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Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, Deer Lodge, Montana | by Ken Lund
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Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, Deer Lodge, Montana

The Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, created in 1972, commemorates the Western cattle industry from its 1850s inception through recent times. The original ranch was established in 1862 by a Canadian fur trader, Johnny Grant, at Cottonwood Creek, Montana (future site of Deer Lodge, Montana), along the banks of the Clark Fork river. The ranch was later expanded by a cattle baron, Conrad Kohrs (1866–1920). The 1,618 acres (6.55 km2) historic site (originally designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960) is maintained today as a working ranch by the National Park Service.


Johnny Francis Grant was born at Fort Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His mother died when he was only three years old, so he was sent to Three Rivers, Quebec, to be raised by his grandmother. His father, Captain Richard Grant, was a Hudson's Bay Company employee, and therefore, in his mid-teens, he left for Fort Hall, Idaho, to meet up with his father. There he learned the trading business. However, in the 1840s the fur trade was dying out, so Johnny Grant and his brother James turned to trading with emigrants traveling west along the Oregon Trail. He made a considerable profit by trading travelers one healthy cow or horse for two trail-wearied ones. He then fed and rested the tired animals and the following season traded them again. This is how he got into the cattle business.


Grant started using the Deer Lodge Valley in 1857 to graze his cattle during the winter along the banks of the Clark Fork river near Cottonwood creek. In 1859 he decided to permanently locate a ranch and constructed a permanent residence in 1862. He convinced traders to settle around him, forming the town of Cottonwood (later to become Deer Lodge). Johnny was initially successful, but found that when gold miners arrived in the area, he was at a disadvantage, because he spoke French and the newcomers spoke English. He was taken advantage of in contracts and felt that he could no longer be successful in the area. In August 1866, he sold his ranch to a cattle baron, Conrad Kohrs, for $19,200 and returned to Canada.


Conrad Kohrs was born on August 5, 1835, in Wewelsfleth, in Holstein province, which was then a part of the German Confederation. At the age of 22, he became a citizen of the United States. He went to California during the gold rush days. He then moved on to Canada and arrived at the gold camps of Montana in 1862. He never struck gold, but he became wealthy by selling beef to the miners. Kohrs built his cattle operation until he owned 50,000 head of cattle and had grazing pasture of 10 million acres (40,000 km2). However, he had a setback when the severe winter of 1886–1887 left over half the cattle population in the northwest dead. Most cattlemen went bankrupt, but Kohrs managed to receive a 100,000 dollar loan from his banker, A. J. Davis. While the open range era was ending, Kohrs adapted successfully and was able to pay off the loan in only four years.


Kohrs and his half-brother, John Bielenberg, turned to more modern methods of ranching, including buying purebred breeding stock, fencing his rangeland and raising and storing fodder. His became known as "Montana's Cattle King." Bielenberg helped Kohrs to run the Grant-Kohrs ranch. He originally came to Montana at age 18 in 1864 to help with the butcher shop that served the mining camps. Bielenberg had a lot to do with the horse side of the Grant-Kohrs ranch. He bred what were called the “Big Circle” horses, reputed to be able to cover twenty miles of country in a half a day; a trait useful when gathering cattle spread over a very large area. Together, Bielenberg and Kohrs made a most successful team for over half a century.


The Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site today is operated by the National Park Service. It is a major tourist attraction in Deer Lodge, Montana, and the tour is free. The National Park Service runs it as a living history ranch, using draft horse teams to hay the land, and blacksmiths on site make horseshoes for the horses. They keep all operations as close to how they would be in the 19th century as possible.

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Taken on May 28, 2005