Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site

History

History & Culture

"They were a rugged set of men, these pioneers, well qualified for their self-assumed task. In the pursuit of wealth a few succeeded and the majority failed,...the range cattle industry has seen its inception, zenith, and partial extinction all within a half-century. The changes of the past have been many; those of the future may be of even more revolutionary character."
Conrad Kohrs, 1913

Dreams of wealth lured the first cattle men to Montana. The range was open and unfenced, and they could fatten their cattle on the lush bunchgrass and push on to new pastures when the old areas were overgrazed. The main obstacles were buffalo and the Indians, and by the 1860's both were fast being overcome.

Many of the herds were built through trade with westward-bound emigrants, who gladly swapped two or more trail-worn cows for a single well-fed one. In the late 1870's cowboys drove herds of rangy longhorns up from Texas to the better grazing lands of Montana, adding a Spanish strain to the English shorthorn breeds already established there and greatly multiplying the herds.

By 1885, cattle raising was the biggest industry on the High Plains, and foreign investors and eastern speculators rushed to get in on the bonanza. As ranches multiplied and the northern herds grew, there came a predictable consequence: overgrazing. This and the fierce winter of 1886-87 caused enormous losses, estimated at one-third to one-half of all the cattle on the northern plains. Many cattlemen never recovered.

If the snows of '86-87 foreshadowed the end of open range ranching, the homesteaders, with their barbed wire and fenced-in 160 acre claims, finished it off.

The open-range cattle industry lasted only three decades. Few of its pioneering men and women made their fortunes or are remembered today. But from their beginnings has evolved the more scientific ranching of today, with its own risks and uncertainties. That is the legacy of the Grants and the Kohrs, whose pioneer ranch, complete with original furnishings, is a reminder of an important chapter in the history of the West.

Cattle Barons

In the mid-1800s news of mining, timber, land, and business opportunities brought a flood of immigrants and fortune seekers west. Completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 helped expand growing industries. Growing towns in the West and East needed food, and a new style of businessman took hold - the western cattle baron.

In 1859 400 head of Johnny Grant's cattle were driven from Deer Lodge Valley to Sacramento, California. By the 1880s Conrad Kohrs was shipping 10,000 head of cattle annually by rail to the stockyards in Chicago. However, these are only two examples of successful cattlemen of this time. There were cattle barons in just about every western state.

Capt. Richard King (1824-1885)

Richard King’s first employment in Texas was as a riverboat captain. In 1853 he got the cattle itch and bought land in the Santa Gertrudis valley of Texas. The early years of his career as a rancher were not marked by big cattle sales or large profits. King purchased cattle, horses and land with his riverboat operation profits and disposed of inferior cattle and horses to improve the overall health and vitality of his breeding stock. During this time, King also began to crossbreed his current stock. He crossed Brahman with English Shorthorns for more hearty animals. This breed of cattle became known as the Santa Gertrudis and were specific to the King ranch. With his horses, King crossed the rugged Spanish-descended horse with the high-strung English racing horse, producing a combination of the best features of each breed, giving rise to the Western quarter horse.

King lived by the motto “buy land and never sell.” He fought rustlers for his ranch, survived a Union Army attack during the U.S. Civil War, became a leader among other Texas ranchers and built a 600,000 acre empire worth, in Kings estimation, $6.5 million.


John Benjamin Kendrick (1857-1933)

John Benjamin Kendrick was born in Texas and at an early age got a job breaking horses. In 1879 he trailed a herd of cattle to Wyoming. With the wages he earned, he bought a few head of cattle and never left Wyoming.

In 1887 Kendrick signed on as superintendent of the Converse Cattle Company and two years later moved the operation from eastern Wyoming to south-central Montana and within another eight years had bought out the company completely. Kendrick’s ranching empire grew to over 210,000 acres of land in southern Montana and northern Wyoming.

While his prominence and success as a cattle man grew, Kendrick diversified his holdings. With the coming of the railroad and businesses to the small town of Sheridan, WY, he and a partner, A. S. Burrow, started a second bank in town, dealing mostly with mortgage loans and Sheridan real estate. Later elected mayor, then governor of Wyoming and then Senator, Kendrick was always true to his first love, ranching. As a senator he backed the political causes of the cattlemen and wrote extensively of not only the hardships and problems facing ranchers, but also the satisfaction gained from the life.


Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)

Theodore Roosevelt became a rancher because of a hunting trip. In September of 1883, he entered the Blackhills of the Dakota Territories to hunt buffalo. By the end of his fifteen day trip he had purchased Chimney Butte Ranch, more commonly known as the Maltese Cross Ranch. He returned to the Dakota Territories after the 1884 Republican convention to find his cattle had wintered very well. He decided to invest in 1,000 more head of cattle and “make it my regular business.” It was at this time Roosevelt also purchased a second ranch, naming it the Elkhorn.

Like most ranchers in the area, Roosevelt was not immune to the winter of 1886-87, where his losses totaled about sixty percent of his cattle. In 1890, Roosevelt turned the ranch entirely over to his foreman Sylvan Ferris and in 1898 sold Ferris the ranch and buildings.

The 26th President, Roosevelt had strong conservation inclinations. As president, he developed a conservation program that deeply reflected his experiences in the West.


Henry Miller (1840-1937)

Heinrich Kreiser was a German immigrant who came West with six dollars in his pocket after completing his butcher apprenticeship. He arrived in California in 1850 as Henry Miller, a name borrowed from the steamer ticket he purchased in New York. He started his own butcher business in San Francisco, purchasing his cattle from along the coast. In 1858 he partnered with his competitor Charles Lux.  Miller and Lux monopolized cattle grazing lands on the west side of the San Joaquin, and employed descendants of the earliest Mexican families on the ranch holdings.

Miller’s empire spread through California, Nevada and Oregon, about fifteen million acres in his control. The partnership with Charles Lux saw both men through the bad economic periods in which other California ranchers suffered.

Cowboys

"I believe I would know an old cowboy in hell with his hide burnt off. It's the way they stand and walk and talk. There are lots of young fellows punching cows today but they can never take our place, because cowpunching as we knew it is a thing of the past. Riding fence and rounding up pastures ain't anything like the way we used to work cattle in the days of the open range."

E.C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott, 1939

The first cowboys were Mexican vaqueros who herded Andalusian cattle--also called Texas Longhorns--imported by Spanish colonists. It is from these early cowboys that much of the lingo of the trade was acquired. On trail drives buckaroos (vaqueros) wore heavy leather chaps (chaparerras), roped calves with a lariat (la reata), and kept their horses among a herd called a remuda.

For centuries, the south central and northern plains provided habitat for the bison and home for nomadic Indian tribes who hunted the shaggy animals for food, clothing, and shelter. But the nation's rapid post-Civil War western expansion, powered by an unprecedented industrial revolution, led to the slaughter of the bison and increasing confinement of Indians to reservations. The sea of grass that was the unfenced open range drew cattlemen, whose beef could be transported by railroad to teeming eastern markets.

Most cowboys were young--in their teens and twenties. Unlike the all-white casts of Hollywood westerns, the historic cowboys were a mix of ethnic groups reflecting American society. About a quarter of them were African-American, with a strong representation of Hispanics, too. English, Irish, German, and French immigrants were to be found, and among the finest cowboys were American Indians. What bound them together was upholding the reputation of their outfit (the ranch or cattleman who employed them), the teamwork and shared adversity of working cattle on roundups and trail drives, and personal pride in what they did.

It was a young man's trade, for the hardships of six-month trail drives, and the injuries sustained in working with livestock, took a physical toll. Some cowboys eventually became cattlemen, while others stayed on the ranches as cooks and handymen. Those who witnessed the close of the open range saw the end of their way of life, and if they knew of no recourse, stayed in the business as ranch hands--tending a barbed wire fence, raising hay, and winter feeding the livestock that free-ranged no more.

John Francis Grant

"I always minded my own business, treated everybody alike rich or poor, white or black, and after I became rich an Indian was just as welcome to my house as a white man."

Born at Fort Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 1831, "Johnny" Grant was the son of a Hudson's Bay Company employee. His mother died when he was three and he was taken to Three Rivers, Quebec, where he, his sister and two brothers were raised by his maternal grandmother.

