If walls could talk, the Rankin Ranch house could share some fascinating stories of two of Montana's most compelling and powerful political figures, Jeannette Rankin and her brother Wellington.
Both played huge roles in Montana's political history and possessed a genius for political organizing.
Jeannette Rankin, a leader in the women's suffrage and international peace movements, was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress in November 1916.
Jeannette arrived in Congress just in time to vote against entering World War I. Later she would be re-elected to Congress and vote against entering World War II. Both votes were highly controversial. They made her the only member of Congress to vote against entering both world wars.
She would go on, in her later years, to be an outspoken critic of America's involvement in the Vietnam War.
She also worked for social reforms including women's suffrage, increased employment opportunities for women, the 8-hour workday and health care for women and children.
The historic Rankin Ranch home, featured in this weekend's tour, is a simple frame house, graced by four porches. It sits in a picturesque setting at the foot of the Big Belt Mountains, a few hundred feet south of the entrance to Avalanche Gulch.
The ranch was purchased by Wellington in 1923, but is often considered more Jeannette's home than his because she spent more time there.
Although she had bought a farm in Georgia in the 1920s where she lived much of the time, Jeannette spent many summers at the Rankin Ranch from 1923 until 1956.
The ranch site was named a national historic landmark Nov. 7, 1976, 60 years — to the day — that Jeannette was elected to Congress. The national landmark paperwork indicates the one-story house with gable roof was likely built in 1923.
However, a recent discovery by the current ranch manager, Dan Ehrenfried, indicates part of the house is probably much older.
One of the central rooms is actually a log cabin, he said. In the rafters above the room he found remnants of a newspaper, The Truth Seeker, dated Aug. 3, 1878, which was likely stuffed into the rafters at the time the cabin portion of the building was constructed.
Several photos of Jeannette in biographies show the ranch home in the background. Of the places she lived in Montana, the ranch "appears to commemorate her life, lifestyle and career best," according to the historic landmark nomination documents, noting that her childhood home in Missoula had been destroyed.
Wellington was one of the most powerful men in Montana's history — a brilliant trial lawyer, state attorney general, associate justice of the Supreme Court, Republican national committeeman, and land and cattle baron. He ran unsuccessfully for governor, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives. At one time, he was the largest private landowner in Montana.
At a Feb. 21, 1967, memorial service for him at the Montana Supreme Court, Judge Lester Loble said, "It is difficult to think of him as dead-he seemed indestructible…Among the lowly and poor, those upon whom society had turned its back, poor and abused, he was at his best…A legend, a never to be forgotten character, one of Montana's great jury lawyers…He knew no fear and it is such men who shape the destinies of nations."
Wellington, noted for his legal triumphs for the underdog, had a controversial reputation for poor ranch management practices. He reputedly hired former prisoners and derelicts to work his ranches. They proved poor ranch hands and neglected caring for the fences and the cattle, according to biographer Volney Steele.
Long-time Broadwater County resident Ruth Christie, who lived at the Rankin Ranch when she was 5-years old in 1931, when her father managed the ranch, recalled, "He was young and handsome and would ride out with his girl friends." Most people were very poor because of the Depression and a long drought, she said. "He and his girl friends brought Christmas to us."
They traveled out from Helena and snuck into the house to have the presents there on Christmas morning. Christie points out that this was quite an undertaking by Wellington, considering that the road conditions were terrible at that time and that vehicles were not at all like they are today. She also recalls that Wellington bought a Shetland pony for her and her brother.
"He was so proud we had that pony," she said.
The Rankin ranch house looked much the same as it does now, she said. However, she recalls that there used to be an apple orchard and that people drove out to the ranch to buy boxes of apples.
She also remembers that the ranch was irrigated by a large flume pipe that was on a wooden trestle, as high as 20 feet, bringing water out of the gulch to the fields.
Wellington's widow, Louise Rankin Galt, maintains ownership of the ranch and has allowed the house to be opened for the tour.
The historic tours begin at 8 and 9 a.m, Saturday, from the Townsend fire hall, 130 S. Cedar. The Rankin Ranch will be part of the afternoon tour leaving Heritage Park following lunch. For more information about the tour call 266-3599.
Discovery Days events
"Discovery Days," - Montana's first official "county" Lewis and Clark bicentennial event, runs from May 2-4, in Broadwater County.
— Chili feed and country music dance: Friday from 6 to 11 p.m. at 4-H Building at Broadwater County Fairgrounds. Features "Ashkikrs," a DJ group of firefighters from Helena.
Tickets for the fund raiser for county search and rescue are $6 for adults and $3 for children.
— Pancake breakfast: 7 a.m. Saturday, May 3, at Townsend Fire Hall, 130 S. Cedar Street.
— The Historical Tour: Saturday, May 3. Tickets $3 for bus tour or $10 for carload.
Morning portion of tour departs from Townsend Fire Hall at 8 and 9 a.m.
Tour includes many sites many not typically open to the public. Includes Rooster brothel/saloon in Toston; Toston railroad agent's house; Rankin House; Valentine Staubach Log Barn; Dodge House in Winston; Canton Church; and Canyon Ferry Mansion, home of Hereford cattle baron A.B. Cook.
Stop at York's Island will include canoe and mountain-man demonstrations along with trek to Crimson Bluffs.
— Lewis and Clark parade: noon at downtown Towsend.
— Afternoon portion of the tour begins after parade.
— The Broadwater County Historical Museum will open early this year in conjunction with the Discovery Days event. Special displays and pioneer demonstrations on Saturday.
Museum hours Saturday and Sunday from 1-5 p.m.
— Old time barbecue and dance: Saturday night at fairgrounds 4-H building. FeaturesRuby Valley Boys. Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for children or $49 for a family ticket.
— Lewis and Clark encampment demonstrations: Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. at Indian Creek Park, on the north edge of Townsend. Will feature the Lewis and Clark Honor Guard.
— "Pioneer History and a Celebration of Hobbies" craft and swap meet: Heritage Park Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
— Talent show and ice cream social: Heritage Park Sunday from 1-3 p.m.
— Antique cars: Enthusiasts from around the state will participate in parade and tours. Cars will be on display in Heritage Park Sunday afternoon.
For more information call the Mansion at 266-3599.