Editor's note: Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Montana is a window into the Old West, preserving a 19th century ranch that once was the country's largest. Visitors are drawn to the old ranch house and the outbuildings. But there are times when those buildings are closed, and that's when park interpreters really earn their pay. Lyndel Meikle is one of those interpreters, and when most of the ranch buildings were closed for repairs this summer, the ranger turned to her resourcefulness -- and muscles and smithy skills -- to keep visitors not just happy they visited the ranch, but enthralled with it. Here's how she did that.
It’s called "Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site." It isn’t called “Beautiful Collection of Late-Victorian Furniture National Historic Site."
The theme is the open range cattle era. The theme is not how much the paneling in the dining room cost. Yet with our fantastic museum collection, the story can too easily get lost in the “stuff” and the visitor may be forgiven for thinking such a showpiece is our most important feature. It can be simple and tempting for visitors and staff alike to focus on a single, well-known feature and miss the greater story.
But Yellowstone is not Old Faithful. Sequoia National Park is not only extraordinary groves of trees. Independence Hall National Historical Park is more than the Liberty Bell and, in our case, the Kohrs' mansion is not the open range.
For several months this year, a construction program put our key buildings off-limits to visitors and staff. It was a golden opportunity to leave the glitter behind and introduce visitors to the era that formed much of America’s self-image. The ranch house, bunkhouse and wagon collection remained closed to all but the contractors, but they gradually let me encroach into the blacksmith shop, though the forge remained cold.
The shop was built in 1935 and is one of the most modern buildings at the ranch. Its principle themes involve cattle and horses, the why’s and how’s of branding, and - because the shop was built during the Depression - the ethic of repair.
It’s easy to do a blacksmithing demonstration. Fire and noise, the nearly magical way the iron derives shape from hammering, bending and twisting, the opportunity to hold an object which moments before glowed with 1500 degrees (F); these easily capture the visitors’ attention. It’s harder to get across the importance of the work, and even more challenging with the forge shut down.
Happily, there are many hands-on objects, so visitors could compare a huge and heavy draft horse shoe with the shoe of a saddle horse. With such objects in their hands, questions begin to almost pour out. Their curiosity about why horses were shod leads to the types of horses the cowboys used, which leads to the terrain and distance on trail drives and so on.
Without the forge to tend, we could wander out of the shop and look out over the land - which inevitably led to more questions. Few visitors could imagine terrain so inhospitable that 150 acres might barely suffice to support a cow and calf. Ranches weren’t only huge because they could be, they were often huge because they had to be.
One of our ranch crew built me a short, free-standing section of fence. It was a bit of a joke, but with their forearms resting on the top rail, the visitors found it the most natural thing in the world to rest a foot on the bottom rail.
This led to a sort of downshift. A typical demonstration in the shop tended to take ten to fifteen minutes, but there is no time limit to leaning on a fence. There is time to look at the grasses and wonder about them. There is time to wonder why the corrals are oddly-shaped instead of rigidly squared.
Questions could be answered in a way to lead to key themes. Still, I wanted to get some of the magic of blacksmithing back into the program. The broken seat spring on a horse-drawn mower provided an opportunity.
We use draft horses and old machinery to cut, rake and stack hay. A modern shop could use an electromagnet to test for work-hardening of the old equipment. I didn’t have one. But old-timers have taught me how to approach such challenges. It involves stepping back and cogitating.
Eventually I solved the problem with a magnet, a tin can and…. Well, I won’t spoil the magic trick. Readers will have to visit the ranch to learn the third element. It still wasn’t enough. I’d teach youngsters how to read a brand, then give them an opportunity to pick their favorite of several variations, which I’d put on a hastily drawn cow. For adults, a brand scratched in the dirt could illustrate a story especially for them, notwithstanding the fact that it was somewhat ephemeral.
I have several blacksmith puzzles which I hand around and a simple two-nail puzzle I make and give away. Without the forge, I started making wood and string puzzles. The maintenance crew cut up scrap wood for me and I made hundreds of puzzles.
Between the iron puzzles and the wood, two philosophies developed. For the iron: If you have to force it, you’re doing it wrong. For the wood: Think about what you’re doing or you’ll make the same mistake a hundred times in a row. I used the puzzles to get the visitors to think about the thought processes of the “handyman.” This was the old-timer who could build a shed, fix a wagon wheel, replace a window, and generally take on the challenge of making things work.
As the visitors learned to do the puzzles, I learned more about the visitors. It was fascinating to watch. Four or five different puzzles were parceled out to a family. At first, they’d stand apart, each working separately.
Gradually, and without seeming to notice what they were doing, they’d draw together, sometimes standing shoulder to shoulder. Even then, each concentrated on one puzzle, but as solutions were found - or not found - they’d start working together.
I would step completely out of the picture. They were learning the lesson of working with head and hand, and 20 or 30 minutes might pass before they emerged from the challenge. I needed all those bits of wood the maintenance guys provided, because if a family or individual really worked at it, they’d get to take a puzzle along with them when they left.
With or without such a remembrance, I’m nearly willing to bet that they’ll remember that better than the furnishings of the house. The objects in the house will be remembered as a glorious welter of color and texture, but it’s not the best place to discuss ranching.
The open range is our central theme, but the house holds the story of native people, immigration, settlement, community, and more. Our challenge is to make all aspects of the ranch as relevant and personal to the visitor as leaning on a fence rail.