In the midst of Civil War, the United States passed a little something called the Homestead Act. This statute was enacted to encourage settlement of the country’s newly obtained western territories, Montana included. It was by this act that Sam Wilson and his father were ever even able to claim the adjoining 160 acre parcels which bore the naissance of 320 Guest Ranch. Alongside them were thousands of fellow west-bound pioneers settling 160 acre claims of their own. These were brave men and women who came forth to answer this call to action set by Uncle Sam. These lands out west were truly wild. They were unsettled and without shelter from the elements. Part of pioneering these territories involved building shelter from the ground up as quickly as it could be done. Most of us, these days, shy away from even the simplest of household repairs. A leaky faucet? Call a plumber. A broken appliance? Buy a new one. Such modern luxuries were not options for the folks who walked forward into what was then the most unsettled of any place in this country. It was, at once, adversity…and adventure.
The image that comes to mind for most of us – regarding a mid-nineteenth century homestead cabin – is something like the residences described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her book series, Little House on the Prairie. The reality is quite the contrary. Recall, as aforementioned, that these pioneers needed to build shelter fast and from only what the land could offer. Often, due to the heavy forestation innate to southwest Montana, nature’s bountiful supply of lumber meant that shelter was a log cabin. The Homestead Act actually prescribed how large these log cabins could be. The luxury of deciding one’s own design and construction preferences was yet another luxury unavailable to Montana homesteaders. According to Christopher Czajka’s article, “The Little Old Shanty On The Claim”: Creating A Home On The Frontier, Part I, a homestead dwelling had to be at least 10 x 12’, and had to feature one window minimum. This means these cabins were 120 square feet with virtually no natural light. The average “studio” apartment of today is classified thusly for being “small” at around 500-600 square feet. Now imagine this: a family of 6-10 individuals living alongside you in a 21stcentury studio. Makes you feel cramped just thinking about it, right? Well, that was the average family size living in those 120 square foot homestead cabins.
However, these cabins weren’t designed with comfort in mind. They were designed with protection from the harsh Montana elements in mind. But, when the Wilson family claimed their adjoining 160 acre plots, they did have comfort in mind. Afterall, these 320 acres combined were named “Buffalo Horn Resort”…not “Buffalo Horn (We Hope Your Family Can Fit In Our Small Cabins) Resort”. Perceptibly, 320 Guest Ranch has maintained this ideal of guest comfort throughout the centuries. From the Wilsons to Caroline McGill to the current owners, the Brask family, the age-old tenets of hospitality remain central and have, moreover, improved. For example, consider something small, and seemingly irrelevant, like chinking. In the era which saw the Wilsons homestead the land we now call home, the chinking used to insulate the cabins would’ve consisted of rather rustic components. Ingredients such as sticks, woodchips, and homemade cement were commonly applied in the insulation (a.k.a. “chinking”) of the space between cabin logs. It kept the cold out well enough then, but the pre-made buckets of chinking supplied by any hardware store today easily rival what our ancestral homesteaders used.
All in all, the takeaway here is a reminder of how lucky we are today. When you come to stay at 320 Guest Ranch, you’ll never need fear getting squished into a cabin one-fifth the size of a modern studio. And, you can rest assured that warmth and comfort are not luxuries here – they’re simply inherent to 320’s lodging. More than anything, we should take a moment here and there to remember those who made all of what we have now a possibility. It was less than two centuries ago that living in Montana was no option for the weak at heart. It took guts to live here. We have to say – the characteristic grit of those past pioneers is what makes us proud to be Montanans. That grit is an attribute which has never – and will never – cease being deeply rooted in this state, and in the people who call this place home.