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Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, Deer Lodge

The Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site is located in Montana’s Deer Lodge and stands as a testament to Montana’s open-range cattle industry era. The site contains the legacy of the Grants’ and Kohrs’ historically-significant pioneer ranch and comprises 88 buildings on a 1600-acre working cattle ranch.

The ranch provides valuable insights into the frontier open range cattle era and harks back to a time of Cattle Barons and Cowboys – key characters of the Old West who had a significant hand in the shaping of America.

The History of Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site

history of grant-kohrs ranch
Image: Ken Lund

In the latter half of the 1850s the first cattlemen began to wander into the open ranges of Montana to graze their cattle on the abundant grass and locate new pastures when previous areas had become overgrazed. The only real obstacles at the time were buffalo and Indians, but both problems had faded significantly by the next decade.

By 1857, open-range cattle had begun to roam the Deer Lodge Valley in what is now Powell County territory, and the cattle industry was introduced to the area by Johnny Francis Grant, a French-Canadian fur trader who looked to cattle once his previous means of income started to fade.

His efforts seemed to be paying off, and after some time using the Deer Lodge Valley as grazing grounds for his cattle he established a ranch at Cottonwood Creek, in 1862.

Gold was also soon to be discovered in the area, and although this was at first a boost to business as the cattle served as a food source to the prospectors, with the miners’ presence in the valley Grant foresaw a downturn in his fortunes and sold the ranch to Konrad Kohrs in 1866.

By 1885, raising cattle had become the main industry on the High Plains, which drew in all kinds of speculators and investors looking for a piece of the action. Kohrs built his ranch operation into a huge success, with 10 million acres of grazing land to his name.

Yet, a major setback was just around the corner in the form of the severe winter of 1886–1887, when temperatures stayed at 30-40 degrees below zero for seemingly endless weeks.

This harsh winter decimated the cattle population in the northwest, wiping out at least half of them. This unfortunate turn of events caused the majority of cattlemen to go bankrupt, but Kohrs somehow managed to survive with the help of a bank loan, which he paid off in a few years.

Another factor that contributed to the looming end of the open range cattle era was the fact that the surge in ranch numbers that had come about from the previous few years’ success resulted in larger herds and the somewhat predictable follow-on consequence of overgrazing.

The majority of cattlemen never recovered from this predicament combined with the winter, and the arrival of the homesteaders put an end to it proper.

The open-range cattle industry lasted for just three decades, and although there was a huge success in some areas of it, few found any real fortune in it. This is the legacy of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch, as both Grant and Kohrs did well from the whole affair.

Kohrs and his half-brother, John Bielenberg, eventually switched to more modern methods of ranching, not least of all by investing in purebred breeding stock and fencing off the rangeland.

The ranch was able to stay in the family and Kohrs’ grandson became manager in 1929, eventually going on to purchase it in 1940 before selling it to the National Park Service in 1940 for the purpose of historic preservation. It became a registered landmark in 1960 and opened as a National Historic Site in 1977.

The Main Characters Involved with the Ranch

main characters involved with the ranch
Image: Ken Lund

As the first cattle in the valley were brought in by various pockets of settlers, Johnny Grant began grazing his cattle in the western Montana regions of Deer Lodge Valley where the ranch would be established in the 1850s.

After ditching his previous means of income as a fur trader as that particular pursuit died out, Grant had found some initial success with cattle by success selling livestock to the Idaho and California gold camps, and once ensconced in the Deer Valley region he used his funds to build a large, two-story home for his large Métis family in 1862.

Conrad Kohrs bought the Grant home and 365 head of cattle in 1866 when Grant decided it would be a good time to opt-out of the area. Kohrs was an immigrant of German descent who had arrived in Montana during the gold rush.

He bought the ranch after deciding that the possibility of making money from selling food to the fortune seekers was a lucrative one. His gamble paid off and brought fortuitous returns, and by the 1880s Grant-Kohrs Ranch had a 50,000-strong herd grazing over 10 million acres.

Kohrs became one of the major beef suppliers in the entire country, selling broader afield as well as to the expanding mining community. Reports indicated that the ranch supplied 10,000 head to the Chicago beef trade every year, and word soon began to spread about the wealth coming into the ranch, earning Kohrs the title of the “Montana Cattle King”. He used his newfound fame to get himself involved in local politics.

