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.

 

U. S. Highway 89 heading south

After taking a long look at the depth of nationally significant heritage stories and historic places in and around Great Falls, I want to change regions, to the Upper Yellowstone valley and get there by one of my favorite western highways, U. S. Highway 89.

Cascade Co Neihart US 89 NAs the highway leaves the central plains east of Great Falls, it heads east through coal country (see the earlier post on Belt) and south into the Little Belt Mountains and the old mining towns of Monarch and Neihart (above).  Both Cascade County towns are proud of their heritage, a story embodied in the Monarch-Neihart School, a wonderful bit of log craftsmanship from the New Deal era, a WPA project finished in 1940 that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Another point of pride is the ongoing renovation of Neihart’s Great Northern Railroad depot, a mark of the town’s beginnings, which also serves the greater Monarch-Neihart area as the local museum and heritage center. While on the other side of the road, another turn of the century historic building has been converted into a self-described junk shop where you can acquire bits and pieces of the past.

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After traversing through the mountains, by a sky resort, you suddenly drop back into the central Montana plains, a landscape shaped by the Smith River, one of the state’s most compelling natural and historic landscapes.  You are now in Meagher County, discussed in an earlier post, where the town of White Sulphur Springs is the county seat. It too has its New Deal landmark, the Classical Moderne styled county courthouse.

IMG_7160When I last visited there in 2015 the combined route of U.S. 89 and 12, which passes in front of the courthouse and the center of town, was being rebuilt, giving the historic business district the look of a ghost town.

The Fort Logan Road, on the east side of town, was not under construction, allowing for easy access to the other significant transportation link, the railroad, and the still surviving White Sulphur Springs depot, a place certainly worth of listing in the National Register.

Meagher Co White Sulpjur Springs depot 3U.S. Highway 89 continues south, crossing the historic corridor of the Milwaukee Road at Ringling, another Meagher County town discussed in an earlier post, marked by the landmark St. John’s Catholic Church.

IMG_9498Travelers continuing south soon find themselves in Park County, entering the Shields River Valley just north of Wilsall, where highway markers and monuments, like that for “Thunder Jack” (2006) by sculptor Gary Kerby, convey the significance of the place.

Park Co US 89 Thunder Jack statue N of Wilsall 3

IMG_1158Wilsall was not much a place 30 years ago, a small trade town on the edge of a Northern Pacific Railroad spur line, a past still recalled by the tall elevator and old railroad corridor.

Park Co US 89 wilsall elevator 1But the growing popularity of the Shields River Valley has led to a new boom in Walsall, with old banks converted into bars and old general stores

being revived and expanded. The town has its own museum now, in a converted gas station from the 1920s that served travelers and locals. The stories preserved there, along with the mural of Walsall over 100 years ago, show the residents’ sense of place and the past.

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Park Co US 89 wilsall mural

The next town down the old Northern Pacific line, Clyde Park, has a similar story of revival from 30 years ago. Glenn’s Shopping Center is still going strong, as is the town community hall across the street, and the town park is neatly kept and in regular use.

Park Co US 89 Clyde Park stores 1Clyde Park Tavern is still the place to go for an adult beverage, or two.  Historic grain elevators still serve local ranchers, marking the railroad line that defined the town’s landscape until the impact of the highway in the early 20th century.

The sojourn to the Yellowstone Valley will stop here, on the edge before we cross bridges, backtrack to Springdale and Fort Parker, before we explore in some depth Livingston, Montana’s gateway to Yellowstone National Park.

 

A second look at Ringling

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Ringling, a stop along the Milwaukee Road in northern Meagher County just off U.S. Highway 89, served as the eastern gateway for the railroad’s move west into the Rocky Mountains along its electric line.  From Ringling the Milwaukee passed through the famous Sixteenmile Canyon then crossed the Missouri at Toston and began its ascent in the copper kingdom of Butte.

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I had last passed quickly through the village in 2011 and its iconic Milwaukee Road combination depot was weathered but appeared as if it would yet survive for sometime.  Within four years, however, its fate was much more uncertain.  Roof decking is missing–will this now rare survival of the railroad’s corporate stamp on the northern plains survive till the end of the decade?

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Brumfield’s Garage is more an example of roadside architecture from the first half of the twentieth century than a building that dates back to the Milwaukee’s heyday.  Its vernacular interpretation of Art Deco styling by means of the four brick pilasters catches the eye–this adaptable property has been many things, and in my past visits has served as a store and as a bar.

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Ringling also retains its school–now a residence–another of the remarkable rural frame standardized designed schoolhouses found throughout central Montana. It sits south of the depot, as if the corporate and the public defined the north-south boundaries of the village.

