands from our driver. There was a chilly breeze but the owner had brought blankets (thank you) and I could have listened to the history of Clydesdales for a lot longer. More people had walked over to have a ride so we knew our ride was about over.
Learning about and seeing these big draft horses was a treat. So was the Shonkin community center which is best described as a Norman Rockwell painting for rural America, a little slice of life that seems to be gradually slipping away. It’s in my memory now and I’m glad I made the drive to Shonkin.