Grant-Kohrs Ranch
Administrative History
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Chapter One:

When Conrad Kohrs Warren assumed the management of his grandfather's ranch in 1932, he had no thought that it might one day become a unit of the National Park System. The nation was in the depths of the Great Depression, and Warren's motives hinged on the practical. Although the once-famous ranch declined under the management of salaried caretakers during the previous decade, it nevertheless afforded an opportunity for Con Warren and his new bride, Nell, to make a living. Fresh from studying at the University of Virginia, Warren was no stranger to the ranch, or the ranching business. As a boy he had practically grown up at Deer Lodge, Montana, listening to the stories of the open range days told by Grandfather Kohrs and his partner and half-brother, John Bielenberg. Even as a young man, Con returned from school during the summers to work in the hay meadows of the family ranch that had once served as headquarters for one of the West's great cattle empires. After graduating college, Con took up residency on the ranch, working as a hand until manager Pem McComis retired. Even though the ranch was controlled by the Conrad Kohrs Company, headed by an old friend of the ranchman, Warren's selection as the new manager may have been influenced by family matriarch Augusta Kohrs.

The beginning of the Warren era heralded a rejuvenation of cattle raising on the old Kohrs and Bielenberg home ranch. With acreage now reduced to a small fraction of the former holdings, Con Warren recognized that additional land would have to be purchased if he were to be successful. More pasture was needed to support a much larger herd of cattle than the nearly static numbers that had characterized the operation for many years. The directors of the company agreed to acquire several parcels either contiguous to or near the home ranch for this purpose. Before long, the Kohrs Company owned 6,200 acres of land, of which 500 were devoted to hay meadows to provide winter feed for the stock.

Warren also turned to rebuilding the livestock herds. He had a small number of Herefords left from the former herd, along with a few old draft horses still bearing the Kohrs-Bielenberg brand. Con started by breeding registered Herefords with the two bulls then on the ranch. He also purchased additional heifers and bulls at extremely low depression-era prices and before long had a sizable herd of quality animals. Using his own money, Warren acquired a number of Belgian draft horses for use on the ranch. Rather than buying all of the horses he needed, he began raising his own Belgians, some of which he sold. Although Con clung to some of the time-proven traditional ranching methods he had learned from his grandfather, he demonstrated a flexibility in adopting progressive techniques, such as insemination of horses and scientifically mixed livestock feeds. By 1940, Warren had a highly successful stock raising operation that was nationally renowned for its registered Hereford cattle and purebred Belgian horses. [1]

Nell and Con Warren
Nell and Con Warren, 1934.
(Courtesy Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS)

Con invested heavily in the facilities at the ranch as well. The latter 1930s marked a period when several new buildings and corrals were constructed, and old ones were rehabilitated. Conservative in managing the ranch, Con always utilized the original ranch structures whenever possible, a factor that would bode well for the future. In 1937 it was reported that the ranch boasted numerous, "freshly-painted barns, new fence posts, and a neat, almost military-like order." [2] Among the recent additions was a new cottage-style house occupied by Con and Nell, a gift to the new bride from "Ohma," as Augusta was affectionately known. [3]

A new decade, however, brought changes to the operation. Whereas the horse business had become a staple of the Warren operation, and one that had helped him financially during down-trends in the cattle market, draft horses were quickly becoming a thing of the past. Farmers were turning to mechanization in their operations. Technology and mass-production increasingly brought machines within the financial reach of more farmers, who in turn could work larger acreages more efficiently. When an Iowa horse breeder offered to buy Con's Belgians, he did not hesitate in selling. Although he was emotionally attached to the horses, that part of the business no longer made economic sense. It was well that Con sold the horses when he did, because the World War II years witnessed an even more rapid acceleration of mechanization in American agriculture.

Within the few years after becoming manager of the ranch, Warren proved himself to be a rather adept manager. Clearly, he had revitalized the old ranch and had made it not only productive, but profitable. It was not making the company rich, by any means, but the modest profits portended better days to come. This in mind, Con offered to buy the home ranch from the Conrad Kohrs Company in 1940. The directors exacted a high price, but Con bought the property nevertheless. It was to be a heavy financial burden for many years to come. [4]

The end of the war saw the ranch solvent, though hardly better off overall than it had been four years earlier. Government price controls on beef during the war had severely limited Warren's profits. Operational costs, too, became almost overwhelming, precluding his ability to pay off the mortgage as quickly as he had anticipated. The modest profits realized went primarily to pay the interest on the contract. However, by selling the so-called "upper ranch" south of Deer Lodge in 1945, Warren was able to relieve himself of much of this burden and at the same time liquidate his assets to improve cash flow. [5] This was offset by a corresponding reduction in acreage, thus limiting the number of cattle he could support.

