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The Montana Traveler

A Hospitable History:

The Grant-Kohrs Ranch

National Historic Site

by Lyndel MeikleDan Gard

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 52 (Spring 2002), 72-75; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2002.

Big Hole National Battlefield Photo by:Donnie Sexton
In a pastoral setting on the northern edge of Deer Lodge, Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site offers a glimpse into ranch life spanning the years since Johnny Grant established the operation in 1862. The Grant home described in the quotation below is the two-story building facing the lower left corner of the photograph. Ranch visitors can explore the ranch and its numerous buildings, including the bunkhouse, seen here flanking the house on its right. Credit: Mike Steen, photographer, courtesy the author

Among the historic travelers who have passed through the Deer Lodge Valley was the anonymous correspondent who, in December 1865, wrote to the Virginia City Montana Post, telling of the booming young town of "Cottonwood, alias Deer Lodge" and describing a visit to the Johnny Grant home, a house that stood out in an era of one-room cabins and the occasional tent:

The dwelling house, which is large and two storied, is by long odds the finest in Montana. It appears as if it had been lifted by the chimneys from the bank of the St. Lawrence and dropped down in the Deer Lodge Valley. It has twenty-eight windows with green-painted shutters and looks very pretty."1

Still as attractive and as welcoming as it was in the 1860s, the ranch house is now a part of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historical Site that commemorates the open-range cattle era as well as the twentieth-century ranching industry through the stories of John F. Grant, Conrad Kohrs, John Bielenberg, and Conrad K. Warren.

John Francis Grant, the first owner of the Deer Lodge Valley ranch, was born the son of a Canadian Hudson's Bay Company agent in the Edmonton, Alberta, area in 1831. Young Johnny was raised by his grandmother in Three Rivers, Quebec, a pampered child who never so much as carried in a handful of kindling, but in his mid-teens, he joined his father at the Hudson's Bay post of Fort Hall, Idaho, and was plunged into a rough and hard-working world.

As the fur trade era gradually faded, Fort Hall traders had discovered that they could swap fresh livestock to immigrants heading for Oregon and California, generally getting two footsore animals for a fit one. The entrepreneurs rested the tired animals in Montana's sheltered valleys during the winter and herded back them to the Oregon Trail in the spring.

After wintering livestock in the Deer Lodge Valley in 1857, Grant decided to settle there, first at present-day Garrison in 1859 and later on the north edge of Deer Lodge in 1861, and he built a life for himself in the valley. His alliances with women from several tribes in Idaho, Montana, and Canada resulted in twenty-one children, and he also good-heartedly opened his home to several abandoned and abused children, adopting them as casually as he might have picked up stray puppies.

Eventually, Grant's cattle, mostly fine English breeds, ranged across thousands of acres of public land in the valley. His home was also a trading post, stocked with goods purchased in St. Louis and brought by steamboat to Fort Benton. There everything from blacksmith's tools to groceries to papers of needles was loaded into Grant's twenty-eight freight wagons for the 180-mile journey to Deer Lodge.

Grant's home was open to all, and his hospitality was legendary. Charmed by Grant, gold seeker Edwin Ruthven Purple wrote:

Let me wish, for the open hearted manner in which he bestowed his hospitality on the "stranger within his gates," that this pleasing life of his will not be invaded, and that he may long live in the enjoyment of the blessing with which a bountiful nature has so lavishly surrounded him.2

Unfortunately, the "invasion" Purple had hoped would not occur was already in progress. The 1862 Montana gold rush brought not only miners to the territory but all those who-legally and illegally-preyed upon the miners. Grant disliked the changes and in 1866 sold his ranch to Conrad Kohrs and moved to Canada. One hundred and five other families, an eclectic mix of Mexicans, Canadians, Americans, and members of several tribes, shared his feelings and left at the same time. Many settled near Grant in the Carmen, Manitoba, area.

Conrad Kohrs, a German immigrant whose gold fever had led him to California and Canada, arrived in Montana in 1862, first finding work as a butcher's assistant in the boomtown of Bannack. In four years, he owned his own shops and his ranching ventures, including the ranch he bought from Grant for $19,200, were providing a storage facility for the beef that supplied his shops. Kohrs eventually purchased, homesteaded, or leased nearly 30,000 acres in the valley.

