Grant-Kohrs Ranch – History on the Montana Range

Deer Lodge, Montana.

We left I-90 at the Deer Lodge exit 184 to visit the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. Dedicated to the American Cattlemen of the 1860s through 1880s, the ranch is an example of a successful ranch preserved and commemorating the era of wide-open ranges, large herds, and cowboys. Once encompassing 10 million acres, the Grant-Kohrs Ranch was an example of the wealthy cattle ranches of an era that lasted only some 30 years.

The park area of the ranch is fenced, but looking past the fences to the west and north, one can get the notion of wide-open spaces. It is easy to imagine large cattle herds grazing on the lush prairie grasses. When one area became overgrazed, there was plenty of fresh grass just over the next hill.

It’s a bit of a walk (about a quarter-mile, 400 meters) from the parking area and visitor center to the main ranch buildings. There is parking available closer to the park buildings for those with handicap parking stickers. These days, a railroad overpass crosses the path to the ranch house and the other nearby buildings.

The era of the million-acre cattle ranches and open range ranching didn’t last long partly due to the large number of homesteaders heading west and staking homestead claims to 160-acre parcels, each fenced to mark the homesteader’s boundaries.

That railroad overpass is still in use today as we crossed under it, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train approached. A closer view of the engine is included in the gallery at the end of this post.

There are over 80 outbuildings on the property, about a dozen or so are open for visitors to explore, some with equipment of the day, some with collections of one sort or another, yet others furnished as they would have been in the days when cowboys lived and worked the ranch. Guided tours of the ranch and tours of the house are generally available though they have been discontinued for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. You can find a map of the site with the location and function of each building here.

I regret not getting a better image of the large ranch house for this post, but that large brick structure in the image above is the western end of the 8,000-plus square foot (743 sq m) ranch house.

Park personnel, appropriately masked due to the pandemic, were available for some of the outdoor exhibits on the day we visited. A typical chuckwagon was manned by a park employee who answered questions and provided background on the functions of these portable “kitchens” and their deployment on the working ranches of the day.

The park still features a working ranch, now a much more manageable 1600-acre facility with a small herd of cattle and some working horses. On the day of our visit in late September, the seasonal park employees were coming to their last few days before the summer exhibits closed. The park remains staffed to support visitors who stop by during the winter.

In 1863, Johnny Grant began ranching the property, but by 1866, he moved to Canada, selling the ranch to Conrad Kohrs for $19,200, a princely sum of money in those days. Over the years, Kohrs expanded the area of the ranch and increased the size of his cattle herds. By the 1880s, Kohrs became one of the area’s wealthiest cattle barons.

One interesting piece of equipment is the haystacker shown in the image above. During the harsh Montana winters, cattle still needed to be fed. Ranchers cut and stored hay in large stacks to provide feed for the cattle during the long winters.

A miniature haystacking machine is available to show people how they work. As we walked by, a woman and two kids were “stacking” some grass that was cut and available for demonstrating the stacking operation. Those youngsters started with that sliding element at the base of the ramp. They piled loose grass on the ramp at the base of the slide and then used ropes to pull the pile of grass to the top of the ramp where it fell into the opening about half-way up the ramp. Lowering the slide then allowed them to put some more grass on the ramp and slide it up the ramp, making the stack a little taller.

In the 1970s, legislation was passed in the 92nd Congress that authorized the establishment of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. The owner of the ranch at that time was Conrad K. Warren, a grandson of Conrad Kohrs. As the ranch was maintained in the family since 1866, and the owners kept historical records for the long-term, the property came to the National Park Service with a detailed history of the ranch operations over the years. 208 acres of land containing buildings and equipment such as buggies, sleighs, and other equipment were purchased, and a scenic easement that permitted the continuation of agriculture and ranching activities was provided for another 1280 acres.

I submit for your review a gallery of images captured at the Grant-Kohrs Ranch. Click on an image to enlarge it for better viewing and to scroll through the gallery.

John Steiner

 

 

 

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