Grant-Kohrs Ranch
Administrative History
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Chapter Five

One official who had inspected Grant-Kohrs Ranch in 1966 described it then as "a rundown remnant of a ranch," predicting that it would take a lot of money to restore the dozens of buildings. The buildings in the old ranch area west of the railroads had been allowed to deteriorate to a deplorable condition. Conrad Warren, although well-aware of how badly the structures had fared, had little choice but to watch them crumble. The cost of preserving them was far beyond his means, nor did he need the buildings for his relatively small-scale ranching activities. Genuinely concerned that a piece of genuine western Americana would be lost forever, Warren feared that if nothing were done, there would soon be nothing left to save. [1] By the time the National Park Foundation acquired the property in trust near the end of 1970, the condition of the buildings was declining rapidly for lack of any maintenance during the past several decades.

The structural preservation challenges facing the National Park Service at Grant-Kohrs Ranch were enormous. Since historic preservation professionals had been notably absent from among the personnel who had inspected the ranch early-on, it was not too surprising that attention focused initially on the trove of objects that filled the ranch house and outbuildings. That so much of the material associated with the Kohrs and Bielenberg operations, along with a smattering of items attributed to John Grant, remained on the very ranch where they were used was truly unique. Vaunted by NPS officials as an impressive "time capsule of the Western frontier", this description hardly did justice to the diverse collection of horse equipment, machinery, vehicles, furnishings, and historical records that had survived largely intact. Con and Nell Warren's willingness to donate these items to the National Park Service had been a key factor in the negotiations for the purchase of the ranch.

The first task was to develop a general inventory of the collections then housed in the various buildings on the site. On hand at the time the National Park Foundation purchased the core historic zone were Historian Edwin C. Bearss and Jim Dougherty from the Washington Office along with Warren J. Petty, museum curator at Fort Laramie National Historic Site. A few days preceding the sale, this team joined John R. Douglass, the park ranger from Yellowstone who had been the interim coordinator for the ranch. Historian Bearss was especially impressed with the wealth of ranch records he found tracing many decades of Kohrs and Bielenberg's business activities. [2]

Virtually overnight the agency found itself responsible for protecting and preserving this priceless collection of objects, many of them already in need of professional care. But, because the site was not yet officially authorized as a unit of the National Park System, there was no full-time staff, nor was there funding to support any kind of conservation program. The only protection afforded the collections were the structures in which they resided, and most of the buildings had critical deficiencies. The most that could be done was to install a caretaker, whose rudimentary duties included basic custodial work and the waging of a hopeless battle against the elements by taping broken window panes, nailing down loose boards, and temporarily covering empty window openings with plastic sheeting. [3]

Vernon E. Hennesay, assistant superintendent at Yellowstone and official liaison for the ranch after the acquisition, appreciated the conditions at the ranch, though there was little he could do to correct them. The very limited money that was available to him had to be skimmed from the Yellowstone budget. After paying the caretaker's salary, there was barely enough left over to cover the utilities bills and to make small purchases for basic supplies. This program of stop-gap maintenance prevailed for over two years after legislation was passed authorizing the Site.

Early in 1973 Hennesay met with Midwest Regional Office officials to discuss the status of the struggling new site. All agreed that preservation and rehabilitation of the major ranch structures should be the first priority. Not only were the structures an integral and most visible part of the historic resource, they were the only protection for the museum collection. However, the regional office could offer little more than encouragement, advising Hennesay to prepare a number of project requests that would address the most critical needs for the area. These included an updated master plan, now that NPS ideas for the area had begun to gel. Basic historical research also was desperately needed to assist management in defining the context and significance of the resources. Only then could informed decisions be made and priorities established to address preservation issues. At the same time, Midwest Region applied to the Washington Office for assistance in setting up a historic preservation program to stabilize the buildings, and to define temporary measures for maintaining them until major funding could be obtained. Vance L. Kaminski, the Regional Historical Architect, was given this assignment, while Chief Historical Architect Hank Judd, from the Washington office, volunteered to assist. [4]

The park had so many deficiencies that it was difficult to know where to begin. The architects probably were aghast when they saw all of the structures in need of major repairs. The Grant-Kohrs ranch house (HS-1), the visual centerpiece of the ranch and the building containing the most environmentally sensitive artifacts, needed a new roof -- and right away. Both the original shingle roof over the log portion of the house and the standing seam metal roof on the 1890 wing had numerous leaks that caused ceiling plaster to fall at an alarming rate. Walls, still retaining their original papers and paint, were becoming water-stained. Worse yet, the leaks threatened the collections within. There was no place to move them, and even if there had been, specialists had not yet had the opportunity to study the furnishings in situ, which was essential to the future restoration and interpretation of the house.

