Grant-Kohrs Ranch
Administrative History
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Chapter Six:

When Superintendent Richard Peterson and his historian, Paul R. Gordon, arrived on the scene in August 1974, there was much to be done before the story of Grant-Kohrs Ranch could be conveyed to the public. The park was at the bottom of the proverbial barrel, with nowhere to go but up. It needed everything.

While Peterson went to work on the issue of providing a visitor entrance and parking area, Gordon attempted to bring some semblance of order to the museum collections and began conducting basic research on the Kohrs family. Gordon's upbringing on a New Mexico ranch, coupled with a master's degree in history, particularly suited him to be the park's first chief interpreter. His efforts focused initially on setting up working files that would form the groundwork for site interpretation. Conrad Warren retained ownership of the Kohrs and Bielenberg ranch records, but had agreed to allow the NPS to access them and to have them microfilmed. When Historian Edwin Bearss perused the collection back in 1970, he had proclaimed it to be "priceless in interpreting the story of ranching on the high plains to the public." [1] However, using the collection was not as easy as anticipated. According to Gordon, Warren had "a lot of stuff in his possession and he would sort of dole it out . . . in little bits." [2] Nevertheless, Warren produced a wealth of historical material over time, while Gordon and two seasonal rangers sleuthed out additional manuscript collections relating to Kohrs at the Montana Historical Society archives in Helena, as well as some deposited at the William K. Kohrs Library in Deer Lodge.

A planning directive issued late in 1974 recognized that more comprehensive historical research was necessary to "document the complete history of Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site" within regional and national contexts. Such a study would be integral to defining both the resource itself and interpretive themes for the Site. A Denver Service Center historian, John Albright, was selected to undertake this project the following year. He and Gordon worked together closely on the history component, while architect Peter Snell contributed his expertise to develop the historic structures section. Gordon's two seasonal interpreters, having no visitors to serve as yet, were dispatched to various newspaper morgues around the state to search for related material that Albright could incorporate into the report. [3] The landmark study, characterized by Superintendent Richard R. Peterson as "one of the finest studies we have ever seen," was released late in 1977. [4] Despite Albright's recommendations for more specialized research and the preparation of a comprehensive history of the ranch, his report remains as one of the principal source of historical data concerning the ranch.

The Site's first historian, like most park historians, was primarily responsible for laying the groundwork for a visitor service's program, not for practicing history. At that time, a park opening was anticipated in the summer 1975, allowing only a short time for the park staff to prepare for it. One of the first visitor needs Gordon identified was an informational brochure that would provide basic orientation to the Site. That required money, and the park had none. He quickly turned to the Yellowstone Library and Museum Association, one of many such private, non-profit organizations that exist to assist the National Park Service. Since Yellowstone National Park had been shepherding the new park from its beginnings, the association agreed to adopt Grant-Kohrs Ranch as an affiliated outlet. This benefited the new park by immediately making available a modest fund to establish a library for the Site, and $600.00 for printing brochures. [5]

What had seemed like a straightforward task, turned out as one of those instances when there were too many cooks in the kitchen. A Harpers Ferry Center contractor had, in fact, already begun drafting a text for the folder, but the effort ran aground. After delays of several months, Gordon elected instead to work with the interpretive staff at the Rocky Mountain Regional Office. It was well that the dedication of the park was delayed because the folder, which underwent many draft revisions, was not completed until 1976. Pete Peterson nevertheless was pleased with the final product, recording in his annual report that it had "proven to do the job intended; an astounding feature of any park folder." [6]

Maintenance Foreman Mike McWright and Park Ranger Mick Holm installing exhibits, c. 1976.
(Courtesy of Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS)

Meantime, the park was in the process of adapting two old structures from Conrad Kohrs old Upper Ranch for use as a visitor contact station and public rest rooms. By the fall of 1975 these buildings had been trucked in and placed in the southeast corner of the Site near the highway. The parking lot and walkways were also built, including a trail to the boundaries of the railroad right-of-way.

