By Anne Marie Mistretta Historic Crail Ranch Conservators
BIG TIMBER – A historic Big Sky resident has been inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center.
Augustus Franklin “Frank” Crail (1842 – 1924) was one of the area’s earliest homesteaders, and his half-century of work as a frontier rancher helped populate Montana during its last territorial days and statehood infancy.
While other Gallatin Canyon area ranches converted to dude ranching, some owned by off-site families and companies, the Crails continuously operated their family-owned stock ranch on more than 960 acres in what is now known as the Big Sky Meadow. Perhaps more importantly, the Crails helped establish a small ranching community, a toehold settlement in an otherwise wild environment.
What attributes must a 60-year-old man possess to lead him into the wilderness of the Gallatin’s West Fork, leaving behind a relatively comfortable and politically connected life in Bozeman? Courage, determination, intelligence and persistence – the same qualities that drove him in 1865, while in his early 20s, to join a wagon train heading west, leaving behind his entire family and a guaranteed inheritance of Indiana farmland.
After arriving in Montana, Crail worked in a quartz mine outside Helena. By the 1870s, he and a partner were proving up a homestead in Springhill on the western slope of the Bridger Mountains. Despite the ravages of drought, grasshoppers, hail, and water rights lawsuits, Crail’s letters to his father attest that he was a proud rancher.
Gallatin Valley residents’ financial hopes were pinned to the railroad at that time, because they needed to get their commodities to market. But railroad fever could not build the railroad through the valley quickly enough. By the time the Northern Pacific arrived in 1883, Crail already had decided that he couldn’t hold on any longer as a rancher. In 1875, he leased his land and freighted between Fort Benton and Miles City. Crail’s land, which he thought would bring $4,000 – $5,000, wasn’t valued for even half that price. So three years later, he resumed cultivating half of his land while leasing the other half.
Crail was a civic-minded individual who kept current by reading. In his letters home he mentions an Indiana newspaper often sent to him by his family. He also read The Husbandman, filled with news of the day for ranchers. His letters reflect a keen interest in economics and politics. In 1886, Crail was elected as the District Clerk of the Ninth Judicial District in Gallatin County. He ran on the Democratic ticket against a Republican, endorsed by the short-lived Populist Party, and served until 1900. His wife Sallie, an award-winning quilter, incorporated delegate tags from several Democratic Conventions into one of her quilts now on display in the Crail Ranch Homestead Museum.
The Crails raised children who served the community also. One built the first Ophir schoolhouse. Another son, who had no children, served as Ophir School Board chair.
With the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and the coming of the Northern Pacific to Bozeman in 1883, road improvements through the canyon carved by the Gallatin River were inevitable. The first crude roads were cut to facilitate logging for the railroad. By the late 1800s, ranchers moved cattle and sheep along the logging road to graze them in the meadows along the Gallatin Canyon Basin and other drainages. By the late 1890s, under the provisions of the Homestead and Land Revision Acts, ranchers like Crail began building cabins and establishing and proving up homesteads.
His District Clerk term completed, Crail decided it was time to embark on an experiment. Crail had developed a strain of wheat that met the rigors of the short, cold growing season in Montana’s high country. He called his wheat “Crail Fife,” most likely taking the name of his Scottish ancestors’ region in Fife, Scotland. Searching for a new ranch, Crail found the Gallatin Canyon Basin.
In 1901, for less than $1 per acre, Crail purchased 160 acres and a small one-room cabin from Daniel Inabnit. In the spring of 1902, Crail moved his family up the rough logging road from Bozeman to the Gallatin Canyon Basin. The family of five lived in the 255-square-foot cabin for several years. They ran sheep and cattle on their homestead and grew his Crail Fife wheat, which won two bronze medals in 1905 at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.
Over the years, the Crails annexed a number of homesteads and ranched on a substantial portion of the West Fork drainage. They built more than 10 ranching structures and a larger home, which they added onto throughout their lives.
The Crails thrived, etching not only an existence but also a community into the forest. An honoree of the Society of Montana’s Pioneers, Augustus Franklin Crail died on his ranch in September 1924. He was an adventurer, a hard-working rancher, a politician, and a devoted husband and father.
Crail’s family ranched their lands into the mid-20th century, preserving the area from rapid development. Although his 960-acre ranch is now a mere one acre museum with the tiny cabin and the ranch home, it stands as testimony to Big Sky’s roots and the rigors of ranching in the Homestead Era.
Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame 2013 inductions
BIG TIMBER – The Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center on July 3 announced the sixth class of inductions into its hall of fame. The inductees were chosen from candidates who have made notable contributions to Montana’s history and culture, nominated by the public and appointed trustees of the MCHF & WHC. The local trustees of MCHF & WHC selected winners on a regional basis.
Nomination criteria established by the MCHF & WHC Board of Directors for the Class of 2013 Inductions required that one Living Inductee and at least two Legacy Inductees from each of the state’s 12 districts be elected. 2013 is the third year the MCHF has included a “Living” category in addition to the Legacy Award.
Since the initial round of inductions to the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2008, including this year’s inductions, 174 historical figures have been honored as inductees.
2013 inductees from southwest Montana are:
Wendell Lovely, Wilsall
Charles Hahnkamp, Dillon
Augustus Franklin “Frank” Crail, Big Sky
Earl Presley, Gardiner
Agnes “Annie” Morgan, Philipsburg
P & O Ranch (Philip H. Poindexter & William C. Orr), Dillon