For Paul Rebich, a connection with the past is never far away. On any given
day, four generations of Rebich family history are right under his feet.
For a hundred years, cattle bearing his family's O-Bar-R brand have grazed
the same fields just south of Dillon, Montana. The rhythm of his work --
from calving season to haying season and back again -- is largely unchanged
from his great-grandfather's time.
The 27-year-old rancher's future is also right here. In the trailer he
and his wife call home, he's slowly building an international
cattle-breeding operation -- on the Net. Ultimately, Rebich would like to
run a Web-based, breeder-to-breeder virtual marketplace.
Technology of one sort or another has been at home here for a long time.
For previous generations, rural electrification and telephones spelled
comfort, convenience and economic opportunity. Today, the Internet is
slowly creeping into the daily life of Dillon, where an estimated 35
percent of the 4,004 residents are online.
While some in this cattle town see the Net as just one more strike
against a hard-won way of life, Rebich and others are finding novel ways to
have the ''Big Sky'' lifestyle and a digital future. In this corner of
paradise, a tech revolution is quietly being fought one person at a time.
Southwestern Montana is not an easy place to make a living. Rebich, who
routinely puts in 12-hour days on the ranch, pays himself a salary of $800
a month. It's no mystery why he would hustle so hard to have a life here:
Beaverhead County, cradled on three sides by the Continental Divide, is
one of the last best unspoiled regions of a state that calls itself ''The
Last Best Place.'' The trophy trout, the alpine meadows so green they'll
make your eyes ache, the whole ''Big Sky Country'' riff -- it's all true.
at Dillon-Net central
Ken and Nellie Bandelier spent much of their careers in Dillon working
on the bleeding edge of computing. Between the two of them, you could say
they have more than 40 years of accumulated geekitude. Nellie, a former
elementary school teacher, and Ken, a former biology professor at Western
Montana College in Dillon, were both using computers in their classrooms
back in the bad old days when the only educational software available was
the stuff you wrote yourself.
After the Bandeliers retired in 1988, Ken kept a hand in the digital
world. Five years ago, after they secured a home dial-up Internet account
through the college, Nellie started writing an Internet column for the
Dillon Tribune. Before long, she was inviting readers to meet at her house
to share ideas about how the Net might help their community.
Less than a year after Nellie started the column, the Bandeliers
launched Dillon-Net with a single computer donated by United Way.
Today the community technology center provides public-access terminals
and training at 10 sites in town and 14 locations in nine outlying
communities. The smallest Dillon-Net outpost is in the school in the town
of Grant (population: 6). In truth, Dillon-Net is more of a loose confederation
than a network. The central office of Dillon-Net supplies basic training
and some ongoing support, but each individual outpost must provide
everything else -- volunteers, Internet service and electricity. The
central organization's annual budget: $10,000.
The shoestring success has not escaped notice in the world beyond
southwestern Montana. Dillon-Net has been a finalist two years running in
the AOL Foundation's Rural Telecommunications Leadership Awards. It has
also picked up honors in a Swedish telecom project competition.
Dillon-Net central is two rooms in the back of the ''English
Professional Building,'' a reconfigured cinder-block gas station now shared
by a doctor, a dentist and an optometrist. Like just about every other
private non-profit in the country, it's overcrowded with mismatched
hand-me-down furniture. The seven computers -- each of which sports its own
dustcover hand-sewn by students at the high school -- all share a single
56K data line.
About 100 Dillon residents get individualized help at the main office
each week. The Dillon-Net style of instruction could best be characterized
as viral: A volunteer shows a new Web-authoring trick or application to
Nellie, who teaches one of the schoolkids who are usually hanging out in the
afternoon, who teaches the local artist, who teaches . . .
''A lot of people who walk through that door have never touched a
computer before,'' says Glenna King, the local United Way executive
director, who puts in weekly stints as a Dillon-Net volunteer. ''They say:
'I want to get on the Internet. Can we do that today?' We can try. We start
by learning how to work the mouse.''
