Ranches and the Montana landscape

 

Hirschy Ranch, Big Hole Valley, MT 278, 45 mmHere is a property category that could be, probably should be, a blog of its own–the ranching landscape of Big Sky Country.  Historic family ranches are everywhere in the state, and being of rural roots myself, and a Tennessee Century Farm owner, the ways families have crafted their lives and livelihood out of the land and its resources is always of interest.

Wibaux Co Wibaux ranch house 1988

Wibaux ranch house, 1985.

When I carried out the 1984-1985 fieldwork for the Montana state historic preservation plan, a handful of ranches had been preserved as museums.  On the eastern end of the state in Wibaux was the preserved ranch house of Pierre Wibaux, one of the 1880s cattle barons of eastern Montana and western North Dakota.  The ranch house today remains as a historic site, and a state welcome center for interstate travelers–although you wish someone in charge would remove the rather silly awning from the gable end window.

Wibaux Co Wibaux Pierre Wibaux ranch NR 1Preserving merely the ranch house, and adding other period buildings, is one thing.  The massive preserved landscape of hundreds of acres of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch in the western end of Montana is a totally different experience. This National Park Service site

not only preserves one of the earliest settlement landscapes in the state it also shows how successful ranches change over time. John Grant began the place before the Civil War: he was as much an Indian trader than ranch man.  Grant Kohrs however looked at the rich land, the railroad line that ran through the place, and saw the potential for becoming a cattle baron in the late 19th century.  To reflect his prestige and for his family’s comfort, the old ranch house was even updated with a stylish Victorian brick addition. The layers of history within this landscape are everywhere–not surprisingly. There is a mix of 19th and 20th century buildings here that you often find at any historic ranch.

When I was working with the Montana Historical Society in 1984-1985 there were two additional grand ranches that we thought could be added to the earlier preservation achievements.  Both are now landmarks, important achievements of the last 30 years.

Bitterroot Stock Farm painting at Ravalli Co Courthouse 1The Bitter Root Stock Farm, established in 1886 by soon-to-be copper magnate Marcus Daly outside of Hamilton, came first.  I can recall early site visits in 1985–that started the ball rolling but the deal wasn’t finalized for several years.  All of the work was worth it.

Here was one of the grand showplace ranches of the American West, with its own layers of a grand Queen Anne ranch house (still marked by the Shingle-style laundry house) of Daly’s time that was transformed into an even greater Classical Revival mansion by his Margaret Daly after her husband’s death.  It is with us today largely due to the efforts of a determined local group, with support from local, state, and federal governments, a group of preservation non-profits, and the timely partnership of the University of Montana.

Daly Mansion by A.J. Gibson

 

The second possibility was also of the grand scale but from more recent times–the Bair Ranch in Martinsdale, almost in the center of the state. Charles Bair had made his money in sheep and wise investments.  His daughters traveled the world and brought treasures home to their Colonial Revival styled ranch house.  To get a chance to visit with Alberta Bair here in the mid-1980s was a treat indeed.

Once again, local initiative preserved the ranch house and surrounding buildings and a local board operates both a house museum and a museum that highlights items from the family’s collections.

The success of the Bitter Root Stock Farm and the Bair Ranch was long in the making, and you hope that both can weather the many challenges faced by our public historic sites and museums today.  We praise our past but far too often we don’t want to pay for it.

Tash Ranch, 1200 MT 278 Hwy, Dillon

That is why family stewardship of the landscape is so important.  Here are two examples from Beayerhead County.  The Tash Ranch (above and below) is just outside of Dillon and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  But is also still a thriving family ranch.

The same is true for the Bremmer Ranch, on the way to Lemhi Pass.  Here is a family still using the past to forge their future and their own stories of how to use the land and its resources to maintain a life and a culture.

MT 324, mm 23, log ranch later visited with group

One family ranch that I highlighted in my book, A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986), was the Simms-Garfield Ranch, located along the Musselshell River Valley in Golden Valley County, along U.S. Highway 12.  This National Register-property was not, at

Golden Valley Co Ryegate Simms-Garfield Ranch NR 3first glance, architecturally magnificent as the properties above.  But in its use of local materials–the timber, the rocks from the river bluffs–and its setting along a historic road, this ranch is far more typical of the Montana experience.

Similar traditions are expressed in another way at a more recent National Register-listed ranch, the Vogt-Nunberg Ranch south of Wibaux on Montana Highway 7. Actively farmed from 1911 to 1995, the property documents the changes large and small that happened in Montana agriculture throughout the 20th century.

Wibaux Co Vogt-Nunberg Ranch NR MT 7 4

The stories of these ranches are only a beginning.  The Montana Preservation Alliance has done an admirable job of documenting the state’s historic barns, and the state historic preservation office has listed many other ranches to the National Register.  But still the rural landscape of the Big Sky Country awaits more exploration and understanding.

