Monday, May 27, 2024

BLM provides easier access to homestead defined by simpler times

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With seven children in tow, Pearl and Josie Gilmore filed for a 624-acre homestead in a remote section of the Missouri Breaks, south of Havre, in 1934.

Testaments to their tenacity to settle on the dry sagebrush uplands can still be found in the remains of an old corral, simple log home, reservoir that filled a cistern and an old root cellar that served as their home until the log structure was built.

The Gilmore cabin, also called Gilmore cow camp, will be more easily accessible to the public because the Bureau of Land Management has decided to open a half-mile route into the Bullwhacker region in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

“The Bullwhacker area of the monument contains some of the wildest country of all the Great Plains, as well as important wildlife habitat,” according to the 2001 presidential proclamation that established the area. “During the stress-inducing winter months, mule deer and elk move up the area from the river, and antelope and sage grouse move down to the area from the benchlands. The heads of coulees and breaks also contain archeological and historical sites, from teepee rings and remnants of historic trails to abandoned homesteads and lookout sites used by Meriwether Lewis.”

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The cabin is located about 4.5 miles north of the Missouri River and 2 miles west of Cow Creek.

“The Missouri Breaks is a zone of steeply dissected canyons, coulees, ridges and ridge spurs between the river and upland plains,” the BLM noted.

“The site lies on the main road to Gist Bottom, on the Missouri. You will need a good map to find it.”

The Gilmore cabin was finished in the 1940s, just after the end of the homesteading era in Montana. It is located in the Missouri Breaks, north of the river and west of Cow Creek.

Family history

Pearl Sanford Gilmore was born in Missouri, moving to Helena with his family at age 17. His wife, Josie May Good, was born in 1896 in Rosalia, Washington. That same year her family moved to central Montana. The couple were married in Lewistown in 1907.

The Gilmores sought land in the Missouri Breaks under the 1916 Stock-Raising Homestead Act. The act granted settlers a full section of nonirrigable land, or its equivalent, for ranching on lands deemed of no value except for livestock grazing.

The Gilmores ran about 20 head of cattle and raised a garden while the older sons worked at surrounding homesteads, according to a history compiled by the BLM. It took until 1941 for the cabin, which still stands, to be finished. It was built with hand tools.

“Surprisingly, few nails were used to construct the buildings and structures,” the BLM noted, although some were built “slapdash,” others were carefully crafted with tenon and tongue-in-grove joints.

The lifestyle on such parcels was sparse. According to the BLM, “The only running water that the house has ever had was when it rained.” Between the reservoir that fed the cistern there were “several screens in the trough to catch the mice and other critters that would float down from the reservoir.”

Locals referred to the area as the Bad Lands. Details of the settlers can be unearthed in articles from The Chinook Opinion, under the heading Bad Land Briefs. In a Dec. 17, 1942, column, the writer of the briefs talked about decorating the log Gist school with “fur (sic) boughs” and food from the Welfare Office arriving to provide “added vitamins” to increase the schoolchildren’s pep.

It also noted that Pearl had visited Chinook to pay his taxes and “make Christmas purchases.” It took his neighbor three days to make the trip back from Chinook, due to the deep snow drifts that made the route nearly impassable.

Growing up on a homestead in Saskatchewan, Canada, author Wallace Stegner wrote about the sparse lifestyle of these late-arriving pioneers, the often bleak environment and weather conditions that would have applied to northern Montana as well.

“You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it,” he wrote in the book “Wolf Willow.” “You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small.”

Zane Fulbright

Zane Fulbright, manager of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, gives BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning a tour of the visitor center in Fort Benton in 2023.

Brett French

Exchanging hands

In 1941, the Gilmore’s daughter, Thelma, was granted the patent to the land. Five years earlier, in 1936, she had married Arthur Campbell whose family had homesteaded in the nearby Bears Paw Mountains.

Campbell enlisted in the Army during World War II, serving in the Pacific. His marriage to Thelma didn’t survive the war and she sold the property to her brother, Kenneth Gilmore, in 1946 for $500. Two years later, Kenneth sold out to his neighbor, Leo Gist. The Gist family lived in the log house for two years. Afterward, it was used seasonally as a cow camp and to house hunters.

In an account provided to the BLM by Jack Gist, he said, “People in this area lived the frontier life much later than the rest of the country,” surviving with no running water or electricity.

After passing through a few more hands, the land was deeded to the BLM in 1983 as part of a land exchange.

Historic relevance

The Gilmores moved to Chinook in 1947 where Pearl bought an apartment building. He died in 1977 at the age of 92. Josie May oversaw the apartments until 1979. She died in 1986 at the age of 94. By then, her obituary listed 22 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren and 12 great-great-grandchildren.

In 2012, the BLM did some restoration work to the cabin with an eye to possibly renting it out. That never came to fruition, but the cabin continues to be used by campers and hunters who should marvel at the tough people who attempted to carve out a life on the harsh landscape.

“The homesteads tell the story of isolation — it often could take three days or more to get to a community (with a post office or store) — and weather could trap people in their homes,” said Zane Fulbright, in a 2012 “The River Press” article.

“Having the homesteads on the ground tells what life was like back then,” added Fulbright, who now manages the monument and signed off on the decision to allow public motorized access into the region.

The BLM has classified the Gilmore cabin as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places due to its association with the settlement of Montana during the homestead era – 1900 to 1937.

The building is “sufficiently intact to clearly convey the notion that this is a hardscrabble Missouri Breaks homestead associated with raising livestock,” the agency noted.

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