WINFRED, Mont. — A friend thought I was joking when I said to meet me at the Winifred International Suites/bowling alley/steakhouse/laundromat to start a Missouri Breaks adventure.

No indeed.

It’s right there across from the community center/museum/fire hall/ambulance barn/city hall/post office.

The slash is key in small towns, and in Winifred, pop. 200, many of the people, like their buildings, have many roles.

Unemployment is not an issue here, north of Lewistown, Frank Carr said. (Montana’s overall rate is 3.8 percent.)

“Hopefully we can find more people to work,” he said. “We’re trying to keep our town from drying up but at the same sense we’re up against the wall with workforce. Everyone is working and we need more people.”

Among other roles, Carr juggles running Winifred’s new world-class hotel. A few years ago, I interviewed him about his Winifred Tavern and Cafe. The lady who checked me into the hotel ran back and forth between the hotel and cafe.

Carr also worked on construction of the sign shop next door. It’s being expanded now with a work area, retail shop space and three large apartments.

Mid-State Signs manager Gordon Wichman said he’s had a shortage of help but the new housing should help.

“It’s a start anyhow,” he said.

The shop employs 8-10 people (and a job opening for a someone with shop labor/welding or construction experience) and ships signs all over the Northwest, Wyoming and the Dakotas. The embroidery part of the business primarily serves northcentral Montanans.

“We have a lot of equipment no one else in the five-state region has,” Wichman said.

“It’s bringing people back into the community,” he said. “Most everyone who works there has family ties in Winifred and this has enabled them to move back to the area.”

Winifred International Suites and the sign shop are part of the ongoing efforts of Norm Asbjornson to keep his hometown vibrant. Asbjornson is the founder of AAON, Inc., a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) manufacturer.

Those outside Winifred might recognize Asbjornson’s name from his connection with Montana State University, which he graduated in 1960. He pledged $50 million to MSU’s College of Engineering, the largest private gift in state history (Could have been you, Huguette Clark!).

Asbjornson grew up in Winifred during the Great Depression. MSU’s “Mountains and Minds” magazine described him as being born to parents with a one-bedroom, 800-square-foot house without indoor plumbing, running water or electricity. He started driving tractors at age 6, sold bottles and newspapers and launched his own garage hauling businesses before he was a teenager. In 1998, he founded AAON, a Tulsa, Okla. HVAC manufacturer.

Carr said Asbjornson’s first job that required a Social Security number was setting pins at Winifred’s bowling alley. In 1952, the bowling alley burned down. Carr doesn’t think it had been open for a while when it burned.

The new bowling alley, through the lobby of the hotel (shoes are racked behind the front desk), has automatic bumpers that pop into place when the turn comes on the digital scoreboard for the young (or inept) and come down again when it’s someone else’s turn. The alley is equipped for black-light bowling. Lighting dances along with the music that plays through the sound system. A bowling league hasn’t started up but is planned for the fall.

Carr said Asbjornson’s first job that required a Social Security number was setting pins at Winifred’s bowling alley. In 1952, the bowling alley burned down. Carr doesn’t think it had been open for a while when it burned.

The new bowling alley, through the lobby of the hotel (shoes are racked behind the front desk), has automatic bumpers that pop into place when the turn comes on the digital scoreboard for the young (or inept) and come down again when it’s someone else’s turn. The alley is equipped for black-light bowling. Lighting dances along with the music that plays through the sound system. A bowling league hasn’t started up but is planned for the fall.

“He always said he wanted another bowling alley in Winifred. We built a lot of other stuff around it,” Carr said.

The hotel’s international theme was inspired by the town’s history. It was founded in 1913 as the terminus of a branch line of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.

The entry has an acid-stained concrete floor depicting the globe (with a star for Winifred).

The hotel has a European hostel with bunkbeds and a shared bathroom. Each of the hotel’s seven rooms is different and lux.

Rooms are $80-$175 plus tax. The Grecian room is the most expensive, but also has a Jacuzzi tub, a shower with 12 shower heads and a full kitchen. Among the room themes: Amsterdam, Shanghai, New York, San Francisco and Paris.

The rooms look out to the side of the sign shop, which is hanging posters of exotic destinations coordinating with room themes.

The hotel also has a laundromat, which the public can use, and a fitness room.

Carr said people are surprised to find such a nice hotel in Winifred.

“We’ve had people from other countries stay there, and they’re totally amazed it’s in the middle of Montana in a town of 200 people,” he said. “There were all different nationalities who worked on the railroad and who came here,” he said.

The attached 1028 Steakhouse is named for one of the first steam engines that chugged into town. A custom-made replica of a train from the era runs around a track in the restaurant. The steakhouse is only open Friday and Saturday nights and Sundays for brunch.

“We don’t have enough help, so we’re only open on the weekends,” Carr said. “Hopefully we can find more people to work.”

The operation’s website is still under construction, but it’s on Facebook.


Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com

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KRISTEN INBODY
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