Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site

Montana Parks Create Local Beef Jerky

June 13, 2012, 8:52 am

GK Jerky Labelby Kelly Restuccia

A Montana State Park and a National Park Service Site in Montana have come together to produce a beef jerky product that helps tell the story of their shared history.

Roughly 115 miles separate the ghost town at Bannack State Park from the golden grasslands of Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge Valley, but their shared history places them much closer in the saga of Montana’s gold rush and the open range cattle era.

During the 1860s, Conrad Kohrs was living in the Montana gold rush town of Bannack. He realized that feeding miners would make him more money than prospecting, so he opened a butcher shop—the first in this part of the country. Kohrs bought cattle from Johnny Grant’s ranch in Deer Lodge, and soon, he was running three of the largest butcher shops in the three biggest mining towns in the region. From then on, the town of Bannack and Grant’s ranch in Deer Lodge would be linked.

Working Together

To celebrate this shared history, the two Montana parks have partnered to create GK Jerky using cattle born and raised at the national historic site, a working ranch. They are grass-fed like they were in the 1880s, and the product doesn’t have any added hormones, antibiotics, steroids or MSG.

“We try to make jerky just like it would have possibly been made back in that time. We try to be authentic and to make sure it’s healthy and good tasting for visitors,” said Mike Burke, Business Manager at Montana State Parks.

In the late 1800s, longhorns, shorthorns and Herefords roamed the open range. These are the breeds that are raised at Grant-Kohrs Ranch. The beef is processed locally, and then sold at state and national parks across the country.

The jerky sales also provide an opportunity for parks to be sustainable. The revenue made from the jerky goes back to the Montana State Park system and also to organizations that support National Parks. The funds are used to support park programs, operations and visitor programs.

“Not only is this a product that people can eat, but it also tells a story,” Burke said.

When the jerky is sold in the parks, it’s sold with an accompanying brochure, and the staff that sells it shares the story of the product and the partnership.

The beef jerky has been sold in parks for two years, but the partnership between Montana State Parks and the National Park Service has been four years in the making.

“It’s the perfect kind of partnership because both of us brought different skills to do something we both wanted but neither of us could do alone,” said Laura Rotegard, Superintendent of Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site.

Rotegard said she saw great results selling handmade, one-of-a-kind products that helped enrich the visitor experience during the time she spent working at Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway. She wanted to bring that type of product to Grant-Kohrs Ranch, a place that played a huge role in providing food to the nation during the days of the open range.

The Parks

Grant-Kohrs and Bannack are located midway between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, and are both great places to stop between the two parks.

Cattle at Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic SiteOnce the headquarters of a 10 million acre cattle empire, Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site is a working cattle ranch that preserves these symbols and commemorates the role of cattlemen in American history.

“The great thing about Grant-Kohrs is that it tells the story that many American families can relate to—it’s a story of people who have made it on their own grit and grace,” Rotegard said.

The ranch is home to three types of cattle that were raised on the open range in the 1800s. Since the historic site is a working ranch, it’s likely that visitors will get to see ranch work in action. Rangers lead horse-drawn wagon tours into great open fields and natural grasslands, where herds of cattle roam as they did more than 100 years ago.

“Often, visitors say the most memorable and exciting part of being here is running smack dab into animals,” Rotegard said. “Until you see the animals you don’t realize how important they were as a mainstay to this country.”

Another highlight for visitors occurs each July, when visitors can watch the haying process, in which ranchers use draft horses and historic equipment to harvest the hay. This is unique to the second era of open ranges, when ranches started providing their own hay because they knew they couldn’t bet on winters to provide enough food for the herds.

“It’s a beautiful choreography using a process that is particular to southwest Montana.” This year’s haying will take place from July 25 until August 10. If you miss the haying season, no need to fret; a video of the process plays at the visitor center year-round.

Skinner Saloon and Hotel Meade at Bannack State ParkAbout 115 miles north via I-15, Bannack State Park is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the West. It is also the location of Conrad Kohrs’s first butcher shop and more than 50 buildings line Main Street. Bannack is the site of Montana's first major gold discovery on July 28, 1862. This strike set off a massive gold rush that swelled Bannack's population to over 3,000 by 1863. As the value of gold steadily dwindled, Bannack's bustling population was slowly snuffed out. A walk down the deserted streets of Bannack evokes a feeling of the realities faced in the 'Old West.'

Free, guided tours are offered on weekends, and visitors can purchase a self-guiding tour booklet for $2 that tells the histories of the buildings on Main Street. Simulated gold panning programs are offered in summer near Grasshopper Creek.

Visitors are invited to enter any of the historic buildings that are not locked. During guided tours, off-limits buildings like the mill are sometimes opened to participants. Some buildings that remain standing include two hotels, several homes, a combined Masonic Lodge / schoolhouse, a mill where ore was processed locally, and the assay office where raw gold was analyzed. The assay office was also the location for the Oliver Stage Station; as gold mining declined it was also used as a drug store and butcher shop.

While Conrad Kohrs’s butcher shop in Bannack is not identifiable today, another shop he owned and operated, located just down the road in Virginia City, is marked with a National Historic Register plaque that tells his story.

The Jerky

GK Jerky is sold at approximately 16 Montana State Parks, 11 National Parks, and 38 other state and federal sites across the country. Retail locations are chosen for their history of open-range cattle ranching, mining and recreational uses such as hiking and biking. For example, the jerky is sold at Devils Tower National Monument, where it’s seen as a great snack food for climbers, and at several Civil War themed sites in the state of Virginia, where it’s historically relevant.

Three flavors of jerky are available: Peppered, Original, and for the 2012 season, Teriyaki beef stick. A three-ounce bag of peppered or original jerky sells for $6, and the Teriyaki beef stick costs $1.50.

To find a retail location near you, or to order the jerky by mail, visit the Montana State Parks website.

If You Go

Grant-Kohrs and Bannack are located in southwestern Montana, about midway between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. The parks are about 115 miles apart and can both be easily accessed via I-15. For more information about Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, visit nps.gov/grko. For more information about Bannack State Park, visit stateparks.mt.gov.

Images
GK Jerky Label. Source: Montana State Parks
Cattle at Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. Source: NPS
Skinner Saloon and Hotel Meade at Bannack State Park. Source: Montana State Parks