Genuine Montana working cattle "RanchLife" as experienced by an absentee landlord.

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Name: Kenneth W. Duncan
Location: United States

I am a technology entrepreneur who was lucky enough to purchase a Montana working cattle ranch in 1995. I still work in technology in Utah but love to help our ranch manager manage the ranch and love to work at the ranch (www.ranchlife.com). I started this BLOG to give readers a glimpse of Montana ranching through the eyes of an absentee owner.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"Resting" The HPR

I will never forget the day I first saw the HPR. It was a spring day on the second weekend in February of 1995. There was no snow on the ground but it was spitting in the air in that warm “devil beating his wife” snow and sunshine weather. I remember seeing baby calves with their proud and caring mothers feeding on the windrows in the expansive pastures, which seemed to want to burst forth for the spring season. It was like a contest between the spring sunshine and winter’s last snow flakes. Spring was winning the contest. The beautiful Old Red Barn at the headquarters was standing stall and still, like a huge mother looking after her young ones. It was quiet, yet there was a hustle and bustle in the air because of calving season.

We then drove north from headquarters for 2 ½ miles to what is now known as the LakeSide guest area. I was amazed by the quality and quantity of the improvements. The only human being we saw at LakeSide was a young Idaho Cowboy and his wife who lived in the ElkView cabin. The Cowboy was laid up and on crutches from a horse mishap. As a business person who could not afford to purchase assets that didn’t contribute income to the ranch operations, my mind began to consider options.

As I contemplated what we might do with LakeSide, it didn’t take long to think of the lone cabin we passed near today’s HPR entrance gate and wonder how much it could contribute to the ascetics of the beautiful LakeSide area that was between the headquarters of the ranch and the Forest Service pastures, and how it could complement the other cabins at LakeSide and produce income.. I inquired of the then manager of the HPR if anyone had thought of moving the cabin (today’s AspenView cabin) to the LakeSide area. The manager responded that such a project would cost more than $10,000………I could see that he didn’t have the vision. I called around and found the Pesanti moving group in Butte. I could tell from my phone call to Pesanti that he was up for the challenge. We moved the cabin a few months later at a cost of $6,000! It was quite a site to see that cabin being pulled across the prairie for more than 3 miles to a place where it would look so natural and become a “working asset”.

We then had to replace the previous owner’s woodworking area of the three-car garage with an office, store, and pantry. Then we removed the screening (we love the bugs in Montana) from the back deck of the LakeView cabin and remodeled the cabin. One of the next projects was to outline a loop, a gravel road that would allow us to connect all the cabins, barn and lodge together in a compound. I remember taking the 4-wheelers and outlining the road. Our sons thought that it was great that I would outline the path of a future road and allow them to ride 4-wheelers on it.

We then planned for a lodge. At first, I thought we would just build a pavilion, enclosed on three sides. How naïve of me to not consider the weather in Montana. We soon enclosed the lodge and my family has enjoyed teasing me about that idea for years. The lodge turned out to be very functional and efficient for hosting meals for guests. Much of our planning was just lucky. We had never designed a commercial kitchen or dining area. The credit goes to Marie for successfully finishing off the lodge. We even constructed a studio apartment above the Lodge.

Now, where would we house wranglers and kitchen staff, who needed to be onsite at LakeSide? Our predecessor owner had constructed a very nice guest barn with a loft above. We would feed our horses with large round bales and would not need the loft. What a wonderful place to build a couple of apartments. The stairs were steep but they kept the wranglers in shape!

Our predecessor also constructed and stocked a 2 ½ acre fishing pond with Rainbow trout but the two streams on our ranch (Browns and Painter) contain some of the purest strains of Montana’s native Westslope Cutthroat. We worked with Montana’s Fish and Game Department and soon obtained approval to have the first recreation lake in Montana authorized to be stocked with a pure strain of Westslope Cutthroat Trout.

We converted small storage sheds to laundry and freezer buildings and a wood and boat house. We drilled wells and planted thousands of square feet of grass. We returned a small stream to its original location and diverted spring water to flow through it to the lake. We planted wild flowers, graded roads, cleaned up timber, etc.

We hope that we made LakeSide an area where summer guests could come and enjoy an authentic RanchLife adventure. Over the past 10 years we have hosted hundreds of people for one-week RanchLife adventures. I recall the first guests we ever had…….a honeymoon couple from Virginia, with whom we still have contact. Through the blinds of the LakeView cabin we watched intently and nervously as the couple emerged from the AspenView cabin on the very first day of the HPR ever hosting guests. We wondered what we would do with them. We were so green at this dude ranch business. It seemed like such a difficult thing to do compared with raising Cows! From that first moment of guests stepping out of their cabin into an adventure of their lifetimes, we have never looked back. We have hosted the nicest people on earth at the HPR. We stuck with it and broke our necks to host people for more than 10 years and it is now time to give us and the HPR a rest, at least for 2007.

We have decided to “rest” the ranch from our guest operation for the 2007 season. Our primary reason for “resting” the ranch from our guest business is to give Marie and the ranch back to our family during the summer months. The most painful aspects of running the guest operation were to see Marie distracted from hosting our family who visited the ranch and to have our family feel like strangers at the ranch. In addition to our own rest, we want to focus on weed control, pasture development and utilization, jackleg fence improvements, flower boxes, fencing blinds around utilities, and many other projects that have been on our project list for more than 10 years. We will see how things go during 2007 then make a decision on what we do in the future.

For those of you who have enjoyed the HPR over the past 10 years, we thank you so much for coming and getting to know us and helping us do our ranch work. We will miss you and know that you will miss the HPR.

During the past 10 years our family and the HPR have truly survived draughts, earthquakes, mortgage payments, grasshopper infestations, the federal government, environmentalists, lawsuits (plural, unfortunately), absence from family, lots of driving in dangerous conditions, deaths, low cattle prices, energy crises, and a struggling technology business. It is truly miraculous that we have been able to keep the HPR. It is a jewel in the Prairie and we will love it forever. Our lives are changing, we hope, generally, for the better.

We will maintain our web site so that you can virtually visit us at your convenience. You will also want to monitor our site for announcements about future plans. We also hope to hear from you as to how your lives are going.

I thought it might be of interest to you on what we will miss and what we will not miss hosting guests at the HPR. We will miss greeting, hosting, and RanchLife adventuring with the finest people on earth; we will miss working with a great staff of wranglers and kitchen staff; we will miss evenings of Cowboy poetry, singing country songs, and listening to our neighbors Ron and Megan play and sing and, yes, even Megan’s dancing! We will miss the good food.

We will not miss filling out government forms and government audits of our small operation. We will not miss Montana’s business-unfriendly taxes, such as unemployment and worker’s comp. We will not miss frequent traffic on dirt roads and the associated wear and tear on vehicles, safety, and the dispersion of weeds.

Again, thank you for your friendship and business……it’s not often that these two can mix so nicely. All the best to you and your families in 2007.


Ken & Marie Duncan
Urs & Laurie Schmidlin
Elias & Marie Cervantes