'The Big Hole' meets
the killer app
To see a community that's considered remote by Montana standards, head
west from Dillon over 40 miles of sometimes-paved road, cross two mountain
passes and drop into the Big Hole Valley, referred to by everyone
hereabouts as simply ''The Big Hole.'' When you see some buildings by the
side of the road, you are in downtown Jackson (population: 35 people and 18
dogs). On the left, in the weathered 103-year-old IOOF hall, lives the Big
Hole's ambassador to the digital world, Judy Halazon.
Halazon, a successful graphic artist until multiple health problems put
her on permanent disability in 1994, met Nellie Bandelier four years ago,
just as Dillon-Net was taking off. ''I'd never even turned a computer on --
not any computer,'' she recalls. ''And I just looked at her for the longest
time and thought, 'C'mon, honey, this is not my ball of wax.' '' But it
was. A basic Windows PC in the corner of Halazon's joyously cluttered
living room is Jackson's Dillon-Net outpost.
At the ragged edge of civilization, in places like the Big Hole, it is
flat-out impossible to get away from humanity. You don't have to like your
neighbors, but you need them. People watch out for each others' kids and
animals. Literally or figuratively, Jackson's residents mind their
neighbor's business. ''Everybody helps everybody out here,'' says Halazon.
Over four years, Halazon has found a new role for herself as the den
mother to the Big Hole's budding digital elite. Ranch families from up and
down the valley, migrant workers and bike tourists passing through the
region all rely on her for guidance and a line out to cyberspace. When they
can't come into town, they call and Halazon reads them their e-mail.
''It gives me something to do,'' says Halazon. ''When I first started
this, with the multiple sclerosis, I didn't know if I'd get the hands back.
I couldn't get up and down the stairs. There was a lot of information and
support on the Internet. I'm one of the lucky ones with remitting MS that
might never come back again.''
Halazon's unpaid job is to make the Internet relevant in a place where
the main enterprises -- chasing cows and putting up hay -- haven't changed
very much since the arrival of the telegraph. She's been called on to
advise and assist on everything from marketing the work of local
craftspeople to relaying messages for stranded travelers.
Although it took a couple of years for Jackson to warm to the Internet,
the word is out that this is something of practical value. A killer app for
the typical Dillon-Net customer in the Big Hole: express-shipped tractor
parts. ''It's sinking in with people that they can get a better price, they
can see what they're getting and they don't have to waste the time
driving,'' says Halazon. ''With these tractors, some are 2 years old, some
20 years old, 15 different brands, and when something goes haywire you end
up calling all over the country trying to fix it. Bingo, you get it on the
Internet and it just amazes them.''
At the time Halazon set up shop she knew of just three
Internet-connected computers in the Big Hole, which she guesses has a
population of about 150. Now, she figures 25 or 30 residents who used to
rely on the Dillon-Net machine have gone on to procure their own.
Halazon's Dillon-Net outpost cost $1,674 to operate in 1999 -- most of
that going to paper and printer cartridges. Internet access and phone
charges through the local mom-and-pop operator, Southern Montana Telephone,
run $32 a month. She gets about $75 a year in donations. The rest is out of
her pocket. As she is quick to point out, people are used to getting by
under less-than-ideal conditions out here. She does wish she could get more
RAM, though. She's been waiting six months and there just isn't anyone to
make the drive out from Dillon to put it in.
Ranch hands job hunt;
shoppers have choices
As is probably the case in the rest of America, the No. 1 driver for
getting rural residents to make that initial foray into the wired life is
family communication. Digital culture amplifies and extends networks that
are already important in people's lives.
And right behind family e-mail is shopping. It would be hard to
overestimate just how much of a social leveler e-commerce has been for
rural folk who have never had access to the selection and competitive
pricing of suburban malls. When a routine shopping trip to Butte, 40 miles
away, can burn half a day, as one Dillon resident put it, ''you get to love
Amazon. To be able to get a book in two days is almost a revelation in this
Halazon says the Net has particular value for the ranch hands who
typically work six days a week and often lack the transportation to get
into even Dillon. ''It's either rich or poor here, there's no in-between in
this area. You either own the ranches or you work on them,'' she says. ''I
have ranch hands -- they generally make $400 a month plus room and board --
come in and use the computer to get better jobs elsewhere.''
