The Road From Ruin

The struggle to save the rich history of Missoula’s Randolph Homestead


It’s a saying in the science that an archaeological site is like a book you can only read once. You can appreciate this in miniature if you’ve ever tackled a neglected garage or the shelf in your room that collects loose photos and phone numbers scrawled on napkins and the paper contents of pockets you empty from time to time. Someone could put together a story of your life by picking chapters out of all the layers of stuff that collect around you, and who knows? A hundred years from now, someone just might.

Tucked away in a little hollow in the North Hills, until just a few years ago the Moon homestead/Randolph farm wasn’t too different from your messy room: an unselfconscious accretion of the stuff that builds up when a place is inhabited for any length of time. Members of the Moon and later the Randolph families lived continuously on the property for well over a hundred years, at one time running a market dairy and a profitable produce farm with roughly a dozen wooden buildings nestled in this shady swale just two miles out of Missoula. Recently, several groups in Missoula have made it their mission to read this living book and record the homestead’s story for posterity. Or, more accurately, to let the homestead tell its own story as a kind of living museum in the overgrown orchard and the graying wood of buildings that now stand mostly silent except for wind and birdsong.

“Oh, it’s a totally organized pile,” quips Randolph “Dolph” Chitwood. “You just can’t tell by looking at it.”

Today there are human voices on the property. Chitwood is a field crew leader in the Montana Conservation Corps, a service organization whose members have been up at the homestead for four days this week, hauling dead wood out of the orchards, clearing away jumbles of wood and wire and rusty pipe from the bases of the buildings, and just generally doing a little spring cleaning at a place that hasn’t seen much since old Bill Randolph—the homestead’s last human inhabitant—passed away in 1995. Eight MCC workers are stacking rotten wood in slippery green piles, basking in shirtsleeves in the spring sunshine, and making jokes about the tidiness of each other’s piles in progress.

The day before, Chitwood found a five-pound clothes iron in a heap of wire and scrap wood he’d been clearing away from the packed-dirt foundation of the homestead’s original cabin—the first genuine find of the day to emerge from a matrix of mud and decaying wood.

“We’ve found meat hooks and a deer hang,” Chitwood enthuses. “You know, for hanging deer while you’re cleaning them. But there’s so much more in here that you just pick up and wonder what it is.”

He gestures toward the clearing where most of the metal objects, significant-looking bits of wood with metal fittings and other items of human manufacture are carried and arranged, mostly by similarity. The objects in this hopeful triage range in size from a spiked iron harrow to all manner of rusty whatnots heaped in a decrepit wooden box: bolts, nails, springs, hoops, clasps, hinges and pottery shards. There are coils of barbed wire—the familiar two-strand kind and the sinister-looking stamped metal kind, as well as scraps of a third variety that sports free-floating metal spurs. Buckets and cans and basins of all sorts. Wooden barrels with desiccated staves shrinking from the hoops.

There are ancient rubber tires showing scabs of lichen, and something lying in the shade that really catches my eye: a rusting wheel hub in a thick coat of moss. Whatever the value of the hub itself with respect to the homestead as a whole, nothing says age, desuetude, neglect like moss growing on rust eating away at iron. Here it all is in a nutshell: elemental substance, coaxed and tempered and machined into utility, left to the chemistry of decay and then the biology of renewal, now dragged out of the past and held up to the light again. Nature, man, nature, nature, man.

Surveying the Past …

A clay slate surveying stone marks the northwestern corner of the original homestead. The stone was placed on that spot in 1870 by a man named Baker, a surveyor whom the government had hired to mark off the land of the North Hills into highly divisible squares of 640 acres each, a mile along each edge. Armed with paper, pencils and a 66-foot length of chain, Baker marched into the hills in early September and set about the business of counting off the miles 66 feet at a time. When he reached the edge of a shallow ravine, he pulled the slate stone from anonymity, marked its back with “1/4” and set it upright.

Eight years earlier, Congress had passed the Homestead Act, opening federally owned lands to public settlement. Anyone who wanted to—provided he was either a citizen of the U.S. or fixin’ to become one—could saddle up, head west and scout around the empty patches on the map until he found country to his liking. Upon finding an agreeable spot, the sodbuster was free to stake a claim on a quarter section like the one eventually paced off by the surveyor Baker: a 160-acre parcel that would become his property if he stayed on the land for five years and made improvements in the form of fences and buildings and the henscratch beginnings of self-reliant farming.

In the spring of 1889, a Minnesotan named Ray Moon traced the slender creek up the ravine to Baker’s stone marker. He found a small spring in the hillside. Moon brought his wife Luella and their children to the draw in April and they immediately began building the slant-roofed cabin they would spend the next five winters in. That June, with a dwelling already built and about an acre already under the plow, Ray Moon filed his claim at the General Land Office in Missoula, paid the clerk $22 and then went home to begin more improvements on the land he one day hoped to own.

