Discover Montana's National Parks through the lens of Brian D’Ambrosio, guest writer
The Grant-Kohrs Ranch, known as “Montana’s first ranch,” provides a historical glimpse into the real life of cowboys and ranchers in the early days of Montana.
Carsten Conrad Kohrs arrived in Montana Territory in 1862, a 27-year-old German immigrant seeking gold or silver. Instead Kohrs became a butcher—a trade he had learned at his relatives’ meat-packing operation. However, he lacked beef and so began raising cattle independently. Cattle were in somewhat short supply in frontier Montana, and Kohrs traveled around the territory to purchase the best animals.
In 1865, Kohrs, in search of land where he could fatten his cattle for market, offered Johnny Grant $30,000 for what is now the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. Grant refused at first but was keen to sell the next year, and Kohrs, sensing Grant’s motivation, haggled him down to $19,200 for the land, herds, buildings, and equipment. Kohrs must have felt he had gotten a great bargain, considering that Johnny Grant’s 1862 log home was regarded as one of the finest houses in the territory. (Part of Grant’s new house would function as a trading post. A cascade of gold miners were entering southwest Montana, and Grant tried accommodating demand by opening a livery stable, saloon, blacksmith shop, sawmill, flour mill, and other businesses.)
Kohrs put his money and time in mining, real estate, and water rights, while his half-brother and partner, John Bielenberg, oversaw the ranching side. In the endless, bitter winter of 1886–87, most of Kohrs’s open-range cattle perished. He lost 23,000 head, and by spring found only a single herd of “purebred shorthorn bulls” that had survived in the somewhat warmer conditions in the Deer Lodge Valley. With the shorthorn herd, profits from other ventures, and a $1 million loan from a Butte banker, Kohrs began buying the leftovers of numerous bankrupt cattle operations. In 1890, Kohrs had repaid the loan, recovered his losses, and added to the ranch house.
To the back of the old house, Kohrs attached a brick addition for a formal dining room, a large kitchen, and second-story bedrooms. The barns and stables were extensive. At the peak of his success, this cattle baron managed a 10-million-acre cattle empire that spawned prosperity in four states and two Canadian provinces and delivered 10,000 head annually to Chicago stockyards, earning Kohrs the nickname, “Montana’s Cattle King.” Kohrs played a role in Montana’s political history by serving as a territorial and state senator.
Kohrs reduced the size of the ranch in the 1910s. In 1918, Kohrs sold all but the Deer Lodge property, where he lived with his wife and two surviving daughters until his death in 1920. His grandson, Conrad Kohrs Jr., sold the ranch in 1972 to the national park system.
The U.S. government preserves the historic ranch to interpret the significance of the nation’s frontier cattle era, and cattle still graze there as they have for more than 150 years. The 1,500-acre ranch includes 90 structures, 26,000 artifacts, and 100 shelved feet of business records dating back to when Kohrs acquired it in 1866. The old 23-room ranch house is beautifully intact—a delightful mix of Victoriana and frontier living. Kohrs’s wife, Augusta, acquired an impressive array of valuable furniture. The outbuildings contain old tools, horse-drawn conveyances, and period equipment. The old bunkhouse was in many ways the center of the ranch; here, the hired men ate, drank, played cards, and slept while in camp. Their spare rooms and modest environs contrast remarkably with life in the main house.
The ranch is located north of Deer Lodge on Main Street. It’s open 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily May 1 to October 1 and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. the rest of the year; admission is free. The house is open for guided tours only, and no more than 12 people may tour at once. Admission is on a first-come, first-served basis.
Contact the Grant-Kohrs Ranch office for more information at 316 Main Street, Deer Lodge, MT, 59722, (406) 846-3388.