"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 more revolutionary character."
At fifteen he went to sea as a cabin boy, and for the next seventeen years led a varied life. His work at sea took him to Brazil, Cuba, and islands off the coast of Africa. He learned something of the butcher trade working occasionally for relatives in New York and Iowa. His travels also found him selling sausages in New Orleans, running logs down the Mississippi, and working in a distillery. He became a United States citizen in 1857.
The lure of gold drew him to California, to the Fraser River country of Canada, and finally to Montana Territory in l862.
He found gold, not only in the mines, but in his gold camp butcher shops and eventually in a cattle empire that sprawled over four states and two Canadian provinces. His empire was built on a solid foundation, beginning with the home ranch purchased from Johnny Grant in 1866. Initially, he only needed a place to keep the cattle that supplied beef to his shops. In time, he shipped 10,000 head annually to the Union Stock Yards in Chicago.
In 1868 he married Augusta Kruse Kohrs, and the sumptuously-furnished ranch house is her legacy to Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS.
Montana's cattle industry began in its sheltered western valleys, but it was in the plains east of the continental divide that the vast operations of the 19th century cattle barons reached their fullest scope.
This was range once grazed by millions of bison, but by the 1870s bison were nearly extinct, displaced by the "white man's buffalo" which grazed free on the public open range. Kohrs's cattle were among them.
Cattlemen who plunged into this seeming get-rich-quick scheme received a sharp lesson in the Hard Winter of l886-87. In just a few short years, the range had become overstocked and overgrazed. Drought and wildfires further depleted the range and an unusually hard winter caused staggering losses.
This was the end of many a stockman's dream. For Conrad Kohrs and his half-brother, John Bielenberg, it was a sign that the old ways had to change. They were willing to make a gradual change to fenced range, summer haying and winter feeding. By the turn of the century, the "open range" system of cattle raising was almost gone, but the Kohrs and Bielenberg operation thrived. Only advancing age, increased homesteading on former cattle range, and the death of Kohrs's only son, William, in l90l, combined to cause Kohrs & Bielenberg to gradually withdraw from the cattle business. It was no sudden sellout. In fact, l909 marked one of their biggest years, with cattle sales exceeding $500,000.
But by 1918 all their range cattle were sold and the operation was limited to a few hundred acres at the home ranch in Deer Lodge, where Shorthorn and Hereford cattle were still raised as breeding stock.
Kohrs died in 1920 at age 85. He had seen the cattle industry evolve from the days of the mountain men through the freewheeling open range and into a more contained, more scientific era. Besides his contributions as a rancher, he played a significant part in Montana's history as a territorial and state senator and as a leader of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. His contributions earned him the nickname, "Montana's Cattle King."
Last updated: February 24, 2015