At seventeen, he joined his father at Fort Hall, Idaho Territory. Many "forts" of the West were fortified trading posts, and such was Fort Hall. The fur trade was Johnny Grant's heritage, but it was not his future.

By the 1840s the western fur trade was dying out, displaced by the overland migration to California and Oregon. Traders turned increasingly to the emigrants for trade, and young Johnny was among them. He left his father's household in l850 and settled nearby, marrying a Shoshone woman.

His complex family eventually numbered 21 children by seven mothers. He established alliances with Indians of the Northwest by marrying women from different tribes. He kept his large family close throughout his long life, and adopted other abused and abandoned children he encountered in his travels.

In the 1850s, the Oregon Trail generated an active trade in livestock. Emigrants arrived in southern Idaho with horses and cattle which were too footsore and weary for the difficult trail west. Shrewd traders bartered one fit animal for two trail-weary ones. These were rested and restored on the lush grassland of Idaho and southwest Montana. By the time the next year's emigrants arrived, they were fit to rejoin the westward trains at a profit to the cattle traders. Johnny was among the earliest to be involved in this trade.

Having successfully wintered stock in the Deer Lodge Valley in 1857, Johnny returned there in 1859 and built a home. Hundreds of head of his cattle and horses ranged the valley. Until Montana's gold boom of the 1860s, he found a market for his stock in the mining camps of Idaho and California.

He persuaded others, mostly traders, to settle near him, and they founded the town now known as Deer Lodge. Mexican traders numbered among its earliest residents, along with French Canadian metis (mixed blood) families.

In 1862, Grant began building the large house which is now at the core of Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS. He lived there with his Bannock Indian wife, Quarra. He wrote with pride of her accomplishments: she spoke French, English and several Indian languages. She also made "very nice butter" and "could ride horses that many could not."

Part of his new house was a trading post, but even as he was building it, the character of the territory was changing forever. Gold strikes in Bannack, Virginia City, Last Chance Gulch and other areas brought a flood of miners into southwest Montana. Grant tried to accommodate the newcomers, opening a livery stable, saloon, blacksmith shop, sawmill, flour mill, and other businesses, but saw little success. With steamboats now able to bring goods from St. Louis to Fort Benton, Montana (1864), he ran 28 freight wagons between the steamboat terminus and Deer Lodge.

Educated in French, Grant often found himself at a disadvantage in a community where business contracts were written in English, not always by honest men. Road agents threatened his life and taxes were levied by the new authorities. Racial prejudice not evident in the trader's community was now commonplace.

At last, Grant decided to return to Canada, as did most of the other French-Canadians in the valley. He sold his ranch to Conrad Kohrs in l866 and left his family for several months while he searched for a new place to settle. Choosing the Carmen, Manitoba area, he returned to Deer Lodge to find that Quarra had died of tuberculosis. Gathering his remaining family, he left with a party of 200 metis. The fur trade era was over and the gold rush was in full swing, but before he left, Grant had established the livestock industry in the valley. In the long run, it would outlast mining and trade.

After nearly 20 years in the Red River country, Grant moved again, returning to the Edmonton area of Alberta. He died in l907 within sight of the Hudson's Bay Post where he had been born 76 years earlier.

Trail Drives

Trail drives involved herding cattle from a range directly to market; from a range to a railhead for rail transport to market; or from one range to another for better grazing. A drive from Texas to railheads at Abilene or Dodge City, Kansas, took two to three months. A drive of Longhorns from Texas to supply ranches on the northern range took as long as six months.

Old cowboys who took part in the great trail drives of the 1860s, '70s, and '80s would talk about the experience for the rest of their lives. Perhaps 12 to 15 hands, including trail boss, horse wrangler, cook, and cowboys as young as teenagers, drove herds of up to 2,000 head. Living in the saddle, they endured bone-weary hardships, dust, and danger.

Cattle panicked at river crossings, and stampeded at night without warning. Outlaws, Indians, and irate settlers could threaten or impede the herd. Storms exposed man and beast to misery and lightning.