Kohrs invested in a partnership with his younger half-brother John Bielenberg and their combined efforts continued the cattle grazing operation in the valley. They also managed to expand further afield to other ranges on the eastern side of Montana, as well as in Wyoming, Colorado, and Canada.

The era of open range grazing brought with it the possibility of amassing wealth by raising cattle without actually owning any land, but Kohrs and Bielenberg ended up owning literally millions of acres.

Conrad Kohrs Warren was the grandson of Kohrs who carried on the business of raising cattle on the ranch in the Deer Lodge Valley. He was also responsible for instigating a few changes within his own circle of influence, helping to establish state-regulated public livestock auctions and bring about adaptations to government regulations in support of the industry.

He also played a part in the use of upgraded purebred stock, helped to implement programs related to the health and condition of the livestock as well as sanitary practices, and also notably moved to the use of mechanized farm machinery.

When Warren and his wife first purchased the ranch they had two main areas of concern — the livestock industry, and also increasing the historic preservation of the property and its legacy and place in the history of the state.

The Significance of the Ranch

Along with Cowboys and Indians, cattle ranchers stand as vivid symbols of the American West. Having once been the location of a 10 million-acre cattle empire, Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site goes some way to preserving these symbols and celebrating the role of cattlemen in the shaping of American history.

It may be true that few of the pioneering men and women involved in the practice made their fortunes or achieved any kind of notoriety, but from their efforts, the more scientific approach to modern ranching has evolved – albeit its own challenges.

This is the legacy of the Grants and the Kohrs, whose pioneer ranch, which stands today complete with many of its original furnishings as a reminder of an important chapter in the history of the West. The ranch serves as a nostalgic tribute to some of the most iconic symbols of the American West.

At the Ranch

at the ranch
Image: U.S. Department of the Interior

Self-Guided Tours at the ranch provide the opportunity to see how the cowboys lived close up. Visitors can wander around the various buildings such as the Bunkhouse and the original 1870 Draft Horse Barn.

A collection of formerly horse-drawn vehicles is located in the former stable from 1883, the Thoroughbred Barn. And you might catch sight of various aspects of real-life ranching such as horses in the barn waiting for a harness, or even a cowboy on his way to check on the herd as you tour the ranch – which is still very much operational.

Ranch House Tours are a good way to gain a few closer insights into the pioneer families to whom the ranch was home. When Johnny Grant first built the ranch house in 1862, The Montana Post described it as “the finest in Montana.”

Conrad Kohrs upgraded the building somewhat in 1866 and again in 1890, by adding additional brick and various amenities that would have been state-of-the-art back then. Visitors get glimpses into the lives of the former resident families from the original furnishings and various personal items and artifacts.

The museum items on display are changed or rotated frequently, and visitors can expect to see anything from sewing needles, linen maps, and leather tacks, to wagons outside. A reported 35,000 or more artifacts still exist, including items once used by the various people who lived and worked at the ranch

Tickets are free but necessary, tours are limited to 12 people, and schedules vary according to season.

Wagon Tours are the way to experience the power of the draft horses, hear the clopping of their hooves and get an authentic feel for the ranch.

This tour goes beyond the buildings and out into the open spaces where much of the ranching still occurs. The Open Range Era may come to mind when taking in the landscape, and the tour will pass by various types of equipment that hark back to the days of horse-power.

This unique perspective of Grant-Kohrs Ranch requires no tickets or bookings and usually runs on Mondays between 1:00 pm – 3:30 pm under normal conditions of operation, from June through September.

Final Thoughts

The Grant-Kohrs Ranch is an important symbol of Montana’s colorful past, a throwback to the days when rugged pioneers assumed tasks in the various unchartered territory — often in the pursuit of wealth and other forms of expansion. Some found success and many more failed, and the cattle industry’s inception, peak, and virtual extinction all occurred within a very brief window of opportunity.

The ranch played a crucial role throughout this period, and both Johnny Grant and Conrad Kohrs found good fortune in the grasslands of Southwest Montana — and that is the legacy of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch.

It stands as a reminder of an important chapter in the history of the West by commemorating the unprecedented cattle empire that thrived in the Deer Lodge Valley and beyond.

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