Finding BIG LOVE in a small town

“It was love at first sight,” Justin Countryman said of meeting his now wife, Jessica Countryman, back in 2008. She had come to Four Winds Ministry Center all the way from Virginia on a mission trip with hopes of eventually settling in Big Timber. 

Before their introduction, Countryman didn’t date much — as a single father who steered clear of the bar scene, his options were limited. But when he saw Jessica he just knew, and when she returned to Virginia the pair stayed in touch, sometimes spending hours on the phone getting to know one another. 

They played the dating game the old fashioned way — a way that few are wont to do in these modern times where instant gratification is king. 

“It really allowed us to build a foundation that was built on knowing each other in every way but physically, which I think really helped,” Justin Countryman said. 

Four years later, Jessica returned to Big Timber — this time for good, and she and Justin began dating officially. 

“Because of our belief system, we had both been praying that we would know who we were supposed to spend the rest of our life with, that we wouldn’t waste time or feelings or emotions on other people ... so before we even went on a first date it was openly talked about and it was understood that we would date with the intent to marry,” Justin Countryman said. “My parents have been married for almost 50 years and Jessica’s parents have been married for 35 years, and they both told us that it takes work ... I think both her and I went in knowing that it was going to take work.” 

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The Countrymans are among many locals who had to search beyond the borders of Sweet Grass County to find love. With a limited population, few avenues for meeting people and a lack of anonymity, small-town dating is ripe with obstacles. 

In Sweet Grass County, 62 percent of residents over the age of 15 are married, leaving 38 percent, or 1,387 individuals unmarried. Of those individuals, just 16.7 percent fall within the most common marriageable age range of 20 to 39 years old, equating to an estimated 231 single residents. 

Local resident Amber Overstreet said the small pool of singles and lack of venues for meeting people makes dating difficult. 

“Just going to the bar by yourself, which is like what you’re supposed to do, is a suicide mission,” Overstreet said. “There’s like a 1 percent chance that you’ll meet someone.”

Overstreet added that should you meet someone, people are quick to jump to conclusions about the status about your relationship. 

“If you’re two local people, it’s hard to ... spend time in public when you’re getting to know each other before you’re dating without people just deciding that you’re dating ... the stakes are higher I guess because people’s eyes are on you,” Overstreet said.

She said past experiences at the bar haven’t proven successful for meeting a match — it’s a place she’ll sooner frequent to spend time with friends, rather than seek out a partner. 

Overstreet would prefer participating in an activity such as a sports team where the primary objective isn’t hooking up. She says the trouble in Big Timber is that there’s no meeting place for the middle-of-the-road sort of folks — people who aren’t particularly religious nor too heavily immersed in the bar scene.  

“It seems like you either go to the bar or the church, or the bar and the church,” Overstreet said. 

The best option, from her perspective, is to be introduced to a potential date through a friend. That way, she knows that person is “pre-vetted, so you’re not halfway wondering if they’re a serial killer,” she said with a laugh. 

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Timber Bar bartender Ross Ellett said he hasn’t witnessed many successful relationships begin from behind the bar, but rather the opposite. 

“You see more infidelity than people actually going out. It is sad, but that’s kind of the way it is,” Ellett said. 

He typically observes more single men out than women and recommends they adopt a less aggressive approach if they want to be successful.

“You should not be too forward — you should not just try to buy her a drink and hope things take off. Find a nice way to start a conversation because you’re not going to meet a girl in a grocery store or nothing — you’re more apt to meet them here,” he said. “If they’re talking with their friends and stuff, it’s not really polite for you to go up and just start chatting them up. I would more hang out in the background and wait for my chance.”

And as for pickup lines? Ellett says they’re a no-go. 

“Pickup lines are cheesy, that’s why they’re called pickup lines,” he said. 

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Former Big Timber resident of four years, Rev. Tim Shirley said lack of privacy was a major hurdle to finding and fostering a successful relationship. Shirley came to Big Timber from Atlanta, where he was used to a more anonymous existence. 

“What you have to learn is everybody’s going to know your business. If you’re out with somebody, everybody sees you and so there are no secrets when it comes to dating in Big Timber. You have to be ready to be public about that,” Shirley said. “If you’ve got somebody coming over for dinner, people are gonna see that car, they’re gonna know they’re at your house. If you’re wanting to keep your private life private, go out of town as much as possible.” 

Shirley had two relationships during his time in Big Timber and said he tended to meet people in random or accidental ways; such as by striking up a conversation at a social function. While Shirley contends that Big Timber isn’t exactly a single’s hot-spot, he found it easier in some ways to get to know people.

“The one thing about being in a small town is you know who’s dating who so you tend to know who’s available and when they are available,” Shirley said. “... (and) you see the same people frequently. Casual conversation happens over and over rather than just one time. In other words, you may go in a store and see the same person over and over. They get to know who you are, and you get to know who they are ... I think it’s easier to get to know people in a small town (because) there’s a certain defensiveness and boundariedness among bigger city people. There’s a built-in trust level in a smaller town setting than there isn’t in a bigger town setting.”

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By Mackenzie Reiss / Pioneer Staff Writer

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For more on how technology and dating culture has changed in the last century and the sweet story of Selma and Forrest Gibby's courtship, pick up a copy of the Sept. 10 edition of the Pioneer or subscribe to our e-edition. Current subscribers are provided access to the e-edition at no additional charge.

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