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The Significance Of Grain Silos

Bill Allard
Bill Allard

For the last several years, Robert Stubblefield has invited me to talk about The Write Question with students in one of the classes he teaches at the University of Montana. We talk about specific The Write Question programs students have listened to. Then I answer questions about the process of reading, interviewing, and creating programs for radio and the Web. I also invite each of them to send me an essay they've written in response to a writer they read during the semester.

The following essay about Bill Allard's photography and writing was written by Clare Menahan.


When I visit my grandparents’ ranch in Coffee Creek, Montana, I can see six different mountain ranges if I spin in a slow circle on their front porch. While the landscape appears barren and void of life, stretching towards the horizon in an endless wave of prairie grasses and farmland, it is, in reality, a hub of animal and human activity. The surrounding town of Stanford is home to an eclectic group of ranch hands, cowboys, truckers, and the occasional Hutterite.

While I have never met the Hutterite colony at Surprise Creek, the subjects of Bill Allard’s essay and subsequent photo series, Hutterite Sojourn, my grandparents and their children who work on the ranch share a somewhat intimate relationship with them. They are both valiantly attempting to live off the unforgiving rangeland of central Montana. This challenge is at once incredibly beautiful, and heartbreaking.

Before class, I pour over Allard’s photographs. There is a print in his Out West series, taken of a silo in a grain field in Coffee Creek with the words, “Welcome to the middle of nowhere,” painted in bold faced letters across its front. I realize that I have seen this grain bin at some point during my childhood, although I cannot recall its exact location today. I love this photograph because it is symbolic of the nature of the west, forever changing.

After class, Allard explains to me the story behind this particular photo. He describes how photography is challenging because of the short window of time he has to capture a moment, before it is gone. He cannot go back and edit that moment, like he had the freedom to do in writing his commentary about his experience with the Hutterites. I feel this is true of my relationship with the ranch. We exist for a moment, forced to adapt and change in accordance with the whims of the natural world. While one would not necessarily characterize my grandparents as sentimental people, their ability to appreciate the wonders of the ranch amidst its harsh reality transcends our modern ideals of beauty. The grain silo meant something bigger to me and to Allard; those fleeting moments of beauty aren’t merely for our individual enjoyment, but we share them with others in order to feel fulfillment and human connection. I thank Allard for reminding me through his photographs to appreciate and recognize those instances as they are happening, before they are lost to my memory.

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Author Bio:

Clare Menahan

Clare Menahan lives in Missoula, Montana, where she supplements her income working as a freelance musician and seasonal ski instructor. She plans to spend a few weeks this summer working at her grandparents’ ranch in Coffee Creek.

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