Bitterroot Valley: Agricultural Wonderland

Ravalli Co Museum 1As the historic promotional image above conveys, the Bitterroot Valley is an agricultural wonderland, but one dependent on irrigation and agricultural science. This image is on display at the Ravalli County Museum, which is located in the historic county courthouse from the turn of the 20th century.

Irrigation in Hamilton coLocal ranchers and boosters understood the economic potential of the valley if the land was properly nurtured.  Some of the best evidence today is along the Eastside Highway,

both north and south of Corvallis stretching onto Darby.  Lake Como, located between Corvallis and Darby, supplied much of this water:  it began as a private irrigation effort in 1909, and the dam has since been rebuilt to keep the water flowing, in addition to creating one of the favorite summer recreation spots in western Montana. In recent years, an interpretive marker by the U.S. Forest Service underscores the dam’s significance.

The water was just part of the story.  There were key farmer organizations such as the Grange, which still has a lodge in Corvallis.  This grange dates to 1884, which Elijah Chaffin led a local effort to join what was then a new national effort to help farmers and ranchers fight back against the railroads and other corporate interests.

An important partnership between the Bitterroot Valley Irrigation Company and the State of Montana came in 1907 when the state, through its agricultural extension program at Montana State University, established what was first called the Horticultural Sub-station and later the Western Montana Experiment Station on 20 acres of land donated by the irrigation company outside of Corvallis. Now known as the Western Agricultural Research Center (see below), the station allowed agricultural

Western MT experiment station 3 Hamilton co

scientists to “determine, by testing, the most profitable varieties of apples, pears, cherries, plums, walnuts, peaches, apricots, strawberries, bushfruits, and vegetables.” Initial success came with apples but after that waned, “the center’s emphasis shifted to the development of small fruits and the sweet cherry industry in the Flathead [Lake] area.”

The nearby Swanson’s Orchards are just part of the industry spawned by the combination of land, water, and science.  Charles J. Swanson began the ranch in 1909, turning to an apple crop by 1910.  Although the apple industry in the Bitterroot is greatly diminished since the boom of the 1910s, Swanson’s still operates as a family-run orchard. Throughout the valley are ranches that trace their roots to the 1880s to early 1900s and the first

307 Hanker Lane at RR tracks, Corvallis vic

Bailey Ranch, Hamilton Co

IMG_2810railroad spur through the valley.  With its Four-Square style dwelling, the Bailey Ranch, immediately above, is a good example of the places of the 1910s-1920s.  The Popham Ranch, seen below, is one of the oldest, dating to 1882.

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Popham Ranch,  460 Popham Lane, Corvallis vicinity NROne major change in the Bitterroot over 30 years is the fruit industry has diminished and how many more small ranches and suburban-like developments crowd the once expansive agricultural wonderlands of the Bitterroot. The dwindling number that remain deserve careful attention for their future conservation before the working landscape disappears.

Lazy Drive Ranch at Eastside Hwy, Ravalli Co

 

 

 

 

Ranching Landscapes in Beaverhead County

 

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OK Ranch outside of Wisdom

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

Beaverslide just NE of wisdom

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.

Beaverslide, just N of Wisdom

big Hole Valley 1984The 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.

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IMG_2989What 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.

Big Hole Valley local sign MT 278

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.

Beaverslides, MT 278 E of Jackson

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.

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There are several interpretive signs to tell the story of the Hamilton Ranch, which encompasses several historic buildings, and wonderful views of the valley.

hamilton ranch, Big Hole Pass

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.

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