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Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site Offers Window Into the 19th Century


No visit to Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site should bypass the main ranch house, or the blacksmith shop. Kurt Repanshek photos.

A signature triplet staccato rings sharply across the ranch compound from the smithy's anvil in the blacksmith shop, signaling another creation from fire and iron. Though only symbolic these days, the hammering at Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site recalls perhaps the greatest cattle baron America ever produced and captures a moment in history depicted in Lonesome Dove.

A self-taught smithy, Lyndel Meikle can hammer you out a hoof pick in minutes, or offer you a slice of lodgepole pine tree trunk bearing the ranch's G-K brand even quicker. All the while the National Park Service interpreter not only stokes the fires but she keeps up a running dialog that takes you back into the late 1800s when Conrad Kohrs oversaw a 10-million-acre empire that fed his cattle on the open range in four states and two Canadian provinces.

That there's even a story to tell is just as mind-boggling as the size of the ranch. When the brutally cold and snowy winter of 1886-87 swept through the Rockies, it crippled many of the West's cattlemen. For Conrad Kohrs, however, his banker in nearby Butte, Montana, provided him with a $100,000 handshake loan that enabled him to rebuild the largest cattle empire the country has ever known.

The business deal was perhaps the shrewdest and most daring Conrad Kohrs executed, but it gave him the ability to restock his herds while other cattlemen -- some who lost 95 percent of their herds to that terrible winter -- went bankrupt. So successful was the move that the cattle baron paid the loan off in just four years.

Mr. Kohrs had come into the ranch in 1866 when he bought it for slightly more than $19,000 from Johnny Grant, a trapper-turned cattleman who had settled in Montana's Deer Lodge Valley in 1859 and made a living by trading one healthy cow for two weak ones from westward-bound emigrants.

While Mr. Grant headed north to Manitoba after the sale, Mr. Kohrs expanded the ranch immensely. Part of his 10 million acres included a 30,000-acre home ranch near present-day Deer Lodge. From that ranch he began shipping cattle to market in 1883 via a Utah Northern Railroad (later acquired by Northern Pacific) siding that ran through the spread. So successful were his operations that Mr. Kohrs expanded the original 4,000-square-foot ranch house to a sumptuous 8,800-square-footer for his wife, Augusta, decorated it lavishly, and took his family on European vacations.

The ranch ran a variety of cattle -- purebred Longhorns, Shorthorns, and Herefords. The latter two breeds were added because they endured Montana's harsh seasons more easily than the Longhorns. More importantly, they put weight on faster.

Today the ranch is a much, much smaller spread, spanning just 1,600 acres, but it retains a rich and fascinating collection of late-19th century cattle baron memorabilia. While the sprawling ranch house is a magnificent structure frozen in time from the heydays of the Kohrs empire, outbuildings that housed a blacksmith shop, bunk houses for hired hands, ice storage, and stables tell stories of what many today view as a romantic chapter of Western history but which in truth reflect the harshness of cowboy life.

Tours of the ranch house are free, but you must first obtain a ticket at the small visitor center near the parking lot, as tours are limited to a dozen visitors. It takes only about 30 minutes to tour the house, though hours could be spent studying the ornate woodwork and furnishings, many of which were built in Chicago and shipped to the ranch. Original artworks, which include sketches of Conrad and Augusta Kohrs' children that hang in the formal parlor where a stout but handsome woodstove battled winters, needlepoints, and even a cuckoo clock from Germany are among the wall decorations.

An upright piano stands graces a wall across from the parlor, and in the dining room is a table that could stretch to 22 feet to accommodate dinner parties.

Walking through the house you'll see a solarium surely used to grow plants in winter, floor grates that funneled warm air from a furnace (wood-fired in the 1890s up until 1915, when coal was used) up from the basement into the house, an ornate-for-its-day bathroom complete with hot and cold running water, a flush toilet (the tank was mounted near the ceiling and framed in polished wood), and a tub, also finished in wood.

Dominating Mr. Kohrs' office is a sizable desk that actually folds in half, making it easy for the rancher to close and lock the desk. On a small table stands a letterpress he would use to make copies of his documents, and there also was a small assay scale.

An interesting item in the kitchen is a bulbous Red Comet fire extinguisher. Mounted on a wall, the bulb contained carbon tetrachloride. If a fire melted a wax seal on the bottom of the bulb, the chemical would, in theory, vaporize and smother the flames. Or, the cook could grab the bulb and throw it at flames before they spread.

Upstairs are nine bedrooms.

Unfortunately, due to past encounters between visitors preoccupied with getting the perfect shot and century-old furniture, you can't snap photographs or film videos within the ranch house.

Among the outbuildings in the compound out back is the blacksmith shop where Ms. Meikle and other interpretive rangers toil, pounding red-hot bars of iron into hoof picks and plunging them into buckets of water that sizzle and sputter in response and branding slices of lodgepole. There's a flower patch where gardener Lanette King works with many of the same plant species that Augusta Kohrs enjoyed -- soapwort, peonies, Harris yellow rose, daisies, bachelor buttons, iris, delphenium and lilies.

Stroll the grounds in summer and the sweet smell of new-mown hay mingling with woodsmoke from the chuckwagon fills your nostrils, your ears pick up both the clanging of the blacksmith's hammer, chirping birds in the trees, and water gurgling through irrigation ditches, and there's the clop-clop-clop of horse-drawn wagons taking visitors on a short, $5 tour of the grounds.

Rising high above one field is the beaverslide hay stacker, a towering device invented in southwestern Montana in 1908 to allow ranchers to build haystacks right in the fields, rather than having to haul stacks away to barns.

There's also the rail siding that carried Kohrs cattle to the Union Stock Yard in Chicago, and it holds a couple stock cars. There's a small shed that held coal to fire the ranch house's furnace -- three wheelbarrows of coal a day were needed to keep the pipes from freezing in minus-40-degree winters -- and there's the old ice house that was transformed into a tack room once refrigeration reached the ranch in the 1930s.

"Bunkhouse row" is a long, low-strung structure divided into a series of rooms for the ranch cook; where cowboys would relax after a day on the range with card games, writing letters, or playing music; rooms where they would sleep; a small office; and even some stalls. One room contains a time-line of U.S. ranching history, stretching from 1817 when Henry Clay introduced Hereford cattle to the country up to 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was adopted.

Though you can probably whisk yourself through the ranch in little more than an hour, a slower mosey is well-worth your time. That will allow you time to go through the ranch house, watch the blacksmith at work, enjoy a cup of "cowboy coffee" from the chuckwagon, and study the history of bunkhouse row with its artifacts. And if you're lucky enough, and watchful enough, as you stroll the grounds you might even spy twin longhorns born this past May.

For more photos of the ranch, visit the Traveler's flickr site.

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This great place is on my "to do" list for NPS visits. I've also heard from others that Ms. Meikle is an outstanding interpreter who is extremely knowledgeable about the history and significance of this NPS site.

My fiance -- who readily admits she's "no nature girl" -- enjoyed our visit to this ranch in July of this year. We happened to arrive during a ranch days celebration, with wagon rides, tours and while the blacksmith was at work. The variety of sites the NPS offers us is one of its attractions. I'm a "nature boy" myself, but it's nice to be able to enjoy a different kind of place with people who are not always into all the same things I am.

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