If I’m to believe the stories that are told about famed western artist Charlie Russell, I’m likely sitting in the same location, formerly the Mint Saloon in Cascade, where he would stop to wet his whistle. Rumor has it he sometimes paid for his drink with a pencil sketch when money was scarce. Charlie and Nancy Russell lived in a small cabin in Cascade the first year of their marriage. Just around the corner was the Saloon and Cascade Hotel, built in 1903. Today, it’s the location of the Homestead Café, which shares the space with the Canyon Life Church.
Mark Nelsen, a fourth-generation Montanan, and his wife, Jessica, were living in Minnesota but moved back to Cascade in 2013 to start the church. The church purchased the building in 2015 and renovation started. With a commercial kitchen in what was formerly the saloon, it seemed a sensible choice to convert the space into a family restaurant for the benefit of this rural community. Remodeling continues on portions of the building, sprucing up the sanctuary and remodeling the former hotel rooms on the second floor into Sunday School rooms. “I keep hoping I’ll find an original sketch of Russell’s hidden away in one of these old walls we’re tearing apart. Heck, we’ve even found a few bullet holes in the walls," Nelsen said with a chuckle.
While I chated up Nelsen, Joe Voss stopped in to pick up an order. When I asked about his occupation, he replied with an ear-to-ear grin, “I’m a turd herder.” Huh?
Nelsen explained he is the public works director for the town, and I chalked up Voss' job description to small-town humor. I asked if he was taking the food to go because of the coronavirus. “No," he said, "I’m just hungry and have to get back to work. It doesn’t get any better than this place — food is always fresh.” Next through the door was Shelley Von Stein, making a mad dash to pick up caramel rolls for her kids, who are out of school due to the virus. The rolls were their reward for helping out with cows and calving on their ranch. “I’m a roll regular,” she gushed. She said she and a friend make a point of coming into the Homestead Café every week to have a roll and coffee. “Friendship is so important in this day and age. You have to make an effort to maintain it,” she said. On her way out the door, she shouted, “Don’t miss the jalapeño popper panini —they’re the best!”
Mary Lemieux was behind the counter, waiting on customers. Nelsen pointed out she is the heart and soul of the café. Mary wears many hats — manager, cook, waitress and chief bottle washer. She found her way to Montana from Alaska back in 1993 and settled in Cascade. She can’t say enough about the folks in town calling them “the most beautiful people, and they probably don’t even know it.” Except for Sunday and Monday when the café is closed, Mary is there running the show. During the summer, she comes in on Sunday, to prepare the “On The Go Fisherman’s Sandwich Lunches” for some of the guides on the Missouri.
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My friend Gayle Fisher from Great Falls drove over to join me for breakfast. It was mandatory I try the pecan caramel roll, although the bread pudding, made from leftover caramel rolls, called my name as well. Then there is the egg bake — a recipe from Nelsen’s grandmother. Fisher opted for the egg bake, I settled on the roll, and we exchanged bites. Simply delicious! Nelsen joined us and opted for the gluten-free jalapeño popper panini. Nelsen said that when they first opened, the menu included deep- fried options, such as French fries. The learning curve of a café is always challenging, so they shut down for the first winter to reassess their menu and develop healthier choices. Deep-fried food is no longer an option. I’m confident that whatever is served is crafted with the best of care in a nurturing environment.
The café serves breakfast (available all day) and lunch Tuesday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. A pleasant option while waiting for your meal is to browse the gift section of the café, featuring a variety of locally crafted home decor, photographs, paintings and quilts, as well as Montana-made huckleberry products. There is also a small library for patrons to check out donated books.
For breakfast, there is your standard fare of eggs, breakfast meats, hash browns, and toast. Baked oatmeal, biscuits and gravy, and of course, the caramel roll, with or without pecans, round out the options. In addition to a great cup of java to wash down that first meal of the day, customers can order a latte, mocha, cappuccino, or iced espresso.
For lunch, panini choices include a chicken bacon ranch, jalapeño popper, ham and cheese, chipotle roast beef and cheddar, and spicy Italian. All are served with sea salt kettle chips. On the lighter side, the Homestead features taco, chicken Caesar, spring, garden and chef salads. Soup-and-sandwich or soup-and-salad combos are popular with the locals.
Long gone are those rough-and-tumble days of Charlie Russell’s generation when cowboys rode into the dusty streets of Cascade looking for a hot meal and a shot of whiskey. The town hasn’t lost popularity, thanks to the fact it hugs the hugely popular Missouri River. Drift boats have replaced horses, and fishing rods have replaced the six-shooter. If you stop by for a meal, you’ll likely hear an earful about the spring weather or calving season. That’s how it goes in Montana’s small towns.
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
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