For Dillon, the virtual world's economic impact hasn't been easy to
spot. There is a growing (but hard to quantify) tourism component to the
local economy -- fly-fishing outfitters, dude ranches and guides -- that's
using the Web to market Dillon to the world outside Montana. But actual
e-commerce appears to be limited to a handful of individuals selling crafts
and that class of pseudo-collectible known sub rosa as ''junk we found in
the barn'' on eBay.
Great Harvest builds
learning community online
When it comes to using the Net as a business tool, the most conspicuous
model is the Great Harvest Bread Company. Pete and Laura Wakeman, a pair of
late-model hippie capitalists originally from Connecticut, founded the bakery
in 1975 and then switched from making bread to franchising bakeries three
years later. Today Great Harvest is a closely held empire of 140 bakeries
in 40 states, with $60 million in annual sales.
Franchising is a quintessential information-intensive business, one
that's usually run on the old command-and-control model from headquarters.
Great Harvest, on the other hand, is largely a network of peers. Seven
years ago, that network began moving away from newsletters and telephones
to computers, first over the CompuServe online system and now via the Web
and e-mail. Today three of the 27 people in the Dillon home office work in
''We teach people how to set up and run great little whole-wheat
bakeries. Think of us as a for-profit university,'' says Great Harvest
Chief Operating Officer Tom McMakin. It's not a purely virtual corporation
but rather a brick-and-mortar company with a virtual strategy at its core,
he explains. As owners share information from recipes and training advice
to marketing strategies, the private Web site's discussion archives are
slowly growing into the institutional memory of the organization. ''What
we've done is spend just about all our energy and resources linking
together a giant learning community,'' says McMakin.
By Dillon standards, Great Harvest provides premium-quality jobs. Mining
and timber have been in decline for many years with no realistic hope that
they're coming back. Cattle ranching, grains and hay -- risky businesses
even in good times -- are what keep the region running. Beaverhead County's
median income is 16 percent below the national average, and it's not
uncommon to see people working two or three part-time, $7-per-hour jobs to
If another Net-dependent employer offering high-wage jobs like Great
Harvest were to consider locating in Dillon today, it would probably decide
to look elsewhere. Qwest (formerly U S West), the monopoly phone carrier in
town, has a critical bandwidth shortage in the county. Because Qwest's
lines from Dillon to Butte are full, the local Internet service provider
and seven other businesses and institutions endure long waits for
high-capacity T-1 lines.
Rather than invest approximately $3 million to run fiber-optic cables
along the 40-mile route, Qwest recently struck an agreement with Three
Rivers, the independent phone company in the neighboring territory. Three
Rivers is extending its fiber network to Dillon and may begin carrying
traffic to Qwest's facilities in Butte as early as next month.
Beaverhead County, Montana's largest, covers over 3.5 million acres --
5,500 square miles. That makes Garth Haugland the top government executive
for a territory nearly as large as Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.
The burr-cut former game warden and wildland firefighter who chairs the
Beaverhead County Commission is also the rarest of political creatures --
an elected official incapable of spin.
The chances of Haugland uttering a disingenuous word are about equal to
the chances he will show up for the next commission meeting sporting a
ponytail and an earring. This blunt, you-heard-it-from-The-Man quality has
earned him the grudging respect of some rather diverse audiences. When
30,000 New Age vagabonds tripped into Beaverhead County for the Rainbow Family
Gathering this summer, the Rainbows -- no fans of authority figures --
christened him ''Big Dog.''
Haugland, not the type to be easily pushed around, is feeling some
pressure these days. He says the pressure to take Beaverhead County
government into the Internet age is not coming from his own constituents.
''We're being pushed to e-government, being pushed nationally and by the
Montana Association of County Officials,'' he says. ''I've talked to a lot
of people who come in here and want some information. They don't want to
talk to a machine. They want to talk to that lady behind the counter. Now
how are we going to do the Internet if we can't even get the phone system
to work? That's reality.''