He built the original barn on the property: less than 30 feet square, just big enough to house a few cows for milk and meat. He planted 75 Macintosh, Duchess and Winesap apple saplings on the naturally irrigated southwest slope of the hill, hoping to get in on the lucrative orchard business that took hold in western Montana in the 1870s and lasted into the next century. The buildings he put up are still standing—and still yielding finds like the clothes iron the MCC dug up yesterday, nearly 112 years after the cabin was built. The orchard, untended for years, still gives up its apples every fall, too.

Ray Moon and his family had made good on their contract to improve the land, and on July 2, 1894—just over five years after Ray filed his homestead claim—it officially became theirs. Ray had run notice of his “continuous residence on and cultivation of” the claim in a local newspaper for six weeks, and the government issued him a certificate of patent entitling him to keep it. The Moons sold their entire quarter section the next day.

Most of what we know about the Moons and their property—including the historical background in this article, which is recounted rather more eloquently in a new chapbook called Butterflies and Railroad Ties—we know because of a group of North Hills ramblers who began making a hobby of the place in the 1990s. Bob Oaks is the executive director of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, the parent non-profit organization of the Hill and Homestead Preservation Coalition, another non-profit charged with the stewardship of the homestead property. Together with City Historic Preservation Officer Allan Mathews, Oaks began exploring the place in 1995. They retrieved the first artifacts from the buildings—a matter attended to with some urgency because, at the time, the final disposition of the buildings remained uncertain.

“At one time, there was actually talk of the fire department going up there and doing a practice burn to get rid of the falling-down structures,” Oaks says, “so we wanted to make sure that if anything like that happened—and I don’t know how serious those talks were—we’d at least save as much as we could.”

But, Oaks claims, it was Caitlin DeSilvey who really saw the most in this low clutch of buildings gradually dissolving into the grass. In his thoughtful afterword to Butterflies and Railroad Ties, Oaks writes that “Her epiphanies sowed the seeds of the preservation effort.”

DeSilvey’s illustrated chapbook captures the place with a historian’s acumen and an artist’s eye for detail, recounting the human and natural history of the property from its first surveying in 1870 to the passing of its last full-time inhabitant six years ago. In DeSilvey’s eyes, even the lowliest goat shed merits a photograph and as much historical and structural detail as she can dig up. A tireless sifter, she manages to fuse receipts, letters, journal entries, photos, countless hours of interviews and the many relics left in the shed corners, windowsills and tall grasses of the homestead into a quietly beautiful history of the place. A history which, of course, didn’t end when Ray and Luella Moon sold the result of five years’ labor at a profit in 1894.

DeRay and Luella sold their homestead—property which had officially belonged to them for one day in over five years—to a second couple named Moon: George and Helen. Although the exact nature of their relation to Ray and Luella is unknown, it’s likely that George Moon was a brother or cousin of Ray’s. George and Helen lived on the property for perhaps a decade after 1894, but were apparently less keen on the spartan life of agriculture in the North Hills than were the previous owners. This second set of Moons built a new house and some outbuildings, but sold off half of the quarter section and were apparently already living in Seattle when a Missoula laborer named William Randolph contacted them about buying the remaining 80 acres.

Randolph was a Missouri native who had arrived in Missoula via White Sulphur Springs. After a few years of working odd jobs around the state, often leaving his wife and two small boys behind for months at a time. By 1907, Randolph had apparently decided that it was time for him and his young family to find a place of their own, and on April 3 of that year—ultimately at the insistence of his wife, who frowned on his last-minute plans to buy a downtown building instead—he entered into a contract with the Moons, agreeing to pay them $1900 over time for the 80 developed acres they’d left behind.

According to Butterflies, the Randolph farm, as the homestead would now be known, quickly became typical of the hundreds of similar small farms scattered around the region. In an era before subsidies and corporate monoculture, the Randolphs grew apples and raised chickens. Low-grade coal was mined from a small shaft they called “the little Phoebe.” The family’s fledgling egg business had turned a tidy profit by 1909, when their net poultry income came close to $150. The sons, Keith and Robert, started walking into town to attend Whittier School (now Northside). Later, as the family began cultivating more garden space, the family began selling its surplus produce in town off the back of William’s “Casaba Wagon.” A third son, William, was born in 1911.

One of the first things you notice in wandering around the property is the resourcefulness and thrift that went into its structures and enclosures. Boxcar siding—complete with sliding door—became siding for the expanded barn. Decorative tin ceiling titles—judging by the carbon scoring, possibly rescued from a downtown fire—were salvaged for shed roofing. Somewhat humorously, many of the gates on the property were formerly headboards and footboards from discarded beds. Posts were periodically dug out and pounded back in upside down. Everything, it seems, got put to more that one use, or at least put to use more than once.

The Randolphs’ waste-not-want-not philosophy served them well during the Depression when, with the practical collapse of the cash economy, the family was able to hang on—prosper, even, relative to many of their neighbors—by making do and trading farm products for consumer goods like shoes, gasoline and dry goods. In the teeth of the Depression, the Randolphs even managed to come up with enough cash to expand their holdings by buying out some of their neighbors. By the mid-1930’s, the two older sons had left the farm with families of their own, leaving the youngest, William, whom the family called Bill, to help run the diverse operation with his now aging parents. The boys returned frequently, though; in 1946, Robert helped Bill add two cinderblock rooms to a wood-frame chicken coop and move their parents into these refurbished digs. The move also marked the advent of electricity on the property. “The end result,” writes DeSilvey, “was a two-bedroom house with a fully-plumbed bathroom, electric lights and a gas stove—a far cry from the little house in the hollow.”

