By Amy Pearson

Brothers William and Charles Conrad started their foray in Montana business with a mercantile based out of Fort Benton. They had come west together from Virginia seeking new opportunities following the Civil War. In 1889, the brothers started developing a 200,000-acre cattle ranch which extended from Dupuyer to Conrad and up to the Marias River. An act of Congress, however, declared the enclosure of public lands illegal and anything fenced in the area they had claimed had to be removed.

The Conrad brothers continued to work towards the development of their property as more homesteaders seeking land to farm and ranch came to the area. They strategically bought out sheep operations along Dupuyer Creek to guarantee a sufficient water supply for their ranch. By 1902 they had started developing Lake Frances, which continues to irrigate farms and ranches throughout Pondera County today.

While the Conrad brothers were working to develop their ranch, the Great Northern Railroad was working to connect Great Falls to Lethbridge with a rail track in order to move coal from Canada south to the smelter in Montana. When the track from Lethbridge to Great Falls was completed in 1902, William’s “Conrad Investment Company” deeded 600 acres they owned near the track to the railroad for a townsite, and thus the town of Conrad was born.

According to Georgianna Borgen’s book A Town is Born: Conrad, MT 1903-1930, Conrad’s early businesses included various lumberyards, the Conrad Independent Newspaper, the Hirshberg Mercantile Company, livery barns and blacksmith shops, the Conrad Townsite Building (which housed a hotel and grocery including the Conrad Mercantile Company that would eventually become Arnot’s), banks such as Farmers’ State, schools, churches starting with the First Presbyterian, a hospital, various hotels like the Ryan Hotel, drug stores, a library, a post office, grain elevators like the armer’s Exchange, governing offices, and of course, bars and saloons which seemed to frequently change hands such as the Johnson Bar Saloon.

The Whoop-Up Trail

The Whoop-Up Trail was a 230-mile freight route from Fort Benton to Lethbridge that passed northeast of Conrad. While there was an assortment of goods that were distributed and traded along this route, whiskey and firearms were the most popular. Because law enforcement was scarce in the area at that time, the consequences for illegal trading were pretty much nonexistent. Eventually though, complaints about the wild times occurring along the trail reached authorities and much of the whiskey trade was dismantled. When Prohibition hit in 1919, however, the Whoop-Up Trail quickly resumed its popularity.

Conrad’s Whoop-Up Trail Days celebration started in 1939 as a means for the local Lion’s Club to finance activities they wanted to sponsor. Initially, the Whoop-Up Trail Days were events which included a Western themed parade and gambling. The funds generated from the event were kept in a reserve for community projects. Then, due to conflicts with the State regarding the kinds of games that were being played to yield funding, the Lion’s Club was asked to find a different kind of activity for the event.

In 1959, it was determined that a rodeo site would be developed just northeast of town at the bottom of a hill next to Dry Fork Creek on Hales-Elliott property. Using the Oral Zumwalt Arena outside of Missoula as their model, a committee from the Lion’s Club designed the rodeo grounds using the hill as the grandstand, although bleachers have since been added.

This past June, Conrad celebrated their 83rd Whoop-Up Trail Days celebration complete with the rodeo out at Helen Elliott Arena, pancake breakfast served up by the Lion’s Club, a fun run organized by the hospital Logan Health, a rhubarb pie festival organized by the Pondera Arts Council, parades organized by the Conrad Chamber of Commerce, a street dance organized by 4-H Pondera County Ambassadors, and a worship service arranged by a variety of community churches.

Conrad Today

Conrad is a small town with a lot to offer. It sits on the prairies just east of the Rocky Mountain Front with extraordinary views of Montana’s big sky. In 2020, the census counted just over 2,300 people, although that number has ebbed and flowed a little over the years. The heart of the economy that started in the area over 100 years ago when the ambitious Conrad brothers landed nearby, continues to rest on agriculture.

While some things remain the same, others change. Conrad has a beautiful nine-hole golf and country club these days, a baseball complex, tennis courts, a swimming pool, Folklore Coffee, the Depot Society Museum where you can take a tour of the old rail station on Front Street, the Conrad Liquor Store on Main Street who can provide all your beverage needs for the Whoop-Up celebration and beyond, Conrad Building Center that acts as a staple in the community for any construction needs, and Elings Insurance who are a third-generation family supporting farmers.

Country Charm Floral & Gifts will make you a gorgeous bouquet of flowers for your next celebration, West One Eleven will cut your hair and give you a tan. Stop by Pure Bliss Cycle for a new ATV or dirt bike to head out to the hills. And of course, spend some time at the Branding Iron on the south end of town where you can eat, drink and knock some pins down in the bowling alley, like my parents did when they met there forty-two years ago.

There is a lot more to do in Conrad these days. The best course of action is probably to spend a little time in town. The folks in the community take pride in their businesses, schools and supporting one another. I would know.

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