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Still overlooking the town, and serving as an important landmark on U.S. Highway 89, is the historic Arts and Crafts-styled St. John’s Catholic Church, to which I have already devoted one post in this blog.  What I was pleased to find in 2015 is that some preservation work was underway–with weatherboards being repaired and replaced.  With a decent roof and a recent paint job, the church is in much better shape than many of its brethren across the region. The continued use of this Montana plains church as a “community church” is the best way to keep it alive in the 21st century even as the rest of Ringling shrinks and disappears from the Meagher County landscape.

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The Disappearing Act of the Milwaukee Road

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Montana State 294 is one of my favorite highways.  For Montana it is a short route, just around 30 miles between Martinsdale and where the road junctions with US 89 and meets up with Ringling.  But these 30 miles are packed–well in a Montana sense–with resources of the original mainline of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad (the Milwaukee Road) as an electric line, such as the roadbed that parallels the state highway above at Lennep–it now serves as a secondary dirt road for residents.

MR station

The Milwaukee maintained transformer stations about every 30 miles of its electrified tracks so AC power could be converted into DC current for its trains.  I apologize for the poor quality of my 1984 image of the station along Montana 294 but then it was still generating power for local use.  Thirty years later that had ended–the power lines were gone, taking away context from the building itself and leaving those who don’t know any better wondering why a big two story brick building was out here by itself.

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The station is about five miles west of Lennep, which I described in 1986 as “a tiny village where residents have preserved an old store and where the schoolhouse is still in use.”

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The school is now a residence and the store is still there, though not in business.

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The true landmark of the entire road is the Trinity Lutheran Church, built in 1910.  Its soaring Gothic bell tower, gleaming bright in the sun, is a beacon for anyone traveling along the road. It is one of my absolute favorite rural Montana churches and clearly eligible for listing in the National Register–as would be the entire remaining hamlet of Lennep.

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To the east of Lennep is Martinsdale, a tiny place that somehow has already managed two different blog posts about it.  Maybe that tells you that it too is a favorite place.  In 1984, its intact combination depot, what the Milwaukee called a “Standard Class A Passenger Station.”  This standardized design building, standing at the head of the town, spoke

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volumes of how the Milwaukee reshaped this landscape in the first decade of the twentieth century. But since this image from 2013 I have learned that the depot is gone–part of the roof decking was missing then so I am not surprised at the lost.  Just disappointed in the lack of vision of keeping this heritage asset together for the future.

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The news is not all bad from Martinsdale.  In 2013 the Stockmen’s Bank was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, only the sixth such place in Meagher County.  Yeah I know the photo above from 2007 shows it missing one entire bay from when it was converted from a bank into a garage.  But its brick construction and classical style made it

Renovations at the Stockman's Bank, 2013

Renovations at the Stockman’s Bank, 2013

a landmark in Martinsdale.  Can’t way to see its condition in 2015 because the town has several key buildings, and I just don’t mean the Mint Bar.

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I really mean the Martinsdale Community Center.  Rural reformers in the early 20th century pushed western communities to establish centers–where people could gather in a secular public space, vital for not only individual sanity but community togetherness in the dispersed population of the northern plains.  The center at Martinsdale has always been well maintained, and now that the depot is gone, it is the community landmark.

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Business, however, is not booming in Martinsdale.  The Crazy Mountain Inn serves as the local restaurant and lodging option, the older classic false-front Martinsdale Hotel is now shuttered.

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Even classic roadside institutions like the town’s two historic service stations/garages have closed–their mid-20th century designs are reminders of the days when automobiles came this way in numbers.

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Now let’s shift attention to the “eastern end” of this route, the town of Ringling, a place once of high hopes founded by the circus master John Ringling.  Like Lennep, the Ringling townscape is dominated by two elements:  the Milwaukee Road standardized depot–in

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better shape in 2011 than the Martinsdale station–and the sacred landmark that dominates the view from U.S. Highway 89 for miles:  St. John’s Catholic Church.  The church dates c. 1910 and is a wonderful example of Arts and Crafts style in an otherwise basic gable-front rural church building.  Although used much more sparingly today, it has been restored and maintained well.  It too is eligible I would think for the National Register.

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Montana 294, like the Milwaukee Road itself, is no longer a major artery–it wasn’t really in 1984 and it is even moreso in 2015.  But what remains is a reminder of how the Milwaukee Road shaped the state’s landscape for 100 years, leaving in its wake landmarks of transportation, engineering, architecture, settlement, and faith.

