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, as in all other spheres of activity… 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 an even more revolutionary character. —Conrad Kohrs, 1913
Dreams of wealth lured the first cattlemen to Montana. The range was open and unfenced, and ranchers could fatten their cattle on the lush bunchgrass and push on to new pasture when the old areas were overgrazed. The main obstacles were buffalo and the Indians, and by the 1860s 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 1870s, 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.
Frontier military posts and mining camps bought most of the first beef produced. When the railroads opened up this region in the 1870s, the big market was back east. The beef was becoming the favorite meat of the teeming populations of eastern cities, and it could now be shipped long distances economically in refrigerator cars. 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. By 1890, many cattlemen were practicing a new kind of range management: they brought the feed and water to the cattle. As feed crops replaced native grasses, river bottoms became useful for growing hay, and water-or the right to it-became a valuable asset, making the land far more productive than it otherwise might be. The quality of livestock became more important than the quantity. Improved range management and selective breeding produced cattle that yielded more beef and better withstood the rigorous winters. With these changes, the old life of the cowboy passed. He now spent less time herding cattle and more time growing feed and repairing fences.
The open-range cattle industry lasted only three decades. Few of its pioneering men and women who made their fortunes 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.
Reprinted from National Park Service brochure.