Conrad Kohrs purchased the ranch in 1866, and he and his partner, half-brother John Bielenberg, built an operation of some renown. The home ranch in the Deer Lodge Valley grew to 30,000 acres, and the partners ran cattle on some 10 million acres throughout the West, shipping nearly 10,000 head a year to Chicago. At the home place, the men worked to improve livestock bloodlines through the introduction of purebred Shorthorn and Hereford bulls, and they gained a reputation for their blooded horses, both Thoroughbreds and draft animals. Credit: From Michael A. Leeson, ed., History of Montana, 1739-1885 (Chicago, 1885), p. 555

With his half brother and partner John Bielenberg, Kohrs came to control about 1 million acres in eastern Montana, and their cattle grazed on 10 million acres of public land in four states and Canada. They shipped nearly 10,000 head of cattle a year to Chicago. At the home ranch, they built a reputation raising registered Shorthorn and Hereford cattle as well as Thoroughbred and draft horses.

In 1868 Kohrs married Augusta Kruse, also an immigrant from Germany. It was Augusta who created the ranch house's Victorian elegance, adding her own fine needlepoint to the furnishings from Chicago, New York, and Europe. Ornately framed English and German prints on the walls revealed to guests her European background; indeed, her classical tastes may have made her unsympathetic to the work done by a cowboy employed in their eastern Montana operation: Charles M. Russell.

With their fortunes secure and homesteaders gradually fencing the open range, Kohrs and Bielenberg sold their eastern Montana holdings and all but 1,000 acres surrounding the home ranch in the opening decades of the 1900s. The ranch might have disappeared entirely, as so many did in response to drought, depression, and sodbusters, had it not been for Kohrs's grandson, Conrad Kohrs Warren. Long employed at the ranch, first as a cowboy, then as foreman, Warren bought the old headquarters in 1940 for $407,000 and preserved it intact. Warren brought the operation into the twentieth century, raising registered Hereford cattle, though not without setbacks. A noted breeder of Belgian draft horses, he found his team drivers and his market disappearing as World War II took men from agriculture and hastened the transition from horse power to tractors. A genetic disorder, dwarfism, that devastated the Hereford industry in the mid-1900s did not spare the Warren ranch. But throughout his economic struggles, Warren never considered breaking up the home ranch, and it stands today as much a testament to his dedication as a monument to Grant, Kohrs, and Bielenberg.

In the late 1960s, the National Park Service (NPS) was looking for a site to tell the story of the open-range cattle era, and Warren was looking for a way to preserve the ranch beyond his lifetime. It was a perfect match. In 1972 Congress designated the ranch a National Historic Site, and on August 25, 1972, Richard M. Nixon signed the legislation making the designation official.

The 1,500-acre ranch today is a virtual time capsule of ranching history. Furnishings and buildings from Johnny Grant's day, the Victorian elegance of the Kohrs' tenure, and the more prosaic structures of Conrad Warren's time remain. Using the meticulously kept records of financial dealings and correspondence, the nps can document every aspect of ranch operations from the 1860s to the 1970s. Visitors can see eighty-eight historic structures, take a self-guided tour of outbuildings (not to be confused with outhouses, of which there are two, including the Roosevelt Room, built during the Great Depression), and tour the ranch house with a park ranger. From rocking chairs on the back porch of the ranch house, visitors can enjoy the view enjoyed by presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who sipped lemonade there while passing through on his campaign train in August 1897.

The nps, which administers the ranch, raises cattle and keeps horses to perform traditional ranch work. Particularly in the summer season, there are often demonstrations of blacksmithing, and under the shade of enormous cottonwood trees, a chuck wagon cook spins trail-driving yarns. A stroll to the Clark Fork River may reveal deer, fox, and an astonishing variety of birds.

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site is open year-round, closing only for the New Year's, Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Admission is free. The ranch is open 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with extended hours in the summer. School groups are welcome. On the second full weekend in July each year, the ranch celebrates Western Heritage Days with branding, music, children's programs, and a variety of other special activities, and on August 22-25, 2002, artists from across the United States will set up set up their easels to capture the ranch's essence in a variety of media. Every year on the first Sunday of December the ranch hosts a holiday open house with Victorian decorations and special activities. For further information, call (406) 846-2070, or visit the Grant-Kohrs website at www.nps.gov/grko.

LYNDEL MEIKLE is a National Park Service ranger whose thirty-three years in the nation's parks include twenty-six years at Grant-Kohrs Ranch, sixteen as the site's blacksmith. She is the editor of Very Close to Trouble: The Johnny Grant Memoir (1996); contributor to Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Montana History (2000); and writes a long-running weekly column that appears in the Helena Independent Record.

1. Virginia City (Mont.) Montana Post, December 16, 1865.
2. Edwin R. Purple, Perilous Passage: A Narrative of the Montana Gold Rush, 1862-1863, ed. Kenneth N. Owens (Helena, Mont., 1995), 85.

 


From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 52 (Spring 2002), 72-75; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2002.

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