Montana Viewpoint: Remnants and relics of an old ranch

Jim Elliott

Buildings have a way of disappearing where I live. They rot, burn, atomize and move. I have an aerial photo of the ranch from 1950 or so. On the part of the ranch I call the Fox place there is the cabin that housed Mr. Fox in one end and his horse in the other.

There is a barn at least 200 yards from the cabin, and what looks like a summer kitchen underneath some cottonwoods which were large even then. On what I call the home place, there was a substantial cedar cabin and outbuildings, including a barn. Those buildings were all down in a coulee to take advantage of gravity flow from a small spring. It looks like it gave them only about 2 feet of head, enough for a trickle, but it beat carrying water.

In 1976, when I moved here, all those buildings were gone, except for the Fox cabin, and that not in good shape. Not far away was the old Trout Creek Ranger station, the buildings of which are now distributed all over this part of the county. A bunkhouse here, the office there, a couple of homes both here and there, some as far away as four miles.

The town of Trout Creek has up and moved twice. What was once a busy railroad town lost its status as a rail division point in 1909 and the town moved pretty much lock, stock, and barrel to where the new railroad depot was built a couple of miles upriver. There was a hotel, and to supplement the housing crisis, boxcars; hot in the summer, cold in the winter but shelter, at least. They lasted until the mid-sixties. What was left of old Trout Creek became a place called Larchwood where there are still a couple of the original houses.

In the late 1950s the Highway Department decided to move the highway a couple of hundred yards, so the town up and moved, too. There used to be a café that was made up of four buildings, some of which had had their start in Larchwood. The cafe burned down in the late 1970s and I don’t think there are any more of the relocated buildings left.

Buildings disappeared, but people’s possessions got left behind, and if they were metal, they survived, hiding in the grass and woods waiting to be discovered. An old heat stove, the body long rusted out, but the fire door, legs, and top plate still in good shape, albeit rusty, testifies to a dwelling in the woods on the Fox place not shown on any map or record.

On the home place there was an old buck rake, a wagon carriage, and a stump winch, the wooden parts of which were long gone. It was a simple affair: a very heavy cast winch with ratchet teeth to hold the tension and a large square hole in the center to hold a vertical axle that was attached to a horizontal tongue turned by a horse, stepping over the cables as it walked in circles.

Paul Shade, who had grown up on the home place, came back to Trout Creek to live out his days and visited from time to time. I would ask him if he remembered this or that, but he couldn’t. “When I lived here, you could see from here to White Pine [all of six miles]. With the woods grown back it’s all different.”

He came in 1924, at eleven years of age, and 14 years after the “Big Burn” of 1910 which wiped out three million acres of timber. Paul did remember visiting an “old Finn” who had a cabin a short distance away. From the way he described the cabin, that would have been Mr. Fox.

From time to time I added on to the ranch and one piece of land yielded an old sulky plow buried by shrubbery and two knives; a cheap stiletto and a handmade bowie type with an elk antler handle. I still use them. It also yielded the single best crop of clover and orchard grass I ever hope to see.

On the home place there were marbles and bottles and parts of tools and machines and a hand wrought “E” branding iron which was strange because it worked for my brand—lazy E over E. Stranger still, no one having a name starting with E ever lived here, or anywhere nearby.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly on the Missoula Current.