Next up on our Montana history tour: Deer Lodge, a small town with a surprising amount of history! We arrived mid-morning and our first stop was Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site. This is an old cattle ranch that’s still semi-active. They have horses and cattle on site and park workers give tours, talks, and demonstrations of life in the Little Blackfoot River Valley in the late 1800s.
From the parking lot, it’s a short walk out to the ranch buildings. This includes stables, barns, a bunkhouse for the cowboys, and the old ranch house built by John Francis Grant. At this time in US history, white settlers were migrating west in increasing numbers seeking land and riches through homesteading, ranching, or mining. Deer Lodge was over 1000 miles (1600 km) from the starting point of their journey. Grant made a name for himself by trading these settlers one healthy cow for two travel-weary cows. He would then bring the cows back to full strength over the winter and start the next season with nearly double the amount of cattle. At one point he owned well over 1000 cattle.
Eventually, Grant grew tired of the increasingly unscrupulous cattle industry (easterners were coming west to ranch and get rich, and were doing so by not fulfilling promised business transactions and lying about how many cattle they owned in order to attract investors). Grant sold the ranch to a man named Conrad Kohrs and moved with his family to Canada.
Kohrs was a business-savvy fellow who realized it would be more profitable for him to not only raise the cattle but also butcher the cattle, thus controlling the supply and therefore prices. He sold to local miners and shipped the meat as far east as Chicago. This proved to be a fairly successful strategy and gave him enough financial stability to survive the Hard Winter of 1886-1887, in which especially severe weather caused the loss of more than 40% of all cattle in Montana.
That winter also brought about changes to ranching, as it proved that turning cattle loose on the open range and not caring for them could be catastrophic. Ranchers therefore begin erecting fences to confine their cattle to certain areas. Arriving homesteaders also began building fences around their properties to keep cattle out, essentially bringing an end to the open range. To care for their cattle, ranchers also began growing hay to feed the animals during the winter.
We learned all of this and more from park rangers and exhibits at Grant-Kohrs. It was a really interesting place to visit and a nice depiction of what life was actually like out here back then (in contrast to movie depictions of the ranching and cowboy life, which are greatly exaggerated in many ways while neglecting to mention the skills and hard work involved).
Next, we jumped forward a few years to learn about life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Lacking any real system of law enforcement in territorial Montana, vigilantes were taking it upon themselves to deal with an increasing population of lawless settlers. Eventually, the territorial legislature requested funds for the prison which was built in Deer Lodge in the 1870s.
It was used until 1979, when a new larger prison was built a few miles away. Today, the entire prison complex has been turned into a collection of museums. This includes the Prison Museum, the Montana Auto Museum, a toy museum, a pioneer museum, and the Powell County Museum. Admission to all 5 of them was $24 total for both of us… a great deal considering how much there is to see!
We began at the auto museum. I don’t know how a random museum in a small town in western Montana ended up with so many old cars, but it did. The cars ranged from 1903 through the 1970s and it was really neat to observe the gradual changes from the simplest cars that looked like little more than a buggy (they had no roof or windows, a 2 speed transmission, a hand crank starting mechanism, thin tires with spokes, and maxed out at 20 mph (32 kmh)) to the classic cars of the 1970s.
Next up was the prison museum. This was a great self-guided tour using a pamphlet we received with admission. It walked us through the whole complex located within the 24 foot (7 m) high stone walls. We were able to step into prison cells, see the maximum security and solitary confinement areas, the yard, mess hall, showers, and even the underground tunnel system that was used by security personnel.
As is the case today, overcrowding was an almost constant issue at the prison. In 1896, the prisoners themselves constructed a new building with 256 additional cells. It’s no longer standing, as it was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1959. However, a second additional cell house which was constructed in 1912 is still fully intact. Pretty much everything I knew about prisons was based on TV shows and movies so it was interesting to see and learn what things were actually like.
We also spent a few minutes in each of the other 3 museums. They involved much less reading and much more looking at collections of old items. After spending most of the day reading and listening and learning, we were happy to end the day by just doing some looking.
Across the street was a small outdoor railroad exhibit commemorating the driving of the last spike in the Northern Pacific Railroad which linked Lake Superior in the midwest with Portland and Seattle on the west coast. The last spike was placed about 20 miles (32 km) north of Deer Lodge in September 1883, and a massive celebration was held a couple weeks later to mark the event.
And that wraps up our Montana history day in Deer Lodge. We spent the night at Indian Creek RV Campground, which we really liked. It has probably the nicest campground bathrooms I’ve ever seen, a large tent area, and an excellent view of the mountains!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Deer Lodge is located right along I-90 in western Montana; it’s a small town and any maps app should easily get you to Grant-Kohrs and the Prison Museum
- Grant-Kohrs fees: none
- Prison Museum fees: admission prices are not listed online; what I do know for sure is that entry to the entire museum complex for my mom (senior rate) + me (adult rate) was a total of $24
- Where to stay: Deer Lodge offers various hotels and a couple campgrounds; we stayed at Indian Creek and would recommend it
- Other: Grant-Kohrs is entirely outdoors and the Prison Museum complex has outdoor sections, so come prepared for the weather of the day, bring water, and wear good walking shoes