Grant-Kohrs Ranch Preserves Montana Past

Montana’s Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site pays tribute to the American cowboy and ranching history.

| August 2013

In Deer Lodge, Montana, off Interstate 90 and about equidistant between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site (NHS) offers a one-of-a-kind tribute to the American cowboy and ranching’s role in our nation’s history. This 1,600-acre ranch still functions while preserving a rich 120-year history of a once-enormous operation important to the history of the cattle industry.

Opportunity knocks

Grant-Kohrs Ranch owes its choice location and start to Johnny Grant, a Canadian fur trader who took advantage of the times. Grant swapped stock on the Oregon Trail, one healthy animal for two trail-weary ones, growing his herd in 10 years’ time to more than 4,000 cattle, mostly good English breeding stock.

When the ranch came into existence, the area was still wilderness, and the house doubled as a trading post. As the West opened up, however, Grant’s primary language of French and his unconventional lifestyle — he had multiple wives, 26 biological children, and allowed laborers to come and go — hobbled him for conducting business. So, in 1866, two years after the Montana Territory was established, he sold the ranch to Conrad Kohrs and migrated north.

Conrad Kohrs expansion

For Kohrs, owner of butcher shops in several Montana mining towns, the ranch was a natural expansion, securing his meat supply. Kohrs recognized the value of the open range and grew the enterprise, eventually grazing cattle on 10 million acres in four states and two Canadian provinces. This empire rightfully earned him the title “Montana’s Cattle King.”

In the 1870s, cowboys drove hungry Texas longhorns onto the grassy seas of the northern Plains, swelling the ranks of English shorthorn breeds already in place. Montana’s cattle population doubled to more than 1 million head. Foreign investors and East Coast speculators moved in and the cattle boom was on. By that time, Kohrs annually shipped 10,000 head of cattle by rail to the Chicago stockyards.

Eventually drought, wildfire, disease and the predictable folly of overgrazing all took a toll on the range. The horrible blizzards and deep snow of the 1886-87 winter leveled a fatal blow to the northern Plains cattle industry. Most ranchers lost 60 to 95 percent of all animals.