Cooney State Park, lake, Montana, paddling, Beartooth Mountains

A Job Leads to a Home and a Community

Summer means exploring our state, and at Prairie Populist we’re joining the thousands of Montanans visiting the amazing lands, lakes, and historical sites that make up Montana’s state parks. We hope you’ll check back all summer and join us as we explore what these parks mean for the people of our state and how they help make Montana a place unlike any other.

Steven: “Mommm!!… MOMMM!! I’m drifting away!”

Stevie: “Steven! Again?! Ughh, okay I’m coming!”

Stevie gets up from her bench gingerly placing Goldie on a picnic blanket and begins trudging through the muddy banks to rescue her son… again. Just as the mucky shoreline reaches calf deep, Steven springs up from his tube to his feet.

“Just Kidding, I can touch!” he says in a soft childish voice. Steven giggles as Mom, now very annoyed, just turns and walks back to the shoreline, picks up Goldie, and applies more sunscreen to the small child’s forehead.

Goldie Casper


Audrey Casper


Stevie and Goldie Casper


Stevie Casper has been visiting Cooney State Park since she was a young girl. Having grown up just a short distance to the east near Joliet, she recalls Cooney before it received most of its development.

“The only thing that has changed is the amount of people living in the area,” Stevie recalled, referring to the subdivision that had sprung up on a hillside near the lake.

To Stevie, Cooney State Park is a place for her to relax and let her kids run free. She likes the view of the Beartooth Front from Cooney Lake. It’s almost as good as the one she gets from her porch.

Just as we were making our goodbyes another “MOMM!!” was cried out. This time, Audrey, her second youngest, was indeed being blown into the deeper waters of the adjacent bay.

“Hold on, I’m coming”

Stevie Casper rescues Audrey from being adrift in Cooney Lake.

There is no question that Cooney has become a busy place. As one of Montana’s busiest state parks, Cooney sees around 190,000 visitors a year. This may be in part due to the park’s proximity to Billings, only an hour drive away.

“The park is too popular,” said Marina Matheson, the park’s manager.

The park faces problems with shoreline erosion, aging infrastructure, and at times overcrowding. But all in all, it’s a quick escape and the perfect place for families to spend time together.

“Father’s Day is our busiest day of the year,” said the park’s loyal maintenance keeper, James Jeffcoat.

Cynthia and James Jeffcoat

James and the rest of the Cooney staff have been busy in the past couple of years improving the parks recreation programs. Cooney now hosts a star-gazing party, and even operates a small rental program that James’s wife, Cynthia, helped get off the ground. Kayaks and paddle boards can be rented from the park’s office Monday through Friday 10 a.m to 6 p.m.

James and Cynthia have an interesting history here at Cooney. They’re a happy couple who first visited the park a little over four years ago.

“We camped out at Marshal Cove a while back on a camp-to-work program,” James said.

The couple was trying to make a living with what little resources they had at their disposal. The program offered them a place to keep their mobile home and offered a small monthly stipend. At first they picked up simple tasks like picking up trash and cleaning out campfire rings, then accepted additional tasks where they were necessary. James even went as far as to spend a couple of weeks fixing the irrigation system in Marshal Cove.

Eventually James was placed “in charge” every time the campground host had to run into town.

Near the end of that first season, the park’s manager at the time offered James a maintenance position the following season. He has now served Cooney State Park for four years, with many more to come.

James and Cynthia  work hard, and dedicate much of their time to the park’s upkeep. The park’s budget only allows them 40 hours a week, but this doesn’t mean James and Cynthia stop working when they have maxed out their hours. All additional time the couple put into the park is simply out of dedication and a love for this place.

So what keeps James coming back?

“It’s the diversity of people I have the opportunity of meeting,” James said.

He and Cynthia have built a sense of community here at Cooney. They know the regular campers and kids whom they have watched grow up over the years. They have their special places around the lake and stories to go with them. And they have made Cooney their home.

The couple was kind enough to invite me over for dinner. We ate in the comfort of the park’s machine shed, and shared stories of life’s ups and downs.

Their job at Cooney provides them with food, shelter and happiness. But above all, it provides them with a sense of security that comes with being a part of a community. Their hard work shows across the park’s well-maintained lawn and clean facilities. They are well respected by their manager, Marina, and the community that lives around the park as a whole.

Life does throw curveballs. As this summer’s season was just beginning, James and Cynthia returned to the park after a hard winter. Without a trailer, they slept in their car for the first week.  But it wasn’t long until a local and old friends of James’ gave them a camper for the summer to call home.

—August Schield

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