The Warren Hereford Ranch, as it became known under Con Warren's ownership, continued to produce high-quality purebred cattle. Building upon his already widespread reputation in the business, Con actively sought out new markets for his animals throughout the Pacific Northwest. He not only transported his cattle to various sales where prices would be highest, he promoted auctions at the ranch itself. The frequent visits to the old ranch by prospective buyers prompted Warren to construct new facilities, including corrals and a sale barn, east of the railroad tracks. At once, this relocation improved access and solved the perennial problems with deep mud experienced at the old ranch situated on the lower bench of the flood plain. From that time forward, Con's ranching activities were largely confined to the zone between the tracks and the highway.

Despite his earlier successes, Warren's solvency declined in the post-war era. In the late 1950s he suffered a major blow when it was discovered that the blood line of his registered cattle was plagued with genetic dwarfism. Eventually, weary of the struggle to make ends meet, Con decided to sell the herd in order to raise cash. It was said that he had only $10,000.00 after settling his debts. [6] He then resorted to raising common feeder cattle. Warren maintained a herd of about 350 animals for several years, until he again transformed his operations to raising and selling yearlings. In the late 1960s, Con limited his activities to feeding and marketing cows and calves. With the operation declining, the day was not far off when Con would have to consider the future of the ranch.

The effort to authorize Grant-Kohrs Ranch as a national historic site was rooted in the Mission 66 program, a ten-year renaissance designed to rehabilitate a flagging National Park System. Not unlike Con Warren's Hereford ranch, the National Parks languished in a financial vacuum during World War II. Visitation as well as Congressional support dropped sharply while national attention focused on the war effort. Much of what had been accomplished by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the way of roads, bridges, and buildings had seriously eroded during and after the war years when all aspects of park development, maintenance, and protection suffered from inadequate funding. Compounding this situation was a prosperous American public that thirsted to travel by automobile in the 1950s. It was estimated that one of every three persons in the United States would visit a national park in 1955. Faced with public use that had tripled since 1940, the National Park Service appropriation was actually less than it had been on the eve of the war. The Park System simply could not survive if something were not done, and quickly. [7]

Director Conrad L. Wirth devised a strategy for garnering a large special appropriation by proposing a bold program to rehabilitate the System. According to his plan, and a massive infusion of money, the national parks would be brought up to a satisfactory condition through an intensive ten year effort. Wirth's logic and persuasive powers convinced both the Eisenhower Administration and Congress to approve the program, labeled Mission 66, in 1956. [8]

Mission 66 created benefits beyond those aimed at rejuvenating the parks themselves. The Historic Sites Act of 1935 had provided for the National Survey of Historic Sites, a program involving the identification and evaluation of properties potentially having national significance. Those determined to have exceptional qualities might be considered for inclusion in the National Park System. The program brought together professionals from the fields of history, architecture, and archeology working in concert with state and local officials, as well as private owners. However, the shift in funding priorities during World War II caused the suspension of what had been a valuable tool in the process of preserving key sites representing the nation's heritage. The critical condition of the Park System in the post-war era would not permit the resumption of this inventory until Mission 66 was launched. The resurrected program was titled the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings. [9]

In order that all important aspects of U. S. history and prehistory would be represented, Service professionals developed an outline of primary and sub-themes. Teams of appropriate personnel then prepared thematic studies to define the historical significance of these themes in the tapestry of the American experience. These teams subsequently identified properties nationwide that served to illustrate each theme. One such group, composed of historians Robert M. Utley, William C. Everhart, and Ray H. Mattison, was assigned the task of studying the role of the cattle industry within the larger context of westward expansion. Their 1959 report identified twenty-seven sites associated with the range cattle days, of which they recommended only six as having exceptional significance based on the established criteria for the survey. Among these was Grant-Kohrs Ranch, noted not only for the integrity of its structures, but because Conrad Kohrs was, "perhaps the greatest single figure in the cattle industry of Montana. [10]

Upon submission of the team report, those sites potentially eligible were presented to the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments. This board, composed of recognized authorities in several related fields of knowledge, had been established under the authority of the 1935 Historic Sites Act to consult with the Secretary of the Interior on such matters. After a lengthy deliberation, the committee recommended that the Grant-Kohrs Ranch, along with the JA Ranch (Texas), the town of Lincoln, New Mexico, and the Tom Sun Ranch (Wyoming), met the criteria for designation as National Historic Landmarks.

At the time, the act of announcing a property as a National Historic Landmark did not necessarily mean that it would be officially registered as one. The final designation for eligible properties was conferred when the property owner signed an agreement to maintain the historical character of the site, and consented to permit periodic inspections conducted by the National Park Service. Provided he chose this course, the owner would be presented with a certificate of recognition and a bronze plaque that could be publicly displayed at the site. [11] More than merely recognizing the national significance of such sites, however, the National Historic Landmark program provided for gratuitous technical assistance by Park Service preservation specialists. This element was basic to the concept of government assistance with preserving worthy sites, without actually acquiring them. Public access to the sites remained the province of the land owners.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006