The trail boss, paid about $100 a month, was responsible for the drive. He determined the campsites, negotiated with settlers and Indians, kept a pace that ensured the cattle wouldn't lose weight, and supervised the crew. His goal was to deliver all the cattle to their destination, in as good a condition as they began.

The cook was the key to a contented trail crew. He was typically an older man and a former cowboy. Paid $50 a month, he drove the chuckwagon carrying the crew's food, equipment, and blankets to the next campsite. He pitched camp, prepared three meals, tended his wagon and mules, and provided medical assistance to injured crew. He was assisted by the horse wrangler, who was in charge of the horse herd, or remuda. Frequently the youngest, he earned about $25 a month.

The cowboys earned about $30 a month guiding the herd by day, rotating position as they traveled. At the front were the point riders, who led the herd; flank riders on the sides kept the herd from straying; drag riders brought up the rear and kept animals from straggling. Drag was the worst position because of the dust kicked up by thousands of hooves. The cowboys yelled and whistled to keep the cattle moving apace.

At night, cowboys took turns riding herd--which meant riding slowly around the bedded cattle--and sang to reassure the animals. Come daybreak, the cattle were gathered and the routine repeated itself, each animal assuming its place in the line of march.

Most dangerous were river crossings and stampedes. Cattle often balked from entering rivers, and had to be hazed across; as most cowboys couldn't swim, the fear of drowning wasn't limited to the animals. Stampedes were even more fearful, because a slip by horse or rider meant death. The strategy in a stampede was to ride ahead of the lead animals and attempt to circle them around in a wide circle. By containing them in this way, it was possible to get the cattle to bunch and mill, thus ending the stampede. The great cattle drives ended with the close of the open range. While on large ranches cattle are still trailed between summer and winter pasture today, it's not like the old days.

Conrad K. Warren

"With our heritage of grass and shade and shelter being among the richest endowments of all men, let us therefore preserve and keep it for ourselves and our heirs so that it will forever endure and be of benefit to all mankind."

Con Warren's father was a doctor, and Con might have followed him into the medical profession as did his older brother, but the pull of the cattle business was too strong.

Against the advice of his family, who saw cattle ranching as a thing of the past, young Con cowboyed for the Dana Ranch in Wyoming in 1927, and came to work at the Kohrs ranch as a hired hand in l929.

His great love of animals thrust him into the role of ranch manager. He rode in one day to find an old horse had fallen as a shoer worked on it. The foreman was beating the animal with a whip. Con grabbed the whip and knocked the foreman cold. His satisfaction at being selected by the Kohrs Trust to replace the foreman was tempered by regret when the horse died of its injuries, but the incident began a half century of stock raising in which the welfare of his animals was paramount.

Warren purchased the ranch, the house, and its contents from the Trust in l940. His tenure was most notable for two things: his commitment to the livestock industry and his determination to preserve the buildings, artifacts, records and lore of his grandfather and great-uncle.

His management of the ranch began at the worst of the drought and Depression plaguing the United States in the 1930s. He acquired additional acreage to provide summer range for his growing herd of registered Hereford cattle, while the irrigated pastures of the home ranch were cropped of the hay which fed his stock through the winter. He upgraded his livestock, raising registered Belgian draft horses as well as Hereford cattle.

The advent of World War II caused a shortage of team drivers and consequent decline in the use of draft horses. In the mid-l940s, the Hereford industry was hit hard when a strain of dwarfism appeared in the top lines of the breed. Warren didn't escape this crisis. T.T. Triumphant, a bull which he had purchased for a record $32,500, was found to carry the dwarf gene.

Though Warren never achieved the financial success of his grandfather and great-uncle, his contribution as a cattleman was unquestioned. He served as president of both the Board of Livestock Commissioners, and the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

Among his industry responsibilities was the establishment and authorization of livestock auctions, which are managed in Montana as public utilities, and which remain one of the cattleman's most important marketing tools.

The influence of Warren's physician-father was expressed in his veterinary skills. Though he lacked formal training, Warren was in constant demand to assist with calving problems, vaccinations, and other medical emergencies. He experimented with artificial insemination in the breeding of draft horses, believing correctly that the technique could reduce disease transmission.

