Bonanza Creek Ranch, Montana - A working ranch for the experienced rider

BY Jody Dahl | Mon 21 Feb, 2011

The "STORY" of Bonanza Creek Ranch, a working ranch vacation spot, begins  with the births of Martin T. (1844) and Anton T. (1846) Grande on a farm near Verran, Norway. Their early years were spent on the farm and fishing on the nearby fjord. With little formal education and a stagnant local economy, the brothers decided to join the emigration to the land of opportunity, AMERICA. In 1866, they with 200 others, obtained passage on a sailboat headed for the promised land. Passengers provided their own food and after six weeks at sea they arrived at Quebec, Canada. The boat leaked badly and men were needed to man the pumps. Martin and Anton volunteered for pump duty to pay the fare to Montreal. At Montreal, they spent their last money for tickets to Brownsville, Minnesota. From there they walked 200 miles west where they found work in the harvest fields. At the end of harvest the farmer had no money to pay them so they took two cows instead. They sold the cows and Martin set out for points west while Anton returned to timber work in Michigan.

The brothers had seen advertisements for sawmill workers by the Holter Brothers of Helena and agreed that Montana would be their final destination. Martin worked in the Wyoming coal mines for three years and then left for Helena by stagecoach via Salt Lake City. He found work at Fort Logan (near White Sulphur Springs) cutting cordwood and later did the same type of work for the railroad at the Sun River. Meanwhile, Anton left his job in Michigan and found employment at the Holters Sawmill near Helena.

At Sun River, Martin met Pete Jackson who was providing the camp with meat (wildgame). Martin later spent considerable time with Jackson hunting elk on both forks of the Musselshell River. One spring, they delivered 400 elk hides at a trading post on the Missouri River realizing $800 that they divided equally.

 Martin worked for two summers for William and John Smith at their gold mine at Thompson Gulch west of White Sulphur Springs. He spent the winters at the Smith's claim on Willow Creek east of White Sulphur Springs where the partnership of Smith Brothers and Henry McDonald were running a band of sheep. It was at this time in 1876 that John Potter and Mr. Ford were running sheep south of White Sulphur Springs. In the fall they threw their wether lambs together and hired a long, lanky Norwegian to herd them. After the first day he told them that the lambs ran like antelope and that he could not herd them unless they gave him a saddlehorse. This they did, and he stayed with the job. The Norwegian was none other than Martin Grande who lived in Meagher County and the Lennep area for half a century thereafter. He became one of the wealthiest and most successful sheepmen in central Montana and greatly respected by all who knew him.

On August 2, 1877 Martin Grande and William Smith left for Boise, Idaho on horseback with a camp outfit and plans to buy sheep. Two thousand sheep were purchased from John Haley and driven back arriving on the Musselshell on October 25, 1877.  While they were in Boise purchasing the sheep, the Nez Perce Indians went through the Big Hole Basin on their way to Yellowstone and burned out a settlement that had been standing on Smith and Grande’s way through.  They were lucky to have missed them.  It was a long slow trip home as sheep will not cross water more than five or six inches deep.  The men either carried the ewes across the streams or tailed them around the head of each stream thus adding many miles to an already long trip.  They were able to ferry them across at Three Forks and Toston. 

It was said of Martin Grande that he had never given a mortgage and only once had he borrowed money. It would seem logical that this was the time he would have borrowed money to make this sheep purchase.

Martin spent the winter of 1877- 78 with the Smiths at their ranch. In the spring of 1878, Martin took his third of the sheep and moved to his ranch on Comb Creek, a few miles to the west. The scenic Comb Butte stood like a silent sentinel nearby. In selecting a location for his ranch, Martin had the benefit of his earlier experience hunting buffalo and elk on both forks of the Musselshell River. The spot he chose near Comb Butte was scenic and near a dependable year-round stream. Timbered areas were nearby for wood and house logs. Mountains lay to the north, west and south with open grazing areas to the east. Downslope winter winds would clear the range of snow for the livestock.

The upper Musselshell valley was settled mainly from the west, since Indians were numerous to the south and east. With the increasing numbers of trappers, miners and settlers, Indians were aware of the threat to their free-roaming nomadic lifestyle. Many small scale Indian raids were a continuing detriment to settlement of the Musselshell valley. The Battle of the Little Big Horn had been fought in 1876.

Brother Anton went into partnership with Martin. The brothers increased the number of sheep rapidly, and by 1883 had a herd of 4800. The Grande Bros. Partnership suffered a blow in August 1880 when Anton was seriously injured on a street in Helena. A freighter's trailwagon detached and in rolling back pinned Anton breaking a rib and his collarbone. He survived the accident but never recovered completely.

On November 15, 1880 Martin Grande married Miss Karen Amundsen Haugom, a recent emigre from Norway. Martin and Karen adopted two children, Andrew and Mina.  Andrew was Mrs. Grande’s nephew and Mina was  born in Castle Town in 1889 to Andrew and Olina Berg.  At her mother’s death, Mina ( a year and a half old), was adopted by Martin and Karen Grande who had no children of their own.