 

Montana’s Golden Valley–County, that is

MR line in Musselshell Valley (p84 25-30)

Abandoned Milwaukee Road corridor along U.S. Highway 12, Golden Valley County, MT, 1984

Golden Valley County, Montana, established with much local fanfare and excitement in 1920, was one of the last counties created in Montana.  Today, with just over 1100 residents, it remains one of the county’s smallest in population.  Yet, like other places along U.S. Highway 12, it has been a favorite jaunt of mine since 1982.  The highway connects with Montana 3, which roughly parallels an old stagecoach route, and Highway 3 going south takes you directly to downtown Billings.  Thus, beginning with my many projects with the Western Heritage Center in Billings in 1982, I quickly found out that taking U.S. 12 between Helena and Billings not only cut off miles from the journey but was always more scenic and more interesting due to the remnants of roadside architecture and bits of the Milwaukee Road corridor that followed the Musselshell River in this county.

Golden Valley Co, near Cushman (p84 27-9)

U.S. 12 and Milwaukee Road routes along Musselshell River, Cushman, MT, 1984

As you leave Billings and head north of Montana 3, this state road intersects with U.S. 12 at Lavina, one of the county’s two incorporated towns, and a place that has held steady in population since 1980 (probably due to its location and proximity to Billings).  The Adams Hotel, built in 1908 with a year of the railroad’s arrival, struck me immediately–a huge two-story Colonial Revival style building–in 1984 in the middle of nowhere.  But the Adams,

Adams Hotel, Lavina, Golden Valley Co (26-26)

listed in the National Register of Historic Places, spoke to the town founders’ hopes for the future–and the need for a large hotel for all of the traveling businessmen, and homesteaders, the Milwaukee planned to attract to the area.  As the image above shows, in 1984 the Adams needed a friend–someone who would take on a huge frame building and find a new life for it.  In the next decade that friend came and the Adams came back to life, as the 2006 digital image below shows.

Lavina

The next decade has not been so kind.  Owners have placed a clock in the cornice, eliminating the original dating of the building, plus brass lanterns have appeared on the second floor and it needs painting and repairs.  But the building is still open, and in use, and those are huge steps toward compared to 30 years ago.

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The town’s general store, Slayton Mercantile, which is also on the National Register, is doing better, and has become one of my frequent stops in the region.  This two-story brick commercial building also spoke to town’s hope for a bright future in the second decade of the 20th century.  Travelers along the road, and the town’s steady population, keep it in business today.

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2007

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2007

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2013

Slayton Mercantile, Lavina, MT, 2013

The historic two-story with full basement yellow brick Lavina Public School is not on the National Register but this early 20th century building is another key landmark.  Its exterior architectural features speak to the restrained styles of public architecture often found in the region. Another community landmark is the joint United Methodist and Lutheran church of Lavina–the two congregations share this Gothic-styled early 20th century building to sustain it and themselves as viable congregations.

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The fate of beautiful rural churches is not a happy story throughout the northern plains, but Golden Valley County has done better than many.  Another of its early 20th century churches, the Lutheran Church at Barber, needed help in the early 1980s when I first surveyed it.  Local residents in the last 30 years restored the building, opening it for services, and listed it in the National Register.  The original open bell tower has been covered and a handicap ramp for attendees have been added–steps that have helped to keep the building part of the county’s otherwise disappearing historic landscape.

Grace Lutheran Church, Barber NR (p84 27-29)

Barber Community Church, Golden Valley County, MT, 1984

Ryegate is the county seat and an important crossroads for ranchers and travelers.  Its population too has remained relatively steady since the end of the Milwaukee Road in 1980–273 then and 245 in 2010.  It was never a big place, with the largest population coming in 1920 when the county began, 405 residents.  The historic grain elevators

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speak to the importance of the railroad, and highway, while the landmark Ryegate Bar has served thirsty locals and travelers for decades.  Today it is most famous for its annual testicle festival–a new tradition launched since the survey of 1984-1985.

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Two buildings from the county’s beginnings are a one-story brick Classical style bank building, which like so many in the region closed its doors during the homesteader bust and the Great Depression, and the Golden Valley County Courthouse, appropriately the town’s most imposing building.

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Ryegate also has its acknowledged historic sites:  a town project in 1976 marked the area’s association with Chief Joseph’s 1877 trek across eastern Montana while on the

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town’s eastern border the Sims-Garfield Ranch, a rambling assortment of vernacular-styled log and stone outbuildings and two vernacular style residences is the only town property listed in the National Register. Nestled between U.S. Highway 12 and the rocky bluffs of the Musselshell River, it is evocative of the county’s roots as a ranching landscape, a place of work and pride that survives today.

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