He ended his registered Hereford breeding program in l958, and continued to raise purebred Herefords even after selling the core of the home ranch to the National Park Service in l972. The ranch had been designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

Throughout his career, he preserved the Kohrs home ranch and every object and record associated with it, assisted by his wife, Nell Warren. His own papers were as meticulously maintained as his grandfather's, providing historians with a nearly unbroken, 120-year record of the cattle industry. Warren's abiding contribution is the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, a virtual time machine to America's western cattle ranching heritage, spanning the end of the fur trade through modern, mechanized feedlot operations.

Warren continued to live at the ranch until his death in l993 at the age of 85.

John Bielenberg

"Any man who would lie, cheat, or steal, isn't a man."

Those who judge a book by the cover might dismiss his contribution to the Kohrs & Bielenberg operation, but Kohrs never did. Johney had no time or patience for the outer show of wealth. His dress was that of an outdoorsman who preferred comfort to style.

His contributions to the livestock industry were many. Among them was his development of the Big Circle horses. Breeding thoroughbred studs to hardy native mares, Bielenberg bred cow ponies which could do a twenty-mile circle in half a day during the roundup. This was a huge territory to cover in trailless, broken country, where cattle scattered over two million acres within a single grazing district.

These forerunners of today's quarter horses were in high demand throughout the territory. Johney occasionally raced his thoroughbreds against those of other prominent breeders, including copper king Marcus Daly.

Kohrs and Bielenberg made copies of all their outgoing correspondence. Though Kohrs was popularly known as "the cattle baron," nearly all the hundreds of letters about cattle were in fact written by Bielenberg. Ironically, more letters written by Kohrs involved mining ventures and investments than they did cattle. The two men complemented each other. Their mutual trust was implicit and abiding.

Together they ran a mainly steer operation, buying and grazing two-year-olds on the open range, before shipping them to market as three- and four-year-olds. With the close of the open range, Johney oversaw the gradual transition to a cow/calf operation, with a breeding herd providing new stock to replace cattle shipped to Chicago. In a 1900 letter, Johney correctly predicted "Herefords are the coming breed for Montana."

His correspondence written prior to his death from cancer at age 74 show he was still actively engaged in marketing and sale of Kohrs & Bielenberg cattle.

Like his brother, Bielenberg was active in Montana territorial and state legislatures and the Montana Stockgrowers Association. With his death in 1922, the last tie to the open range was cut. The home ranch entered an uncertain caretaker era, managed as a component of the Kohrs Trust.

The Winter of 1886

"The expense of caring for cattle in herds of 1,000 or more averages annually about 75 cents a head. Adding in taxes and other items, the cost of producing a steer, worth $30, and we have a total of $3.50. The banks loan money to be invested in stock and there is no more sure investment in Montana. One firm that borrowed $13,500 at two percent a month for six years showed a profit of $51,073 over total investment and expenses."

1883 Cattle Prospectus

"Ranchers, huddled about their stoves, did not dare think of what was happening on the range--of helpless cattle pawing at frozen snow in search of a little food or fighting to strip bark from willows and aspens along streams, "dogies" and unseasoned eastern cattle floundering in drifts, whole herds jammed together in ravines to escape the frosty blast and dying by the thousands."

Ray Allen Billington

The natural increase of the herds and the importation of more Texas animals in 1884 added yet to the population. This resulted in more animals grazing on the same amount of grass, which became thinner, requiring more acres per animal even as more animals per acre arrived. By 1885 Montana's range showed the effect of this vicious circle. Conrad Kohrs noted, "It takes 20 acres on a new range to feed one cow, after the range has been grazed two years it will take almost 25 acres, and after six years all of 40 acres."

By early 1886 more cattle, which had not yet developed the ability to withstand rugged Montana winters, filled the range, receiving less nourishment from the sparse grass. As it happened, a dry summer and concurrently poor grass crop preceded a severe winter that started early and ended late. The cattle were weak as they entered the most dangerous winter season in years.

