By Kent Hanawalt
Ellison Ranch, 25 miles southwest of Big Timber, is one of 51 ranches in Montana designated by the Montana Historical Society as a Centennial Ranch, having been in the same family for more than 100 years.
This ranch began as a 160-acre homestead filed in 1896 by William Elges, a German emigrant. William was a sheepman, and here was the place to raise sheep. At one time, Big Timber was reported to have been the world’s largest exporter of wool, having shipped more than one million pounds of wool each year. William had built a shearing plant on the homestead, where thousands of the surrounding sheep were clipped, and the wool hauled—by teams of horses—to
the railroad in Big Timber.
The Homestead Era passed, and William was in a position to buy out several of his neighbors and also to acquire more land through the ‘Desert Claims Act.’ The ranch grew and prospered. But sheep are a labor-intensive enterprise; the demand for lambchops and for wool diminished. After World War II, the ranch turned instead to cattle.
The ranch was passed on in 1972 to William’s youngest daughter Emma, who was married to Orval Ellison. Thirty-three years later, the operation passed to William’s granddaughter, Kathi Ellison and me, her husband.
As I go about my work on the ranch, I am continually impressed by the accomplishments of those who worked this land before me: the stone springhouse where Grandpa William stored his meat and milk, and from which grandma Emma carried water to heat on her wood stove and use in her gasoline-powered Maytag wringer washing machine; the stone barn which housed six teams of horses with which to do the haying; the ditches to carry water to the orchard and the garden, and to irrigate a piece of land to be acquired by the Desert Claims Act; the old house with its basement dug with a pick and shovel and a horse-drawn slip, and cement hauled by horse and wagon from the railroad in Big Timber.
It was the second generation, Emma and Orval, who added the concrete spring- vaults for the house water, several stock- water tanks, fences, roads, hayfields, bridges, and a new house.
In comparison, my contribution seems meager: equipment sheds, more efficient irrigation systems, cross-fences to control grazing, additional livestock water development, hay corrals and stack backstops, cattle working corrals, replacement of perimeter fences that must be over eighty years old—all done with the benefit of hydraulics, the likes of which Grandpa William could not have even conceived.
And now, 126 years later, the ranch is still in the family, and still running livestock.
You can read about our recent adventures around the old homestead in my book Millennium Cowboy, available on Amazon.