The Bair Ranch of Martinsdale, Montana

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In the early 1980s the Bair Ranch outside of Martinsdale, Montana, was almost a mythical place.  Curators and historians told me of wonders to be found inside, of an outstanding western art collection surrounded by the most eclectic mix of European antiques and decorative arts imaginable, especially for such an isolated spot.  When I visited the area for the historic preservation plan in 1984, locals again repeated the stories of the wonders inside, but they were wondering what would happen to it all once Mrs. Alberta Bair passed–she was in her eighties then.

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The Bair Ranch was a landmark for not just what was alleged to be insider–and the compelling, striking Colonial Revival design of the ranch house–but for the man whose empire it represented, Charley Bair, who first showed the stockmen of eastern Montana

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that wealth could be gained from sheep–hundreds of thousands on ranches both on the Musselshell River valley near Lavina and along the Big Horn River near Hardin–but also by translating that agricultural wealth into investments in banks and industry.  Bair was a stockman but his wife and daughters were more urbanities–and their Martinsdale home, with its irrigation ditch just outside the front windows, was proof.  This house belonged more on Summit Avenue in St. Paul than it did on the plains of central Montana.

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When Alberta Bair, the last of the daughters, died in the early 1990s, she confounded many by leaving the ranch house and its contents not to the state museum but to a local foundation.  When I visited the place almost 15 years after her death in 2007 it was obvious that the foundation had maintained the property–it looked much as it did when I had been there in the late 1990s–but its hours of operation were sorta unknown and it was just there–still a powerful physical statement but little interpretation available.

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In 2011 and 2013 it was a different world.  Rather than gathering people at the historic stock barn, there was a visitor center and a museum that could properly light and preserve not only key pieces of art and decorative arts from the collection but also serve as a place for small traveling exhibits, giving local residents a reason aways to return.

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The Bair Ranch was no longer just a mythic place–it was a destination.  And from talking with the educators and volunteers who were working there in those years, the obvious pride of place was apparent, but they also took great delight in seeing how outsiders reacted to this touch of elegance, in the middle of nowhere.

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Here was one of those places transformed between 1984 and 2014–and transformed into a huge heritage asset not only for residents but for heritage tourism throughout central Montana.  Certainly Alberta Bair left money–but it took some time for the foundation to find its legs and actually change the place from a preservation project into an education venue that could generate sustainable tourism.  By making a visit unique and special, the foundation has helped secure the future of the Bair Ranch and its story that sheep could pay, and pay big–for this century.  Just one of several stereotypes about the West and ranches smashed at this place outside of Martinsdale.

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Meagher County: Crossroads between East and West Montana

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Meagher County Courthouse, White Sulphur Springs, 2007. One of the best New Deal era courthouses in the state.

Meagher County has been a place that I drive through rather constantly.  If you take U.S. Highway 12 east/west or U.S. Highway 89 north/south–both are important historic roads–you pass through this county where the central plains meet the mountains of the west.  The county seat of White Sulphur Springs is near the crossroads of the two federal highways, and home to one of the great roadside cafes of the state, what we always called the Eat Cafe, since the only marker it had was a large sign saying “Eat.”

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And the old historic bar, the Bucka-Roo Bar , was not a bad place either to grab a beer on a hot, dry day.  It is not the only commercial building of note.  The town has both the

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classic Victorian era commercial block but also the 1960s modernist 1960s gas station.

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The Wellman Block, now home to Red Ants Pants, was built in 1911 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Red Ants Pants is the sponsor of an annual Americana music festival outside of the town that ranks as the highlight of the summer in this part of the state.  Next door to the Wellman Block is the historic Strand Theatre.

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The reason I came to White Sulphur Springs in 1984 was none of these places–it was to visit the local historic house museum, a granite stone Romanesque styled house known as The Castle.  It was rather amazing to everyone in preservation back then that a tiny town

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had tackled the tough task of preserving a historic house as a local museum–especially one so far away from the interstate visitor.  Byron Sherman had the house constructed in 1892, with rock taken from the nearby Castle Mountains.  This stockman wanted to show that livestock could pay, and pay well out in the wilds of central Montana.  It has been a tough go for The Castle over the last 30 years.  The local historical society built a new storage building adjacent to the house but the house itself doesn’t get enough visitors.  The town’s major landmark in 1984, it seems almost an afterthought today.

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That neglect is really no fault of the house, its story, or its keepers.  It is the reality after a nearby ranch house–famous in 1984 but closed to visitors, even someone as intrepid as me, back then.  Of course I am speaking of the Bair Ranch, east of White Sulphur Springs in Martinsdale.  Its story comes in the next post.

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