It was a problem that simply could not wait for the appropriations process to grind out special funding. Hennesay and Superintendent Jack K. Anderson took the initiative to set aside enough excess year-end money from the Yellowstone National Park budget to cover the materials so that a contract could be let to Arnold E. Larson, a local builder, to perform the work. (Larson would later become the first maintenance worker at the Site.)

This emergency project was carried out late in the summer 1973. In the interest of time, the lack of research, and limited funds, the entire roof was wood shingled, including the rear wing. Con Warren noted this in a letter he wrote to the regional director several months later. Objecting to the removal of the original metal roof, Warren blasted the Park Service for slip-shod work, exclaiming that, "Anyone who knows anything about roofing knows that shingles are not successful of a roof of less than 1/3 pitch. I was under the impression that authentic restoration was to duplicate the original as closely as possible." [5] Authentic or not, the roof was there to stay, at least for awhile. Little did anyone realize then that it would arise later as a major issue.

The local community was clamoring to see definite signs of progress at the new historic site. What they wanted most was to see it open to the public, but that was still premature. In fact, it would take longer than anyone in or out of the Park Service anticipated. Nevertheless, the NPS felt pressured "to do something concrete to demonstrate our interest and concern," Rocky Mountain Regional Curator Ed Jahns observed after a visit to the ranch in August 1974. Jahns, shocked by the general conditions he found at the ranch, recommended that several of the buildings should be braced up "or they will fall with the first heavy snow." [6]

Grant-Kohrs Ranch had a growing number of persons within the NPS who were devoted to its cause, not the least of whom were its first superintendent, Richard Peterson, and park historian Paul Gordon. But, while the park staff fought the daily battles of trying to get the park up and running, they were helpless to do anything about the more complex issues of historic preservation. The ranch needed a champion who could do something about these problems, and needed one badly. Fate provided one in Rodd L. Wheaton, who was hired in May 1974 as the new regional historical architect for the Rocky Mountain Region. This was an extremely fortunate choice for Grant-Kohrs Ranch because Wheaton was not only well-qualified to guide the preservation work at the Site, he had an intense personal interest in Victorian antiquities. He had been in the Denver office only a short time when the ranch caught his attention. When another staff member, who had recently visited the ranch, referred to it as "no better than a Victorian bordello," Wheaton was prompted to make a personal reconnaissance. [7]

During his orientation to the ranch early in October, 1974, Wheaton was truly astounded at what he discovered. Here was a Victorian home, essentially sealed for a quarter century, with major portions of its original furnishings intact. Although he found the interior of the house dark, with everything shrouded "like King Tut's tomb," he soon realized that he was looking at one of the finest collections of decorative arts he had ever seen. Transcending the value of the objects themselves was the fact that the furnishings represented one woman's taste, a woman who had possessed the means to create a haven apart from her rough-hewn frontier surroundings. [8]

Wheaton inspected the buildings with a preservationist's eye to structural detail and fabric. The existing conditions were appalling. He would later recall being "horrified at what Ed Griggs had been doing" to the buildings. Though well-meaning, the early caretakers had in some instances done more harm than good. Working with Superintendent Peterson, Wheaton listed several recommended actions, the first of which was photographically and architecturally document the buildings in accordance with the standards for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), something that had not yet been done. This was an extremely important step in the process in the event that a building were damaged or destroyed accidentally. It also recorded the conditions of the structures prior to any major restoration work. He arranged to have Jack Boucher, a HABS photographer, perform the work that very month.

Following a cursory examination of the ranch structures, Wheaton inventoried the obvious problems with the primary buildings, using a criterion of "what's falling down the most" to rough out the priorities. The ranch house, bunk house, and log barn complex were among those having the most urgent needs for stabilization. [9] At this point, determining the causes of deterioration and devising effective strategies for mitigating those conditions was paramount.

Peterson and Wheaton made an effective team. Things began to happen. By January 1975 Wheaton's proposed projects had been subjected to the requisite review and cleared by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Montana State Historic Preservation Office. By early that spring contracts totaling $65,000.00 were awarded to correct some of the most serious deficiencies. These included repainting the exterior of the ranch house (HS-1), replacing the gutters and downspouts, and reconditioning the sash throughout all of the historic buildings. The ceilings in several rooms in the ranch house (HS-1) were restored to prevent any further deterioration. Three buildings, the ice house (HS-4), cow shed (HS-23), wooden granary (HS-26), and the east stallion barn (HS-38) received new roofs, while masonry repairs were executed on the foundations of ten buildings. The ranch was on the road to recovery at last. [10]

stallion barn
Restoration of Stallion Barn underway.
(Courtesy of Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS)

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006