This became the sticking point, however. Peterson spent the better part of two years trying to coerce the two railroad companies involved to make good on their agreements to jointly construct pedestrian underpasses that would allow visitors to safely access the historic zone of the ranch. As the negotiations dragged on and the underpass went uncompleted until spring 1977, Peterson came under fire from the Deer Lodge Chamber of Commerce and state politicians to get the place open. This "bone of contention" had placed public relations "in a shambles, "Peterson reported. In order to appease the townspeople to a degree, Peterson and Gordon devised a policy to provide guided tours of the site, on special request, if staff members were available to do so. This plan allowed 700 persons to see the ranch during 1975, a figure that jumped to 2,000 the next year. These were impressive figures for a small park that was not officially open. [7]

Gordon and his mostly seasonal staff pursued a bare-bones operation, yet made significant strides in preparing the area for its limited initial visitation, and the greater surge that was expected after the gates were open on a regular basis. Gordon himself researched and drafted bulletins about the ranch and its principal characters to provide easily accessed, consistent information to the interpreters. His staff also arranged an "imposing display" of horse-drawn vehicles, complete with labels, in the recently re roofed thoroughbred barn (HS-15). [8] Gordon would later recall the sense of satisfaction he derived from helping the contractor to design the first exhibits, consisting primarily of photographs and text, for the visitor contact station. He also coordinated a project to produce three waysides along the trail telling of the importance of grass, as well as the winter of 1886 that forever changed the range cattle industry. [9]

These basic facilities were standard components of any new historic site, but Grant-Kohrs Ranch was to be a different sort of park. It had been proposed at a time when the interpretive concept of "living history" was rapidly gaining momentum in the museum world, and in the National Park System historic sites. As early as the 1950s, the dean of NPS interpretation, Freeman Tilden, had challenged park interpreters to animate their historic sites through the use of people, appropriate livestock, and the trappings of the era represented. The general public loved it, and more important, they could learn from it. Beyond the visual impressions created by costumed interpreters, living history could add dimensions of authentic sounds and smells and it could demonstrate how things were done. [10]

When Merrill J. Mattes first visited Grant-Kohrs Ranch in 1967 there was already a growing number of so-called living farms around the country. Mattes at that time was a senior historian at the San Francisco Service Center. In response to Conrad Warren s urgings, he and another staff member were assigned to evaluate the ranch resource and to develop a brief analysis of alternatives that might be considered for its preservation and interpretation. Mattes noted that, "The range cattle industry in its frontier aspects, has great popular appeal as attested to by the extent to which the cowboy theme has preempted the literature and entertainment fields. Paradoxically, this theme is not correspondingly well represented in the field of historic site conservation." Grant-Kohrs, Mattes noted, was one of eight rare examples of old-time cattle ranches that had been identified as qualifying for National Historic Landmark status. [11]

He concluded that there were two possible alternatives for the ranch -- the older buildings west of the tracks could be acquired and developed simply as a museum, or a larger area of the bottom lands and the Warren structures could be purchased to present "a western ranch operation, with emphasis on modern as well as historic methods." His report suggested that because Warren had "preserved several of the early historic structures as well as later structures," and the complex as a whole could tell "a story of the evolution of ranching operations." Mattes pointed out that the first alternative would present problems with trying to separate historic features from the working part of the ranch. It would be simpler and more effective, he thought, to "assume responsibility for the ranch itself, complete." In his view, it would be a mistake to staff such a ranch with government employees, rather "that a working rancher would operate as a concessionaire . . . providing that his operations would be accessible to the public . . . and subject to Service interpretation." [12]

Mattes thus inspired the basic concept that would influence the long-term development and interpretation Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. Discussions during the legislative hearings for the Site in 1972 directly reflected his thinking for the potential of the ranch. Congressman Saylor, for instance, stated that the intention was to restore the ranch "to a condition to accept visitors into an operating cattle ranch scene." [13] A House of Representatives report "anticipated that the Grant-Kohrs Ranch will be a living memorial to the pioneers of the West, and that a concentrated effort will be made to preserve and recreate the historic ranch scene of the 1880-1900 period . . . The significance . . . is its potential contribution to public understanding . . . of the contributions of such cattle operations to life on the frontier." Although the final language of the enabling legislation was less specific, there could be no doubt that Congress meant this to be a living history ranch. As such, it would be, "the first unit of the National Park System to be devoted primarily to the role of the cattleman and cowboy in American history." [14]

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006