What has the Internet really meant to Dillon? ''I don't know,'' he says,
shaking his head slowly. ''I don't deal much in that. Nellie Bandelier, she
gets to chattering like a tree full of magpies over this stuff and I tend
to mentally tune her out.'' Haugland tried a computers-for-dummies course
once at the college. ''Within an hour, I was so far behind I excused myself
and didn't go back,'' he says. ''I honestly don't have an interest in it.''
Talk in the commission chambers turns to how the children of Dillon,
raised with computers in the home, will be natives in the digital world
whereas their parents shall always be immigrants. Big Dog lets fly with a
fat stream of chewing-tobacco juice and gazes out the courthouse window
toward downtown. ''I don't plan to immigrate,'' he says flatly.
Slow is faster than
'not in my lifetime'
Haugland's jaundiced view is probably the majority sentiment in Dillon.
While a significant contingent of their neighbors is on the Net -- about
the same proportion as anywhere else in rural America -- many people here
don't see any relationship between digital technology and their lives.
What's behind the ambivalence? First, this has always been a place where
the pace of change is somewhere between slow and ''not in my lifetime.'' Farmers
are still divided over the switch from rectangular hay bales to round. And
there are a lot of people who moved here for what Dillon isn't. It isn't
Silicon Valley. It isn't Seattle. And it isn't the kind of yuppified,
BMW-driving Boutique Montana scene that many believe has ruined the
The real network infrastructure of Dillon has nothing to do with the
Net. On a busy Friday night at Las Carmelitas, you could spend 10 minutes
getting from one side of the one-room restaurant to the other. That's about
what it takes when every other table is occupied by a neighbor, a client,
your sister's bridesmaid from 20 years ago or that best friend from third
grade. In Dillon, network access means you get the real estate and cattle
news first -- from an old man sitting in a muddy pickup truck in front of
the post office. This is a place where you ask for a phone number and they
give you four digits. If you don't know the missing ones by heart, then you
don't have network access in Dillon.
''A lot of folks who live here do so because it is the way it is, and
they don't want to see that change,'' says Dillon-Net volunteer King, an
Indiana native. ''A lot of people are afraid this computer technology is
just going to bring in a lot of stuff that they moved away from -- hectic
lifestyle, high stress. Folks here don't want it. People here are certainly
not backward, but I do think they're cautious as to what's brought in. What
they're really guarding is the quality of life.''
Nobody in Dillon knows more about cultural barriers to new technology
than Frank Odasz, the Johnny Appleseed of community networking. The former
oilfield roughneck and dude ranch manager founded the legendary Montana
education network Big Sky Telegraph in 1988 and spent the next 10 years
delivering training over slow 2400-baud modems to rural educators in more
than 100 one- and two-room schools.
These days, when he isn't preaching self-empowerment and digital culture
to marginalized groups ranging from impoverished youths in Mississippi to
Eskimo communities above the Arctic Circle, he's here in Dillon.
''The general mentality is that the Internet is a time-wasting toy, best
suitable for kids,'' says Odasz. ''There are real-world issues -- cutting
alfalfa, water shortages, forest fires -- and the Internet doesn't address
the physical realities of what most rural life is about. People need to see
models that relate to them and are replicable for them.
''The idea of sitting in front of a computer from 8 in the morning till
5 in the evening sounds like the death knell to the lifestyle and sense of
personal pride these people have,'' he says.
Even if a dozen Web-based companies lined Dillon's main drag, cattle,
alfalfa and hay would still be the foundations of Beaverhead County for a
long time to come. Four years ago, John Maki, the county agricultural
extension agent, teamed up with Barrows and Odasz and convened a town
meeting to explain how the Net might enhance the lives of Dillon residents.
Today, Maki guesses that 20 percent of the ranchers are on the Net. Most of
those who have computers, he says, are just using them for record-keeping.
Silicon Valley mindset
in Big Sky Country
If there is one person who has a fighting chance to break through the
agricultural world's indifference toward all things Internet, it's Rebich,
the fourth-generation rancher with one boot firmly planted in the proud
traditions of Old Dillon and the other in cyberspace.
