Cattle ranching began in the Deer Lodge Valley in the late 1850s. Johnny Grant-a Canadian trader—settled there and became one of the first ranchers in Montana. In less than a decade he built a herd of 2,000 cattle, mostly by trading along the Oregon Trail. In 1862 he moved his ranching operation close to the present town of Deer Lodge. Here, he built a two-story log house for his wife Quarra—a Bannock Indian—and his large family. It was the finest house in Montana, said a newspaper. It looked as if “it had been lifted by the chimneys from the banks of St. Lawrence and dropped down in Deer Lodge Valley. It has twenty-eight windows, with green painted shutters, and looks very pretty.”
Grant worked on this ranch for only a few years. He sold out in 1866 for $19,200- “farmhouses with household furniture, stables, corrals, ricks of hay, all my farming implements, wagons … cattle, sheep, goats and grain”—and returned to Canada. The new owner was Conrad Kohrs, a German immigrant and by trade a butcher. He had already shown his skill in the frontier cattle business by shrewd trading and by selling beef to mining camps. He owned a sizable herd, and the Grant ranch gave him a base for his operations.
The ranch at this time was a fairly primitive place. On a trip back east in 1868, Kohrs found a wife. She was Augusta Kruse, a 19-year-old of German background. After a whirlwind courtship and marriage, they set out for Montana. The trip took 7 weeks by riverboat and 6 days in a wagon in the rain. After this daunting start, Augusta settled in and brought much-needed order to the ranch. She cooked, cleaned, milked cows, made soap and candles, roasted coffee, ran the house, and began to raise a family.
Shortly after Kohrs took over the ranch, he brought in his half-brother John Bielenberg as a partner. Kohrs handled the business end and Bielenberg supervised day-to-day work. Under them, the ranch became one of the best known in the region. They grazed their cattle far beyond the Deer Lodge Valley. At one point they ran their herds on ten million acres of land in four states and Canada. They also greatly improved the quality of their cattle. In the 1870s and ‘80s, they brought in as breeding stock registered Shorthorns and Herefords.
Part of Kohrs’ success lay in diversifying. He went into partnership with other ranchers, and he invested in mining, real estate, and water rights. This enabled him to ride out market fluctuations, epidemics, and bad weather. Kohrs not only survived the killing winter of 1886-87, but he fairly prospered. His registered herds came through virtually intact, partly because of their sheltered location in the valley. There were fewer cattle all around competing for range, and he was in a good position to rebuild.
The hard winter marked a divide for the cattle business. The old freewheeling days of nomadic grazing gave way to more settled ranching based on good range management, supplemental feeding, and upgraded bloodlines. Kohrs and Bielenberg were equally successful in the transformed industry. Their home ranch holdings increased to 30,000 acres and became a center for stock breeding. For a quarter of a century after ‘86-87, they shipped to market each year between 8,000 and 10,000 cattle. During the 1890s, Kohrs left the management of the ranch to his son-in-law John Boardman and Bielenberg and turned his attention to his other business interests.
On the eve of World War 1, Kohrs and Bielenberg saw still another fundamental shift coming. Homesteaders had pretty well fenced in the range, and it was no longer possible to swing big herds across the plains in search of grass and water. Had they been younger men they might have acted differently. But, Kohrs was 75 and Bielenberg 65. Moreover, their heir apparent William, Kohrs’ only son, had died in 1901, and there was no one to operate the ranch on the scale required. Reducing their holdings seemed the best move. By the time of their deaths in the early 1920s, they had sold all but 1,000 acres around the home ranch. It was this remnant that Conrad Kohrs Warren, a grandson, began to manage in the 1930s. In 1940 he bought the ranch from the Kohrs Trust and began breeding the registered Hereford cattle and Belgian horses for which he became widely known.
Augusta Kohrs still loved the old ranch. Until she died in 1945 at age 96, she spent part of every summer there, cherishing the pictures, furnishings, and household items of her younger years. Conrad Warren and his wife Nell carded this work further. They carefully preserved the old buildings and their furnishings and gathered together the ranch’s working documents, so essential to reconstructing its history. Others became interested in saving the ranch, and in response, Congress in 1972 set the ranch aside as a National Historic Site for the purpose of providing “an understanding of the frontier cattle era of the nation’s history.”
Reprinted from National Park Service brochure.