Owen Street in Milltown, Montana, winds behind a cluster of sagging wooden houses built for sawmill laborers throughout the past century. There is a bar, a gas station, and a faint taste of heavy metals in the good water. Empty chip bags and cellophane wrappers roll like tumbleweeds over the train tracks.
On the south side of the tracks, a whitewashed, weathered sign forks the dirt road leading up to the Milltown Garden Patch. From a distance, the Garden Patch could be mistaken for a pet cemetery or a pillaged scrap yard. An industrial-sized black water tower to the east looks over the garden, throwing a deep shadow onto the plots at high noon. The garden runs the length of a football field. The earth is cleared and soft underfoot. River rock pillars outline a gateway decorated with scraps of metal welded into art. Homemade scarecrows, pastel birdhouses, and a quaint shed suppress the poverty looming just down the road.
With the exception of the double-priced spotty bananas at the gas station counter, the garden is the only place nearby with fresh produce during the short Montana growing season. The residents of Milltown, an unincorporated community built around a now bankrupt lumber industry, live at the mouth of the largest superfund site in the western United States. Abandoned by industry and government, few community resources exist for the nearly 1,700 people who live there.
A mere ten miles away, Missoula is fully stocked with grocery stores, two Walmarts, and multiple farmers’ markets. But getting there is beyond the reach of many Milltown residents. While Missoula is lush with nonprofit gardens, Milltown gets by on sodium and trans fats. There is no system to buffer the residents’ poverty, no grocery store, food bank, or philanthropist subsidizing their nutritional needs. Instead, they plant and dig and harvest what little they can in the 100 days between frosts.
A harsh autumn wind draws sharp through Hellgate Canyon, and Billy Izzard is on his hands and knees inside the Milltown Garden Patch, pulling carrots. “What’s a party without a windstorm?” he asks, coughing hard and dry into a clenched, dirty fist.
Billy, who is in his early sixties, is not an educated man, or so he frequently says in conversation. He is a Vietnam veteran, a survivor of the Detroit foster care system, a retired mason, a recovering alcoholic, and the founder of the Milltown Garden Patch. He is not a gardener. “I didn’t go to school for any of this shit,” Billy says, arranging the piled vegetables in front of the tool shed. “Everything has been the school of hard knocks. In April, I learned how to turn on a computer.” It was never Billy’s intention to start an organic community garden. Having been laid off after a lifetime of masonry work, he found himself searching for meaning on a lone evening walks along quiet back roads. On one of these wanderings, he stumbled onto the flat, rocky cleared patch of land that overlooked Milltown. He paced the length of the field twice over, stopping to take in the view of the train tracks, the shuttered storefront windows, and the abandoned buildings down below. He was overcome with the idea that this abandoned plot could serve a greater purpose, and so could he.
The Milltown Water Users Association, which owns the abandoned lot, readily gave Billy permission to cultivate it for community use. In the spring of 2010, Billy broke ground, and the Milltown Garden Patch was born.
Since then, he’s spent countless hours alongside friends and neighbors prying river rock out of compacted soil, pulling out entire groves of deep-rooted knapweed, and spreading organic fertilizer, like chicken manure, by hand. His drive to keep the garden going, despite meager harvests and dismal odds of success, is deeply personal.
“I went to bed hungry many nights,” Billy tells me over coffee, his slate-gray sweatshirt punched with holes the size of golf balls, “and it sticks with you.”
He was one of five children in a household rife with addiction and abuse.
“I didn’t know my dad,” he says. “My mom drank real heavy. We didn’t have an income.”
He doesn’t look at me when he says this. “There’s nothing worse than seeing someone hungry,” he adds. And in Milltown, Billy says, people are hungry.