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ND Gives Town to MT

2/9/2004:

On this date in 1966, word came from Bismarck that a North Dakota town was going to be given back to Montana.

At that time, Westby was a town of about 300 people on the northern North Dakota/Montana border. Residents had been used to thinking that they were from Montana, but between 1963 and 1966, the official state map of North Dakota showed it as belonging to North Dakota. Montana, however, maintained that Westby folks were still part of big sky country, and no emergency meetings were held.

The problem stemmed from out east – Minneapolis to be exact. An official state “base map” is made for North Dakota about every 4 years. The firm that held the map-making contract was out of Valley City, but they made the mistake of subletting the contract to a firm in you-know-where.

Douglas Walby, who was the chief draftsman for the North Dakota Highway Department admitted that he knew about the land grab, but said that Westby wouldn’t be given back to Montana until 1967 when a new base map would be made.

“We know about it and intend to correct it,” he said. “We try to check the maps carefully each year, but in some instances, we’re pressed for time and miss some errors.”

When State Travel Director, James Hawley, was asked about the seizure of the poor little town, he said, “We think Montana people are fine individuals. We’d like to add them to our population since we’re such a sparsely settled state, but we intend to give the town back to Montana next year.”

To be fair, there is some honest confusion about who is what and what is whose. The town was only fifty years old at that point, and it honestly did begin as a North Dakota town – on July 1st, 1910, to be precise. But then the railroad – also from out east – came along in 1913 and built their rails two miles outside of town.

That didn’t make sense, so almost everybody moved closer to the tracks, and suddenly Westby was in Montana. Now, one needs to remember that the town was named Westby... West because it was so far west in the state, and by, which is Danish for town. By all rights, if Montana intended to keep the town, they should have done the proper thing and renamed it Eastby. But instead, Westby kept its name, and the old townsite became known as Old Westby.

With that kind of oversight, there was bound to be trouble. But when all is said and done, the town actually belongs to both states. Some folks built their homes on the right side of the tracks – that would be the North Dakota side – and those residents are actually North Dakotans. BUT... the post office is on the wrong side of the tracks, so everybody’s official address is Montana.

Whichever, it’s gotta be a nightmare for the IRS, which, come to think of it, also had its roots out east...

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm