A History of Huntley MT

Huntley, Montana
George N. Smith and family at the Yellowstone River, Huntley, Montana, 1881

Huntley Montana sits in the shadow of Billings MT and has since it’s inception in 1907. While it is simply known as “Huntley” today, it was originally known as ‘The Huntley Project”.  The history of Huntley is rather interesting as it shows how towns such as this got their humble beginnings in a way that would not be possible in today’s day and age.

Established by the United States Bureau of Reclamation in 1907, the Huntley Project was original what was known as an ‘irrigation’ project. This district included the towns of Huntley, Worden, Ballantine, and Pompey’s Pillar. As the name implies, it was established with the intent of being farmland that would produce crops and it’s main cash crops have generally been alfalfa and sugar beets. It has also been used for silage for the cattle industry as well.

The project originated in 1905 when the US Bureau of Reclamation purchased the land from the Crow Indian tribes, as it had been part of the Crow Indian Reservation prior to this date. Ballantine, Worden, and Pompey’s Pillar were railroad towns and along with Huntley were all incorporated together to produce The Huntley Project.  The Huntley name came from a station of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Once the Pryor Division became open for settlement, the Huntley Project followed suit about a month later on June 26th, 1907. A lottery system was utilized to distribute the farm units, the settlement was ultimately slowed by curiosity seekers from Billings who drew numbers with no intention of actually settling on the land. Of the first 1,000 names drawn, a mere 76 actually applied for a farm unit. By 1917 the population rose to 2107, only to fall back down again in 1923 to a low of 1023.

Huntley would suffer extensive damage from the flood of the Yellowstone River in 1937. Other communities in the area were damaged as well, but none to the extent of Huntley and it set the small town back several years while people attempted to recover. The flood actually washed away a suspension bridge that allowed Highway 312 to cross the river and after the flood the site of the town was relocated from the north side to the southern bank where the elevation was higher. It was common back in those days for smaller towns and cities to learn from their mistakes as to where they were settled and to make adjustments so that future generations would not have to worry about things like floods. Huntley is a perfect example of a town actually moving rather than staying in the same place and dealing with a catastrophic event again in the future.

Whereas the land that became the Huntley Project had been nothing but sage covered ranges in the past, the area quickly became blanketed with farms of corn, sugar beets, and alfalfa. There were periods of slow growth coupled with tough times, some of them due to natural events like the Yellowstone Flood. The farmers that prospered in the end were the ones that persevered through the tough times, much like the farmers in other areas of the country. Huntley was not an area that was easily settled and farmed, but for those that stuck with it, it was ultimately rewarding.  Much of the irrigation infrastructure was poorly designed and cheaply built in the beginning and it had to be replaced periodically. This contributed to some of the tough times that the farmers experienced.

The settlers found that alkali in the soil made it very difficult to profitably farm the area and many of the farms failed in the recession following WWI.  In the 1930’s, low water and dry weather led to the construction of the first retention dam, which was followed by a concrete weir in 1934. The Anita Dam and Reservoir Project was completed roughly six miles southeast of Ballantine in 1937 by the Civilian Corps Workers.

huntley mt
Mural in Huntley, MT

Today Huntley, MT is best described as a suburb of Billings. A wide variety of business such as bars, restaurants, and shops exist in the smaller community. While there is still farming in Huntley, many of the residents simply want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Billings. What began as The Huntley Project that encompassed all the various towns, has now evolved into separate towns of Huntley, Worden, Ballantine, and Pompey’s Pillar (to a lesser extent) with each one having their own niche of interesting shops and living attributes.

Many people who reside in Huntley today simply want to raise a family in a more rural setting than Billings allows. Since it is only about 15 miles from Huntley to Billings (all travelable along Instate 94 if desired) people can live in a more peaceful, slower paced setting and still have access to the convenience and amenities that the bigger city offers.

The actual town of Huntley had a population of 461 as of the 2014 census, so the cost of living is lower than that of Billings and also the schools are less crowded etc. The town has actually grown by 50% since the year 2000 and the median home cost of a house in Huntley is $233,500. This represents an appreciation of over 43% in the last 10 years, so being a home with a little bit of land in the area is a solid investment. Rental homes are also more common in Huntley than they are in the Billings area, as well as cheaper in cost, so for some the 15-20 minute commute to work in Billings is well worth it.

Overall, Huntley could best be described as a small community that literally sprang up out of the prairie under circumstances that would be difficult to replicate today. What was once strictly a farming community known as The Huntley Project  that encompassed the additional towns of Worden, Ballantine, and Pompey’s Pillar, has become a town that is able to stand on it’s own merits and offer the residents a peaceful option to get away from the city life and be able to own a little bit of land to live on.