Day 7, Sunday, July 22, 2018
Near Deer Lodge, Montana, there are a lot of working cattle ranches. There is also the Grant-Kohrs Ranch, a working cattle ranch that dates back to 1857, and is now a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service.
Johnny Grant came out west and began grazing cattle here in 1857, decided to stay permanently in 1859, and built a home in 1862. Despite that “permanent” intention, Grant found that once gold miners arrived in the area, life became a lot more difficult for him because he spoke French and the miners spoke English. He decided to sell the ranch in 1866 to Conrad Kohrs and head back to Canada.
Kohrs was born in Germany, moved to the United States at the age of 22 and earned his wealth following the gold rush to different areas and selling beef to the miners. Back then, cattle were grazed on the open range, but the winter of 1886-1887 was devastating to cattle ranches across the west, as the brutal cold and storms killed off more than 50% of all of the free range cattle. Many ranchers went bankrupt, but Kohrs was able to secure a bank loan to keep him afloat. He modernized his ranch, building fencing to contain the cattle and growing hay and other fodder to feed the cattle during the cold winters. These changes meant success for the ranch and he was able to pay off the $100,000 loan in less than four years.
Kohrs also modernized and added onto the house that Grant originally built. Kohrs added a large wing in 1890 and built many outbuildings, including a bunk house, blacksmith shop, horse barns, etc. In 1970, descendents of Conrad Kohrs were still running the ranch, and struck an agreement with the Park Service to sell the ranch, provided that it remained a working cattle ranch. The site was opened to visitors in 1977, and 17,095 people visited in 2012.
The ranch is free to visit and you can sign up for a ranger-led tour of the ranch house – there are no self-guided tours. From the outside, the home looks simple and unadorned, but I would certainly recommend the tour, as the home is lavish inside! Conrad Kohrs had the finest of furniture and housewares shipped to Montana for his wife, and no expense was spared. When the home was no longer being lived in as the children and grandchildren wanted something more modern, all the furniture was left inside and sold to the Park Service with the ranch. You can see exactly how the Kohrs lived! The home had all the modern amenities of the time, including electric lighting and indoor plumbing, and beautiful Victorian furniture. I really enjoyed the tour, but sadly, no photographs are permitted in the house.
You can also wander the grounds at your leisure, and taste cowboy coffee at the chuck wagon. I enjoyed talking to the woman at the chuck wagon, and she was very interested in hearing about the details of my trip. The coffee was actually pretty decent too, but leave the last swig in the bottom of the cup, because it can have coffee grounds in it! The method of making cowboy coffee is interesting. You boil the water, and add the ground coffee directly to the kettle, then use cold water and/or eggshells to get the coffee grounds to settle to the bottom after it steeps. You don’t strain the grounds out, so you have to be careful about pouring the coffee to make sure you don’t end up with grounds in the cup. It was interesting to see and taste!
I saw the blacksmith shop, and the horse barn where they have a collection of historic carriages and wagons. Mrs. Kohrs also kept a beautiful garden, which has been restored and maintained. I saw Texas Longhorn cattle, horses and chickens; the ranch has many more cattle out on the 1200 acres of the ranch. When you visit, you may see the ranch hands hard at work, doing things the way they did in the late 1800s; harvesting hay, feeding cattle, rounding up cattle, branding them, or taking care of the other animals. I didn’t see much activity when I was there, but I’m sure spring and fall are busier times.
At first I didn’t know what I was looking at, but after talking to someone, I learned that the ranch used (and still uses) a beaverslide to stack hay. The beaverslide was invented in Montana, and allowed ranchers to stack hay up to 30 feet tall. In this arid climate, hay could be stored outside in the weather, without having to worry about it getting too wet and rotting. I had never seen a beaverslide before; what an interesting invention!
It was a great visit, but I still had more sightseeing to do that day!