The Grant-Kohrs Ranch honors their contributions.
When westbound emigrants reached what would become Idaho and Montana in the 1840s–50s, their livestock was often severely trail-worn. Fortunately some enterprising souls at trading posts (soon to be regarded as road ranches) kept cattle, oxen and horses and were prepared to swap one of their rested animals for two of the emigrants’ stock. The traders would graze and rest their livestock acquisitions and then make the same deals with new emigrants the following year. It was a shrewd way for traders to continually increase their stock and make a profit. One of the main players in this swapping venture was Johnny Grant.
Grant was born in 1831 at Fort Edmonton (in what would become Alberta, Canada) to a Mètís mother and a father who established trading forts for the Hudson’s Bay Co. Johnny’s mother died when he was 3, and his maternal grandmother and aunt raised him and his siblings in Quebec. In 1847 a teenage Johnny joined his father at Fort Hall (north of present-day Pocatello, Idaho). The fur trade was dying out by then, so the young Grant turned to trading with the emigrants and local Indian tribes.
In 1857 Grant began pasturing his stock in the Deer Lodge Valley (in future Montana) at Cottonwood (later Deer Lodge) and within a few years based his operations there, with a trading post on the first floor and family living quarters on the second. In the early 1860s he provided beef and horses to prospectors rushing to the Bannack andVirginia City goldfields. By 1863 some 4,000 cattle and 3,000 horses roamed Grant’s ranch. But in 1867, prompted in part by rising crime and taxes, he chose to return to Canada. For $19,200 he sold his ranch and herd to hardworking visionary Conrad Kohrs, who was selling beef in the gold camps and wanted a place to keep his cattle.
Carsten Conrad Kohrs was born on August 5, 1835, in the Duchy of Holstein, then ruled by Denmark and later incorporated into Germany. At age 15 he left home to serve as a cabin boy and over the next few years worked on ships that ventured as far as South America and the coast of Africa. At 18 he returned home to recuperate from a leg injury suffered while sailing. When healed, he moved to the United States, first to New York City and then Davenport, Iowa, working alternately as a butcher and sausage salesman, log raft pilot and distillery worker. He became a U.S. citizen in 1857.
Gold fever soon lured him to California and then to the Fraser River diggings in Canada (present-day British Columbia). After returning briefly to Davenport, he ventured to Bannack in 1862. In that boomtown he took a job in Hank Crawford’s butcher shop, earning $25 a month plus room and board. Proving a dedicated, knowledgeable employee, Kohrs was soon earning $100 a month. His boss, the popular Crawford, ran for sheriff and won the election over ill-tempered gunfighter Henry Plummer, who promptly went after him with a shotgun. A wary Crawford shot Plummer first, wounding him in the gun arm. But fearing revenge, the sheriff/butcher left town with what money was in the till at his shop. Plummer won a new election in May 1863. Meanwhile, Kohrs now had himself a butcher shop. The budding entrepreneur soon opened shops in other boomtowns.
To build his herd, Kohrs initially bought or traded for what beeves he could locally, including some from Johnny Grant. When the local cattle supply ran thin, he brought in stock from the Northwest and then Texas. Kohrs not only supplied his own butcher shops but also sold cattle wholesale to the competition.
In addition to beef, Kohrs’ shops sold pork, mutton (which did not work out), chickens and candles made from the tallow of the processed beeves. Nothing went to waste. If the hogs weren’t fat enough for market, Kohrs would feed them the entrails from the butchered cattle and sheep. He kept his beef prices reasonable, which made it the food item of choice among the miners in the 1860s.
Needing help with the booming business, Kohrs brought in Ben Peel as a partner. Kohrs often went on the road to buy cattle, sometimes riding more than 450 miles in a week, while Peel stayed behind to manage the shops. The partnership continued until spring 1866, when Peel married and moved east. To buy him out, Kohrs gave Peel a gold bar minted in nearby Helena and worth $17,500. For Kohrs, buying Grant’s ranch was a natural step toward expanding the butcher business. It also marked the beginning of a cattle empire.
Kohrs also invested in mining, including claims in the Pioneer Mining District. In 1868–69, to get more water to work the claims, he teamed up with other mine owners to form the Rock Creek Ditch Co., which funded construction of a 16-mile canal to bring water from Rock Creek to the Pioneer and two other mining districts. By 1885 Kohrs and half-brother John Bielenberg wholly owned the ditch company. But mining always remained a sideline to ranching.The Kohrs and Bielenberg Land and Livestock Co. thrived for more than a half-century.
Kohrs and Bielenberg initially grazed most of their cattle in the Deer Lodge Valley, but when the valley became overcrowded, they expanded into the Sun River Range and then onto the open ranges of eastern Montana. Continued expansion remained profitable, as they could ship any superfluous cattle to the stockyards in Chicago. They made their first shipment there in 1874—only about 400 head. They were soon shipping 8,000 to 10,000 head annually.
In the beginning, when his stock was in western Montana Territory, Kohrs had to trail cattle down through Idaho Territory and across Wyoming Territory to Nebraska to ship his stock to Chicago via the Union Pacific Railroad. A railhead at Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, shortened the drive. Kohrs and Bielenberg next trailed cattle across Montana Territory and dropped down to the Union Pacific railhead at Pine Bluff, Neb. Then, in 1881, the Northern Pacific reached Miles City, near their eastern Montana cattle range.
At the peak of operations in the 1880s, counting the ranches he owned and range to which he had access, Kohrs grazed his cattle across 10 million acres. The Grant-Kohrs Ranch was thus headquarters of the largest cattle operation in North America, and Kohrs bore the title “Cattle King of Montana” for decades.
Kohrs also became increasingly busy in politics, serving a two-year term as county commissioner in 1869 and winning election in 1885 into the Territorial Assembly, dubbed the “Cowboy Legislature” due to the prevalence of cattlemen. While in Helena he helped found the Montana Stock Growers Association (MSGA), and at a meeting in Miles City at year’s end he helped convince the Eastern Montana Stock Growers’ Association to align with the MSGA. He also met future President Theodore Roosevelt.
By the mid 1880s some 600,000 head of cattle grazed more or less unrestricted in eastern Montana, many owned in whole or part by Eastern capitalists who hardly ever ventured west. Kohrs and business partners thought it prudent to find a new range, so they leased 100,000 acres across the border in Canada. But they failed to drive the cattle there before the winter of 1886–87 (known as the “Big Die-Up”), which was so severe that it claimed perhaps two-thirds of the cattle in Montana Territory, bankrupting many ranchers. Kohrs and Bielenberg kept operating with the help of an interest-free bank loan. While the open-range era was ending, their operation thrived, in part because they bought and bred better stock.
Montana became the 41st state on November 8, 1889, and Kohrs represented Deer Lodge County at the Constitutional Convention in Helena. In 1902 he was elected state senator from Powell County (formerly Deer Lodge County). He made his last major stock purchases in 1909, when cattle sales exceeded $500,000. Kohrs and Bielenberg saw where cattle ranching and agriculture were headed, though, and between 1910 and 1915 they implemented a well-planned divestiture of their once vast holdings. They first sold their rangelands across Montana, followed by their mining interests. By 1919 the Kohrs empire was reduced to the 1,600-acre Grant-Kohrs Ranch. Conrad Kohrs died in Helena on July 23, 1920, and the ranch entered its caretaker years. The ranch was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and became a national historic site [www.nps.gov/grko] in 1972. The National Park Service continues to operate the popular Grant-Kohrs as a living history ranch, using mostly 19th century-style operations.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.