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.
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.
Kohrs didn’t fail that winter. His Deer Lodge Valley herd survived, and he had the foresight to secure a daring bank loan of $100,000 to rebuild that herd. He rode out the wave of despair and positioned himself to fill the gap left in supply.
With the coming of homesteaders, barbed wire and government regulation, Kohrs anticipated the demise of the open range. He maintained a million-acre spread at the time, and secured water rights for it. His ability to adapt was perhaps his greatest strength.
After the death of his only son, William, in 1901, Kohrs eased back on the operation. By 1918, the range cattle were sold and the ranch shrank to a few hundred acres, adequate for raising shorthorn and Hereford breeding stock. Kohrs died two years later, at age 85, and a trust eventually took over the ranch.
Feeling the tug of the land, grandson Con Warren returned to the family business, working first as a cowboy, then foreman, and eventually assuming ownership. He guided the ranch into the modern era by raising registered Hereford cattle. He mechanized the ranch and adopted and perfected sustainable, healthy and sanitary ranch practices.
Warren’s greatest legacy, perhaps, was preserving the past. Assisted by his wife, Nell, he kept intact the ranch and every piece of paper associated with it. He also maintained meticulous records from his watch and kept alive the oral history of his grandfather and great-uncle. Because of his efforts, the truth and the romance from this chapter of the American West live on.
The Grant-Kohrs Ranch today
Today, the ranch headquarters at the northern edge of Deer Lodge includes the original ranch house and various outbuildings, 80 historic structures in all. More than 23,000 artifacts illuminate a century of ranching history, with 10 percent of the collection readily visible.
Photographs, videos, exhibits, frozen-in-time living quarters, and sheds and barns help piece together the story and introduce the people.
Because this remains a working ranch, rangers and ranch hands see to daily chores. Seasonal reenactors at the chuck wagon, blacksmith shop and corral give a voice to the past. During Ranch Days in July, draft horses and a beaverslide stacker (a southwest Montana invention) keep haying history alive.
At the ranch, long lines of pole fencing carry eyes to the horizon. Cottonwood Creek flows to join the Clark Fork River and the old Milwaukee Railroad crosses the property. Add in the mountain backdrop and thick pastures and you are easily transported to the days of Kohrs.
Every artifact, every blade of grass contributes to this Montana classic. FC
For more information:
— Rhonda and George Ostertag have authored more than 20 outdoor guide, travel and coffee-table photography books. Rhonda, born and raised in Montana, finds inspiration in the state’s rich, whirlwind history and natural offerings. The two live in Keizer, Oregon. Learn more about their work at Ostertagphoto.com.
— Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site is open daily year-’round, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. Contact Grant-Kohrs NHS, (406) 846-2070, ext. 250, or visit the website at www.NPS.gov/grko.