Historic roadside diner in Ovando has been a mainstay for local ranchers and tourists shuttling between parks since moving to current home in 1968
OVANDO - The pastor's hamburger spills over with ketchup and mustard, the pickles, onions and tomatoes sticking out the side.
After a prayer and a round of thanks, Don Oberg opens wide, ready for the bite he came for.
"I come in once a week for my double cheeseburger with everything on it but the kitchen sink," Oberg says, posing with his giant sandwich inside Historic Trixi's Antler Saloon and Family Dining. "I'm the new bouncer at the local church. It's open. Stop in whenever you want."
Oberg sits for lunch with local residents Steve and Zane Pocha inside the fabled roadside restaurant. It is burgers all around, even though the clock says it is still the hour for breakfast.
The three locals are no strangers to the historic restaurant, which is owned and operated by Ray and Cindy Francis. The couple bought the place 12 years ago from Leo and Verla Bush, who bought it from Trixi McCormick herself 19 years earlier.
In its years as a local watering hole, the bright red restaurant has seen its ups and downs. It has survived slow winters and fire-filled summers, drawing gleeful tourists off the highway as they shuffle between Glacier and Yellowstone parks.
"Just in the last week or two the rivers have cleared up," Ray Francis said, stepping out from the kitchen where prime-rib Friday's come to life. "We're really getting a lot of fisherman and floaters. This is the scenic highway going up or down, so we get a lot of tourists."
Out the front door and across the highway, the Bob Marshall Wilderness cuts a jagged line across the horizon. Out the back door, the Blackfoot River slips west through its namesake valley.
Traffic down Highway 200 is heavy, complete with motor homes, trailers and boats. Winters may be slow but when the snow melts and the water clears, it is all Francis can do to keep up with business.
"It's a lot of work to survive the winter," Ray Francis said. "We lose money for 6 to 8 months of the year. But the summers make up for it. You've got to be ready for that."
It will stay this way into hunting season, so long as the fire season passes quietly by. In 2007, with the Jocko Lakes fire burning due west, the tourists sought different routes between Glacier and Yellowstone parks, effectively killing business.
But 2008 was quiet in the way of fires and the traffic returned. This year is looking good, though Francis knows how quickly that can change.
No matter -- worrying is a waste of time, so Ray goes about his business. There are events to plan and shopping to do. Tonight -- Friday of the Fourth of July weekend -- will be one of the year's busiest, and the traffic does not look to slow anytime soon.
"This is sort of the meeting place of the Blackfoot Valley," Ray says, wiping down the bar. "The Blackfoot Challenge, along with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, they meet here before going out on their field trips."
The red building is hard to miss, as is the cargo truck parked along the highway advertising fine family dining. Like the pastor -- who talks about the inscription carved into a log on his church that reads "Oh Lord, come quickly" -- Francis delights in sharing Ovando's past.
The restaurant, he begins, once served as an Army barracks for soldiers out of Fort Harrison in Helena. Back then, Trixi ran her establishment down the hill in Ovando. But when the state built Highway 200 around 1968 and the Army vacated the property, Trixi saw her chance to expand.
The connection to Trixi, a famous vaudeville performer and rodeo queen, explains the memorial covering one of the walls behind the antlers and above the pool table.
A cowgirl through and through, Trixi performed with her horse, Silver Dollar, and her trained dog, Cutie, at rodeos, nightclubs and theaters. She appeared in two movies and toured with Slim Pickens and Bob Hope during World War II.
Legend says she could spin two ropes, tap dance and play the harmonica all at once. She was remembered after her death "as much for her skills with a campfire skillet of potatoes with onions and bacon as for her amazing talents with an 80-foot lariat on the back of a galloping palomino Arabian horse."
"I believe she grew up in the Bitterroot, but was originally from the Drummond area, or Deer Lodge," Francis said, pointing to the rodeo posters nearby. "My wife's dad had the place for 19 years. We bought it from him when he retired, and he bought it from Trixi."
Trixi's memories linger, and new memories are made. After serving a plate of burgers to the pastor and his friends, Brooke Davis reflected on her short tenure at the diner while preparing for a night of music and dancing.
Her husband, who works for the historic Gary Brothers Ranch in nearby Helmville, helped Davis land the job, which has her doing just about everything to keep the place going.
"I like it -- you get to meet a lot of people," Davis said. "We get a lot of pass-through traffic on the highway here, so it can get busy pretty fast."
Reporter Martin Kidston:
firstname.lastname@example.org or 447-4086