In November, snow blanketed the range, so deep in places the cattle couldn't reach what little grass was under. In January, the hoped-for chinook winds melted the snow and exposed the ridges, only to be followed by a blizzard and unrelenting cold that made grazing impossible. By spring, the magnitude of loss was staggering--60% to 95% in places. The Kohrs herds in the Deer Lodge valley survived; with a $100,000 loan by Butte banker A.J. Davis, he was one of the few able to rebuild. But the disaster foreshadowed the end of the open range cattle era.

People

Some of the first cattle in this valley were brought here by a handful of settlers, including Johnny Grant who began wintering cattle in western Montana valleys in the 1850s. The Deer Lodge Valley was especially good winter range due to the high surrounding mountains that captured most of the snow.

In 1866, Conrad Kohrs purchased the Grant home and 365 head of cattle. He formed a powerful partnership with his younger half-brother John Bielenberg and continued to graze cattle in this valley while expanding to other ranges in eastern Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Canada. During the open range era, it was possible to become wealthy raising cattle without owning any acreage. Most ranchers did own a base of operations at the least and some, like Conrad Kohrs, owned millions of acres.

Conrad Kohrs Warren, Kohrs' grandson, continued to raise cattle in the Deer Lodge Valley. He also made changes in his own sphere of influence. Warren helped establish state-regulated public livestock auctions, upgraded purebred stock, instigated livestock health programs, made the switch to mechanized farm machinery and helped forge changes in government regulation and support of the industry as well as improvements in livestock sanitary practices.

 

Conrad Kohrs

"The range cattle industry has seen its inception, zenith, and partial extinction all within a half-century. The changes of the past have been many; those of the future may be of more revolutionary character."

At fifteen he went to sea as a cabin boy, and for the next seventeen years led a varied life. His work at sea took him to Brazil, Cuba, and islands off the coast of Africa. He learned something of the butcher trade working occasionally for relatives in New York and Iowa. His travels also found him selling sausages in New Orleans, running logs down the Mississippi, and working in a distillery. He became a United States citizen in 1857.

The lure of gold drew him to California, to the Fraser River country of Canada, and finally to Montana Territory in l862.

He found gold, not only in the mines, but in his gold camp butcher shops and eventually in a cattle empire that sprawled over four states and two Canadian provinces. His empire was built on a solid foundation, beginning with the home ranch purchased from Johnny Grant in 1866. Initially, he only needed a place to keep the cattle that supplied beef to his shops. In time, he shipped 10,000 head annually to the Union Stock Yards in Chicago.

In 1868 he married Augusta Kruse Kohrs, and the sumptuously-furnished ranch house is her legacy to Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS.

Montana's cattle industry began in its sheltered western valleys, but it was in the plains east of the continental divide that the vast operations of the 19th century cattle barons reached their fullest scope.

This was range once grazed by millions of bison, but by the 1870s bison were nearly extinct, displaced by the "white man's buffalo" which grazed free on the public open range. Kohrs's cattle were among them.

Cattlemen who plunged into this seeming get-rich-quick scheme received a sharp lesson in the Hard Winter of l886-87. In just a few short years, the range had become overstocked and overgrazed. Drought and wildfires further depleted the range and an unusually hard winter caused staggering losses.

This was the end of many a stockman's dream. For Conrad Kohrs and his half-brother, John Bielenberg, it was a sign that the old ways had to change. They were willing to make a gradual change to fenced range, summer haying and winter feeding. By the turn of the century, the "open range" system of cattle raising was almost gone, but the Kohrs and Bielenberg operation thrived. Only advancing age, increased homesteading on former cattle range, and the death of Kohrs's only son, William, in l90l, combined to cause Kohrs & Bielenberg to gradually withdraw from the cattle business. It was no sudden sellout. In fact, l909 marked one of their biggest years, with cattle sales exceeding $500,000.

But by 1918 all their range cattle were sold and the operation was limited to a few hundred acres at the home ranch in Deer Lodge, where Shorthorn and Hereford cattle were still raised as breeding stock.

Kohrs died in 1920 at age 85. He had seen the cattle industry evolve from the days of the mountain men through the freewheeling open range and into a more contained, more scientific era. Besides his contributions as a rancher, he played a significant part in Montana's history as a territorial and state senator and as a leader of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. His contributions earned him the nickname, "Montana's Cattle King."