NORTH OF BIG TIMBER — For more than three generations, the Van Cleve family has invited paying guests to the Lazy K Bar Dude Ranch, their summer home.
This could be the last year.
The 8,500-acre property, which includes ownership of nearby 11,214-foot Crazy Peak, is for sale for $9 million. It is the oldest continuously operated family-owned dude ranch in Montana, founded in 1922 on the eastern side of the Crazy Mountains in Sweet Grass County.
“We are selling a big part of our memories and everything,” said Paul “Tack” Van Cleve, who owns the ranch and runs it with the help of his sister, Carol, and her daughter, Kelly.
Over a cup of coffee in Carol’s Big Timber house recently, after looking through some old ranch photos, Van Cleve explained the decision.
“I’m 76 and have health issues,” he said. “And the ranch has always been run as our family home. At one time there were six family members. They’ve died off, and we’re down to three of us. We didn’t want to go the commercial route and hire a manager.
“I can’t imagine doing it any different.”
Carol, who is 65, put her sentiments simply and with an affected country accent.
“There just taint enough of us,” she said.
“We could hire a manager, but I’d drive him crazy. I’d be interfering in everything,” Van Cleve said.
“So would I,” Carol agreed. Then she acknowledged, “I still get queasy when I talk about it.”
It’s no wonder that selling the ranch is an unsettling topic. It is bound to the siblings with heartstrings, knotted with history.
Van Cleve’s grandfather, Paul Ledyard Van Cleve Jr., affectionately known as Scrumper, and his wife, Helen, bought the old Mjelde place and began building up the dude ranch to supplement their cattle and sheep business. With family ties to the East, the family catered to the well-heeled elite looking for a rustic experience in the summertime.
“They wanted a totally different environment in which they could entertain themselves,” Van Cleve said.
The ranch was passed on to Van Cleve’s father, Paul “Spike” Ledyard Van Cleve III, and his wife, Barbara.
“My parents spent the first three winters with no running water and no electricity” at the ranch, Van Cleve recalled. “My mother was a banker’s daughter. She didn’t know how to boil water.”
In about 1958, Van Cleve’s parents took over full-time management of the dude ranch, eventually passing the property on to the third generation.
“We kids were always raised to understand that the ranch always came first,” he said. “It wasn’t drummed into us, but that’s the way it was.”
Van Cleve eventually went on to become president of the Dude Ranching Association and visited many of the West’s facilities. He was surprised by how different each one was from the other, and from his family’s ranch.
“There’s so much artifice, dress-up and make-believe,” he said of some places he visited. “Now, you don’t see me walking around with a 10-gallon Stetson. They’re a damned nuisance. They bump into everything.”
But some new dude ranchers do wear big hats and big Western belt buckles, he and Carol agreed with a laugh.
Their ranch tended to be more old-school: horseback rides to a high mountain lake for fishing, campfire ghost stories and family-style dinners spiced with friendly conversation. The idea was that clients would entertain themselves for the most part, not expect to be entertained.
Van Cleve said that even if the ranch is sold, he will still be able to appreciate the stunning beauty of the area.
“But I will truly miss the guests,” he added. “You get some sons o’ bitches, but you smile and appreciate them for the experience.”
Those who don’t fit in aren’t invited back. Other guests come for generations. The Van Cleves have seen children come, growing each year until they are adults. There’s also been a fair share of celebrities, from movie stars to corporate and political bigwigs.
To serve the clients, a staff of about 15 is hired each season from such faraway places as Jamaica and Mongolia.
One unique aspect of the ranch is its ownership of lands checkerboarded within the Gallatin National Forest. Van Cleve said his family has, for the most part, always had a good relationship with the agency — depending mostly on who was the district ranger.
Agreements between the Forest Service and Van Cleve family have allowed each to cross the other’s land, and include a public easement up the Big Timber Creek trail — one of only two public accesses to the mountain range on its eastern side. Those who want to scale Crazy Peak, though, must get permission from the Van Cleves.
Van Cleve said he has thought about selling the mountain lands to the federal government, such as the section that contains Crazy Peak, or trading the lands for other parcels. But no deal was ever brokered, and Van Cleve said it was never a priority. He dismissed the idea of working with a land trust, which will often buy land and hold it until the government can put together the money to purchase it back. Although he said he preferred the ranch not be subdivided, that would be up to the new owners.
“I would hope somebody bought it as a dude ranch or as a corporate retreat,” he said. “If whoever buys the ranch wants to dude ranch, Carol and I will be very happy to help them get oriented.”
The property went on the market about a month ago and is already drawing inquiries. Van Cleve said the property was undervalued by about a third, but “we wanted a nice clean, cut-and-dried sale.”
Van Cleve gave a tour of his family’s dude ranch at the base of the Crazy Mountains. In the drainage below, Big Timber Creek roared over smooth cobble. In the gullies, snow still clung up to 5 feet deep. Mule deer and pronghorn grazed along the road going in.
Trim and neatly dressed in cowboy boots, a pressed cotton shirt and faded jeans, Van Cleve walked between some of the 30 log and frame cabins, sheds and outbuildings and recounted generations of history.
All of the cabins were still mothballed for winter. Beds and tables sat atop tin cans to prevent mice from crawling atop them. Linens, curtains and rugs were stored.
“I just hate to show you around when they’re not put together,” Van Cleve said, yet he pleasantly pressed on.
As if to confirm the offseason, a few scattered snowflakes drifted in on a cold southern breeze.
“We’ve got natural refrigeration here,” Van Cleve said, wondering aloud why he had forgotten to bring a jacket. “That snow on the mountains does chill the air.”
Around every corner a memory hid, and behind mementoes, pieces of furniture and each building lurked a story. In the dining hall hangs the mount of a buffalo head that his great-grandfather shot north of here. The gas stove in the kitchen, named Big Bertha, is from the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. On the hillside above he pointed to where a 15,000-gallon concrete pool, now gone, was poured in 1940.
“I don’t know about Carol, but speaking for myself, I would echo something our mother said, ‘I can’t imagine not dude ranching,’” Van Cleve said.
While Van Cleve seems at ease with the decision to sell the ranch, Carol appears anxious, unsure of what she will do with herself once the property is gone. Although Van Cleve hates to visit the ranch in winter, Carol said the fall is the hardest time for her.
“Everything is cleaned, the curtains are taken down,” she said. “The windows look like blank eyes. I love the peace and quiet, but it’s also unnerving. People say, ‘Aren’t you glad that’s over?’ But, no, not really.”