The Big Hole Valley of Beaverhead County is wide, expansive, challenging, and cattle country without par in Montana, and has been so for over 100 years. Livestock means hay and just outside of Wisdom is a beaverslide haystacker. These wooden pole and plank devises originated in the Big Hole Valley in the early 1900s and can be found in other
prosperous valleys of western Montana. Their purpose was simple–to stack huge piles of hay, sometimes reaching 30 feet in height, that would be left in place, in the open. In the western Montana climate, there naturally would be some waste, but enough hay would remain usable to keep a ranch well supplied for 4-5 years.
The Big Hole Valley was a place of interest to me in 1984, noted by the image above, for how ranches used logs to build the physical infrastructure–the log snake fences, the gates, the log barns and other ranch structures–of their properties.
What I didn’t give as much attention to, already commented on in this blog at numerous places, are the irrigation ditches, a more consistent supply of water that allowed ranchers to expand production.
Public interpretation of the ranching landscape was, not unexpectedly, meager back in the day. This sign made by the local VFW post 3040 called the valley the “land of 10,000 haystacks.” Wonderful ranching techniques had lessened the number of haystacks and haystackers found through the valley, but still some remain of the old tradition.
State officials have worked with local ranchers to give travelers places to stop and consider the depth and wealth of the landscape before them. Below are views of the Carroll Ranch, an early Big Hole Pass ranch that is now part of the larger Hamilton Ranch.
There are several interpretive signs to tell the story of the Hamilton Ranch, which encompasses several historic buildings, and wonderful views of the valley.
Then a separate marker explains the beaverslide haystacker, placed at the pull-off on Montana Highway 278, giving travelers one of their best opportunities to look at one up close (there is also one in the Deer Lodge Valley at the Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site.)
The Big Hole Valley may no longer be the land of 10,000 hay stacks but it still is a working landscape of ranch families, building new traditions as they also conserve past ways and landscapes in Montana.