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Making it in Big Sky: The Crail Ranch Homestead Museum

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The Historic Crail Ranch Conservators pose in 2014 in front of a newly erected storage shed which was built to help the property grow as a museum. Today there is an ongoing effort to create an online database of all the artifacts, photos and documents in the Crail Ranch Homestead Museum. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANNE MARIE MISTRETTA

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY– In 1902, Augustus Franklin Crail established a homestead on the banks of the Gallatin River in the area now known as the Big Sky Meadow Village. For half a century, the homestead expanded to 960 acres and was home to generations of Crails. Today, the Historic Crail Ranch Museum, marked by two log structures that are some of the oldest in the area, is an admired relic of Big Sky’s rustic early days.

As Big Sky grew and the ranch land was purchased by Chet Huntley, the two remaining cabins were eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places thanks to the efforts of the now-defunct Gallatin Canyon Historical Society in the 1980s. In 2001, a dedicated group of conservators turned the preserved Crail Ranch into the Crail Ranch Homestead Museum. 

The chair of the historic Crail Ranch Conservators or “lead conservator” as she likes to say, Anne Marie Mistretta joined the cause when she moved to Big Sky full-time in 2003. She and her husband, Jerry Mistretta, had been coming to Big Sky since 1993 for vacations while living in Connecticut, where they resided in a barn converted to a house. Mistretta had a lot of antiques and was involved in local history in Connecticut and felt she would miss that when coming to Big Sky.

She began volunteering with the conservators immediately upon arriving in Big Sky full time. Mistretta took a hiatus from the Crail Ranch during her tenure as superintendent of Big Sky School District #72 but rejoined immediately following her retirement. After becoming chair of the conservators in 2013 Mistretta said the group focused on infrastructure projects and on curating the museum to be an educational resource for the school and summer camps.

EBS talked with Mistretta to learn more about the Crail Ranch and its role in the Big Sky community.

Some answers below have been edited for brevity.

Explore Big Sky: How are BSCO and other organizations involved with the Crail Ranch?

Anne Marie Mistretta: “That’s the other thing that we’ve tried to do in the last seven years is make sure that we’re a community asset. We actually are quote unquote owned by Big Sky Community Organization they hold the title to the property and they also provide quite a few services for us such as accounting services and property upgrades … Over the last seven years what we’ve tried to do is connect more closely with the school district so that we are part of the school district curriculum. We are partners with Big Sky County Water and Sewer District, Gallatin River Task Force, Gallatin Invasive Species Alliance, we are even connected, to some extent, with the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center. We see ourselves as a community asset. There’s lots of places in Montana that have little homesteads, but we’re among the few communities that have a homestead that’s actually a museum.”

EBS: What is the importance of the Crail Ranch to Big Sky?

AMM: “We’re in a community that is growing, is in many respects changing and this museum keeps the community grounded in its ranching and homesteading roots so that we, as a community, can see what we evolved from, and how the pillars of our society here in Big Sky remained the same. Those pillars are: our people, our character, our recreation and our natural environment. I maintain that no matter how we are changing in terms of growth, we are the people that we were 100-and-some years ago, we have always had the same volunteering and giving character and we have always been about recreation in the outdoors and there’s always been a very heightened concern for the natural environment here. I always posit that no matter how much we’ve grown, we have retained that character and those values.”

EBS: What programs or events does the Crail Ranch organize?

AMM: “We do children’s education, and we do that through our connections with the school curriculum, and the summer camps. We do adult education, and we have summer programs. We usually have what’s called a living history presentation, which is an afternoon with an actor who adopts the persona of a local or regional historical figure. We do a lot of publications and we write for local newspapers, as well as Montana Historian Magazine (and) Destination Big Sky. We write a lot, and our publications are about local and regional history, even state and national history, but they’re through the lens of someone from the Crail family or somebody locally … We do a number of things in the summer, like hike-and-learns. In the winter we have a biannual event, it’s called Of Wilderness and Resorts, and we normally have someone locally who is published and then we also show the Homesteads to Huntley film. There is something on the horizon, it’s called customcodex.com. We just contracted with them and we will be having a tremendous amount of information digitally online that people can access exhibits as well as any part of our 1,400-artifact collections. We have interpretive signs around the community so that people can read them and learn … I feel that we’ve not only been all about preserving this ranch, it’s 120 some years old, but that it’s a jewel in our community because it can educate people, we give tours too.”

EBS: What is the most interesting piece of history about the Crail Ranch?

AMM: “Historic Crail Ranch’s most important attribute is its resilience. Unique double dovetail notching provides structural stability. After operating as a stock ranch for 50 years, followed by a short stint as a dude ranch, two buildings survived the wrecking ball and a fire when the property transformed to a golf course. Since the 1980s, various groups have rehabilitated and preserved the Crail Ranch, including the Gallatin Canyon Women’s Club and the now-defunct Gallatin Canyon Historical Society. The property now serves as a museum, preserved by the Historic Crail Ranch Conservators under the Big Sky Community Organization.”

EBS: What is the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

AMM: “A museum is not static, and it isn’t just about objects and artifacts, it’s about people and their desire to learn from what we have and what we know and connect it to themselves. That’s why we have much more of an online presence now and it’s because we really want people to engage with our research and with our objects.”

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