After his parents died in 1956, Bill stayed on at the farm which, as DeSilvey puts it, had now “slipped into an eddy in time.” The completion of the interstate in 1966 further isolated the quiet draw from the town below, and Bill continued to live quietly on the property his parents had tended for almost 40 years, raising a few animals for meat and milk, tending a small garden, watching and thinking as nature gradually began to move back in. … And Speculating on the Future

A couple of summers ago, in the middle of a sunny afternoon, I surprised a great horned owl dozing in the rafters of a dissolving barn on an abandoned homestead near Molt, Montana. It was more of a mutual startle, really; the owl shot me a look of snarling contempt and jettisoned an impressive payload of chalk-white feces, then there was a great commotion of wings and dust as the bird went tearing through the bower of cobwebs and finally made its escape through an atlas-sized gap in the roof. I watched for three minutes as the thwarted napper made a break for a grove of cottonwoods perhaps a half-mile off, flying an even two feet above waist-high grass the whole way.

There are owl pellets around the barn at the Randolph place. Owls swallow things whole and spit out the indigestible material later—grayish white, the weather-bleached pellets look like downy clumps of mashed felt and dryer lint bristling with tiny bones. Two kinds of Bubo—short-eared and great horned—call the place home, as do a host of other bird species—flicker, bunting, mountain bluebird, several species of sparrow, red-tailed and rough-legged hawk, kestrel and northern harrier. Old hay packed high in the barn is a sure bet for mice and other little critters, and all kinds of bigger ones complete the picture.

Judging from the quantity, variety and freshness of scat deposited around the homestead, you’d think the numerous species up here lived in the concentration and proximity suggested by a life-sized diorama in a zoological museum: mountain cottontail, long-tailed weasel, Columbian ground squirrel, badger, mountain lion, elk, white-tailed deer, fox, black bear.

Quite apart from its human and historical interest, the Randolph site is also a living museum of ecology and natural history for the amateur sleuth of wildlife forensics. What kind of scat is this? Who nibbled the bark off this sapling?

“It’s been really fun to bring people with biological training up here,” says HHPC member Ethan Miller. “People who can read the web in all its complexity. The way the realms of nature and human dwelling intersect, the cohabitation and co-evolving—that’s something that’s really fascinating.”

Miller and caretaker Stacey Hayden are cleaning old hay and scat out of the roosting shelves in another onetime chicken house that later doubled as Bill Randolph’s goat shed. The sense of accomplishment to be had from cleaning up, they say, is offset by an unsettling sense of chasing off.

“It’s hard to know how much to do,” muses Hayden. “Even just keeping a garden up here means having to fend off the deer and the rabbits.” Miller agrees: “We’re in a real delicate process of trying to preserve the natural quality while trying to bring new life to the place. By taking away the piles, we’re clearing things out and making room for new life, but we’re also taking something that’s provided a kind of presence of cover for birds and other animals. It’s really humbling.”

It’s stirring to imagine Bill Randolph in his twilight years, standing on one of these hillsides, surveying the result of his life’s work and that of his parents, and ruminating on all that had changed in the interval since his childhood in the same shady cleft. With human activity all but subsided and nature once again racing underfoot, at some point he must have looked out at the trophy houses popping up on hillsides and made his decision.

In 1992, Randolph established a 233-acre conservation easement with the Five Valleys Land Trust. When he died in 1995, the City of Missoula was able to use a portion of its open space bond fund to purchase the entire 470 acre parcel to be held in trust, including the 13 acres stewarded by the Hill and Homestead Preservation Coalition and its parent organization. Soon, with the apple trees blossoming in a shower of creamy white, Bob Oaks and Ethan Miller and Caitlin’s sister Sarah DeSilvey will start leading small tour groups through the property again.

“The former caretaker’s dog fell through the roof of the root cellar,” Oaks says. “In the long term we’d like to see it more fully accessible to the public, but right now it can’t be. The public’s not protected and the place is not protected.”

There’s still a lot to be done; most of the buildings, however admirably they’ve held up for 112 years, are in need of significant structural repair. Even so, it hasn’t yet been decided how thoroughly to restore them. Oaks would like to see the orchard replanted. Plans are being made for weed control programs using sheep and goats. The neighbors over the road, the waste management company Browning-Ferris Industries, have contributed significantly to the Coalition’s efforts—even offering to haul water in if the Coalition can arrange a reservoir of some sort—and Oaks savors the allegorical counterpoint of a dump just across the way.

“There’s the landfill, where we as a culture throw almost everything away, and then there’s the Randolph place—subsistence farmers who didn’t throw anything away,” he says. “It’s an agricultural demonstration site where anyone can look into the past and see how that system worked. And it’s a place where people can go and speculate on the future.” #


Add a comment