MOLT – The Prairie Winds Cafe achieved its own fame over the last 12 years, known as the place to be for bluegrass music, tasty food and good vibes every Saturday morning.
During the week — after the tourists and weekend day-trippers cleared out — the cafe served as the community gathering place for neighbors from miles around.
But Friday afternoon, as many of the cafe’s regulars chatted and ate as they usually do, they made sure to savor the moment with their friends a little longer. After all, it could be the last time.
Although owners Fran and Jerry Urfer have decided to retire, many of the daily Praire Winds customers had smiles on their faces, remembering the good times of building community over the last decade.
The couple started the cafe in 2001, transforming an old, run-down hardware store into a sparkling, spacious and welcoming restaurant.
Bob Chambers lives nine miles from the cafe. He stops in five days a week to chat with his friends and get a bite to eat on the way to his ranch.
“This is where I talk with all of my friends,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll help each other haul stuff, and that’s kind of where we talk about it, is right here. It’s kind of like an informal office to a lot of us in the morning.”
His friend Wes Agnew agreed with him from across the table.
“It’s not just a cafe,” Agnew said. “It’s a social gathering place.”
The Urfers have been trying, unsuccessfully, to sell their restaurant for some time now. And without any offers, they have decided to retire, a little saddened by the act of closing the doors on what has become such an anchor for the community.
“Today is kind of bittersweet,” Fran Urfer said Friday. “I’m happy the work’s over — the stress is over — but I hate to leave the community in a lurch.”
Fran said she wasn’t sure what the future exactly holds, but she’s excited for it. One thing for sure, she says, is completing a knee replacement surgery, and spending more time with her son, who lives in North Dakota.
“My husband retired two and half years ago, and we haven’t gone anywhere or done anything, because you’re kind of tied down in a business like this,” she said. “Because if you don’t give it your all, you might as well not do it.”
And by giving it their all, the Urfer’s inadvertently gave the area more than just a restaurant.
Bob Chambers talked about how the community came together for him. When he experienced a tragedy in his family, he fell behind on his field work. The community pulled together, teaming up with their own combines to help him finish harvesting.
A home for bluegrass
Larry Larson is the man credited with shepherding the tradition of bluegrass music on Saturdays. The idea grew out of music being played at the farmers’ markets in Billings.
Fran Urfer then opened up her restaurant to the music. Larson said it started out small.
“We played a time or two, then got some other people to play,” he said.
The music grew into a weekly tradition that obtained regional notariety.
Larson said the place had a special atmosphere that really connected people. On Friday at lunch, he took a break from joking around with his wife, friends and server to explain what he meant by that.
One example, he said, was on busy Saturdays when table space was at a premium. Smaller parties would be asked to share tables, creating spontaneous conversation and allowing patrons to discover what connects them.
“What a great way to come to the knowledge that we’re all the same,” he said with a smile, right before digging into a delicious ice cream sundae prepared by Fran Urfer.
Prairie Winds Closing Party
Larson will be one of the many musicians playing at a party on Saturday to celebrate the last 12 years of the Prairie Winds Cafe. Larson plays guitar in a five-piece bluegrass band called Highway 302, named after the road that connects Billings and Molt.
All of the bands that have ever played at the restaurant were invited to participate, and Larson said seven bands were confirmed as of Friday afternoon.
The music is scheduled to start at 8 a.m., and Highway 302 will be the last band to play, taking the stage from about 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.