He isn't killing time, waiting as the reins of the family empire
gradually pass into his hands and those of his brother. Rebich, an
entrepreneurial soul who would be right at home in the venture-cap jungle
of Silicon Valley, has other things on his mind. There's the set of cabins
he'd like to get going to capitalize on the world-class trout streams that
pass through his land. And there's his own business, Big Sky Beefalo.
Rebich figures beefalo, a cattle crossbreed containing three-eighths
buffalo genes, is just the ticket for health-conscious carnivores who will
pay premium prices for super-lean meat. Instead of selling his small herd
for slaughter, he wants to concentrate on developing superior bloodlines
and selling stock, embryos and frozen bull semen to other breeders. And the
key to marketing the breeding venture is www.beefalobeef.com.
The no-frills site, designed by Rebich and his wife, Kimberly, is as
much a learning experiment as it is a commercial venture. While the
Internet amounts to less than 1 percent of his total annual revenues from
beefalo, traditional cattle and hay, fully 80 percent of the breeding
business is already coming from the Net.
The biggest international response so far is from Australia. ''That's a
tough, tough country,'' Rebich explains. ''The cattle have to be very
hardy. Beefalo is very interesting to them for that reason.'' It's entirely
possible that the small herd grazing on Rebich land five miles south of
Dillon will eventually be the primary genetic stock for most of the beefalo
Rebich is not the only rancher dabbling in beefalo -- and that may lead
to his next venture. There are between 200 and 300 beefalo breeders around
the country and today they keep in touch through two large registry
organizations. It's Rebich's hope to someday organize them into a Web-based
marketplace and registry. ''Most of those people are still in an
agricultural frame of mind. I'm stepping out on a limb a bit to do the
registry online and try to connect those breeders,'' says Rebich, ''but I
believe in the long run it's going to help my operation.''
As Rebich squires a visitor across the marshy fields in his pickup, he
runs through where he's going and where he wants to be -- all the angles,
all the possibilities out there just waiting to be tested. Beefalo or not,
you just know this guy isn't going to rest until he finds a way to come out
Dillon will change
as much as it wants
In terms of a digital future, Dillon is holding some winning cards --
Dillon-Net is a nationally renowned success story, as is Great Harvest
Bread Company. Every day Judy Halazon and a legion of other volunteers are
using the Net to give some of the most isolated people in the country small
comforts most of us take for granted.
While digital culture slowly weaves its way into the fabric of daily
life, it hasn't overwhelmed Dillon. Nor has it threatened the proud
ranching culture that came before. Indeed, as much as it may vex an
outsider to admit it, much of old Dillon is working just fine without the
DIALING UP FROM A HOME WHERE AOL DOESN'T ROAM
BIG NET FIRMS SHUN SMALL TOWNS
Dillon, Mont., is fortunate to have two Internet service providers --
Blue Moon Technologies and MCN -- that are both just a local phone call
away. While suburban and urban dwellers take it for granted that there will
be many Net providers with points-of-presence (local access numbers)
competing for their business, rural residents can't make that assumption.
America Online, Earthlink and the other national ISPs are non-players
throughout much of the rural West.
Nobody can say with any certainty just how much of rural America must
make a long-distance call to reach the Net. Researchers Shane Greenstein of
Northwestern University and Tom Downes of Tufts University did the only
major study of local Internet access in rural markets two years ago. They
found that in 11 percent of all U.S. counties -- home to between 1 percent
and 2 percent of the U.S. population -- there was no local Internet service
provider. And while 92 percent of the country had a competitive market, 6
percent of U.S. residents living in rural areas had only a single Internet
service provider in their local calling area.
Where Internet service exists, chances are it's supplied by a locally
owned mom-and-pop provider or the local phone company. (According to
Forrester Research, rural residents are twice as likely as the nation as a
whole to get their Net access through a local phone company.) Greenstein
estimates that it takes 200 subscriber households to make a mom-and-pop ISP
viable and 1,000 to justify a point-of-presence by a national ISP, which
makes it unlikely that any town under 5,000 population will get service
from a national provider.
-- David Plotnikoff