Local historians co-author book on early history of Big Sky
By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

BIG SKY – When white settlers arrived in the Big Sky area in the 1880s, many experienced such hardship and failure that they soon packed up and left. Few individual and family names appeared from one 10-year census to the next.

Those that did persist were hardy and flexible, says local historian Anne Marie Mistretta. They went from trapping to mining to ranching to seasonal work at the emergent dude ranches.

One family, the Crails, managed to sustain a stock ranch the longest. When they homesteaded along the west fork of the Gallatin in the early 1900s, they were miles from their nearest neighbors. They lived there for 50 years, running a herd of cows and sheep and living off the land.

“The Crails and other ranchers were incredibly self-sufficient,” Mistretta said. “They had generators, built their own buildings, and had their own milking cows.” Some of the other longtime residents of the area, like the Karsts and the Lemons, were entrepreneurs who supplied services to locals and tourists, Mistretta notes.

Pete Karst started motorized trips from Gallatin Gateway to West Yellowstone with a pair of Cadillac busses in 1913. The trip took two days. Billy Lytle brought the first personal car to the area in 1915, and by 1920 nearly every rancher and homesteader had one. The road was primitive, however, and it took an entire day to get from the West Fork to Bozeman. Drivers had to be prepared for up to three flats per trip.

Through their new book, Images of America: Big Sky, co-authors Mistretta and Dr. Jeff Strickler depict stories like the Crails’ in detail, giving a sense of what life was like for early settlers in Big Sky and Gallatin Canyon through photos, character sketches, anecdotes and historic records.

“It’s about the hardy, the persistent, the ‘trials and tribulations’ of trying to create and sustain a life, lifestyle, and a community,” Mistretta said. More than 175 historic photos bring those stories to life.

The authors did much of their research at the Gallatin Historical Society’s Pioneer Museum, the Museum of the Rockies, the County Land Records Office, and the Renne Library at MSU. They spent a year poring over historic letters, journals, legal documents, family photos and government archives, and interviewing local people whose families had been in the area for generations.

“Stories came from here, there and everywhere, and photos came along with them,” Strickler said.

They also found that many people from the earliest generations were already gone. “Their stories needed to be told,” Mistretta said.

The book’s careful detail is astounding, said Al Lockwood, chairman of the Historic Crail Ranch Conservators, which helped facilitate the book’s publishing. “Some of it changed the fundamental things we’ve been saying all along about local history,” Lockwood said.

“It was fun, like a little detective experience,” Mistretta said about the meticulous research process.

The book starts with the Hayden Expedition in the early 1870s, which surveyed much of the region, and has chapters about logging, mining, homesteading, ranching, recreation and tourism. It concludes in 1970, when local Freddy Pessl and Olympic gold medalist Jean-Claude Killy helicoptered to the top of Andesite to determine whether it might be a viable ski resort.

“You can’t stop turning the pages to read and look at the next picture,” Lockwood said. “I think it’s going to open up a tremendous amount of interest in Big Sky history.”

Images of America: Big Sky is being published as part of an Arcadia Publishing series.
The book will be available Oct. 29, but advanced orders may be placed through Crail Ranch or at the BSCC booth at the Country Fair or the Big Sky Farmers Market. All proceeds will go to the Crail Ranch.