Text & Photos by Kent Hanawalt
There are four distinct rockpiles on the Ellison Ranch, which is headquartered near the West Boulder River on the Park/Sweet Grass County line. These rockpiles are among many such that are evident in the Western landscape, and they have long been referred to as “sheepherder’s monuments.” Larry Lahren, PhD, an archeologist of Park County, confirms the common understanding that these were indeed built by sheepherders.
At one time, flocks of sheep were scattered all over the West. Sheep are notorious for being rather dumb, and they are recognized—even in the Bible—as being “herd-bound.” Sheep are quite susceptible to the many predators that roam the West, such as wolves, bears, and mountain lions.
Thus, herds of sheep were always accompanied by herders.
Sheepherders were typically dispersed over the range with a band of sheep each, a few sheepdogs, a “sheepherder’s wagon,” and possibly a saddle horse. “Camp Tenders” usually came out once a week to resupply the herder and move the wagon to new range.
Care for a band of 1,000 ewes consisted mainly of trailing them out in the morning to fresh grass, watching for predators, and bedding them down near the wagon in the evening. Likely, most early herders had little education. And even if they could read, they had limited access to printed material. It is supposed that carrying rocks to build these monuments was a way to occupy time and to feel somewhat productive.
The monuments above the barn on the Ellison Ranch are similar in construction to those I’ve seen other places in Montana—but with a slightly different background.
These are located on the ridge above the horse barn on the Elges homestead. This is back at headquarters, where lived the Elges family with eleven children. It is not then the work of a lonely sheepherder.
Sheep are only out on the range for half the year. They are brought in for shearing and for shipping lambs.
And they are fed hay in the winter. Perhaps the herder was out piling up rocks to get some time away from those eleven children?
My mother-in-law, Emma (Elges) Ellison, was the last of the eleven Elges children, born in 1929. Emma told the story that the larger monument was already there in her childhood and that it was Emma herself who built the smaller one.
The horsebarn was built in 1918. The two monuments are on the point above the west end. It took a lot of rock-gathering just to build the barn. One wonders why someone would waste the effort to gather up rocks just to build a pile!