At the time that the Smith Bros. and Grande Bros. settled on the Musselshell South Fork, there were no other settlers west of the forks.  The country was all open range and used as common pasture by the settlers. A number of stockmen from the Smith River area near White Sulphur Springs trailed cattle to the Musselshell for wintering and returned them in the summer to the Smith River Valley . The Grandes and Smiths did not file for homestead land at first, but when other parties started moving in, they were quick to file on land essential to their ranches.

The family days of "open range" were soon to end. To gain control of as much land as possible, every family member filed for homesteads. Often ranchhands would file while being employed on a neighbors ranch, and when the homestead was “proved-up”, it was sold to the employer. One of the tactics used to discourage later arrivals was to declare the land already taken up. For several years, there was little competition with cattlemen for the range. However, after starting a small herd of cattle, it was deemed advisable to register a stock brand. Grande Brothers registered the "TG" livestock brand in 1882.

Martin and Anton wanted to get control of more land. Besides their own homesteads, they bought up those of their neighbors as these lands became available. They also contracted to purchase some 21 sections of railroad land.

Grande brothers first home was a two story log house located a mile north of Comb Butte. Nearby a row of small log buildings provided storage space and shelter for horses, cows and chickens. After a few years a new frame house was built half a mile to the north which was more roomy and comfortable. This move allowed more space for the large number of other ranch buildings needed. Anticipating the need for lumber, a steam engine and sawmill were set up on Little Cottonwood Creek where fir timber was close at hand.

Grande’s sheep enterprise proved successful right from the start. News of their success made its way to Norway, and others decided to follow to the land of opportunity. Many came to Montana to work for the Grandes. It allowed them to learn American customs and gave them exposure to the English language in friendly surroundings.

Another of the Norwegians who came over to America in the 1880’s was Andrew Berg.  He was first  a miner in Michigan and then traveled to Castletown in southcentral Montana where he and his brother ran the butcher shop.  When Castletown suddenly died, he homesteaded on nearby Bonanza Creek.  Life was tough and death was common.  Andrew’s first wife, Olina, died leaving him to care for two small children.  This is where the lives of Andrew Berg and Martin Grande crossed paths as Martin at this time adopted Andrew’s one and a half year old daughter, Mina who was born in Castletown.   They also soon became neighboring settlers.  Andrew’s second wife, Annie, died at a young age after bearing five children.  He and his third wife had three children, two of which died as infants.  


Castletown developed and boomed in the 1880’s with the discovery of lead and silver mines in the Castle Mountains.   This made a significant change in the lifestyle of the neighboring settlers. The large influx of people searching for the "motherlode" changed the quiet rural atmosphere to that of a busy frontier mining community.  People now demanded better roads and communications. With ore to be shipped and supplies to be brought in, a railroad was needed. The Montana Central Railroad, the Jawbone, began construction to connect with the Northern Pacific at the mouth of Sixteen Mile Creek and terminate at the mining town of Castle. Work began in May of 1895 and completion was celebrated November 25, 1896 at Leadborough terminal two miles from Castle. The drastic decline in the price of silver at the time spelled doom for the mines as well as the railroad. Castle had earlier been connected to White Sulphur Springs by telephone. Even some of the ranches had crude one-wire lines.

Martin Grande had only a "mild case" of mining fever. He limited his enthusiasm to staking his nephew, Paul, to a bar and rooming house at Robinson and to developing the Silver Star claims. They all failed when the bottom dropped out of the silver price.

In 1889, with two children, Martin Grande provided a site for a school house a quarter mile south of the Lennep Cemetery, and it was used as a school and community center until 1910. 

The death of Anton Grande in 1897 ended the Grande Brothers Partnership. Anton had never married and he died intestate. It was necessary for Martin to settle with Anton's heirs, most of them in Norway.

After high school, Mina returned to her parent's ranch at Lennep where she remained until her marriage to Nels E. Voldseth in 1911. Nels Voldseth was born in Norway in 1887 not far from where Martin Grande came from. Being a distant relative of Mr. Grandes, he had chosen Lennep as his destination when he came to Montana in 1907. Nels apparently worked on the ranch long enough to get acquainted with Mina, and they decided to get married. They were wed on November 15, 1911 at the Grande home.

Nels filed on a homestead near Gildford in Hill County in 1911 and the newlyweds lived on the farm until 1917. While at the Gildford farm, George A. (1913) and Norman M. ( 1917) were born. When Nels and Mina returned to Lennep to manage the Grande ranch the Gildford farm was leased to Bill Penniwell. Nels's sons sold the farm later to a son-in-law of Bill Penniwell, Kamp Landrith. The Voldseth's third son, Edward V. (1922) was born after their return to Lennep.

After the death of her mother in 1914, Mina was torn between the desire to return to Lennep where she could be near her father who was in his seventies or to stay on the Gildford farm. Entry of the United States into World War I helped decide the course of action. In every war, laborers are scarce and that was true in 1917. Nels Voldseth decided to lease his farm and return to Lennep to manage his father-in-law's ranch. The decision was made, and the Voldseth family returned to Lennep at the end of 1917.

Nels Voldseth held the position of manager until the death of Martin Grande on April 22, 1930. At his death, Mr. Grande left the bulk of his estate to be shared equally between his children Andrew C. Grande and Mina G. Voldseth. Mina and Nels came into possession of the Martin T. Grande home ranch of some 14,000 acres in 1932 along with two bands of sheep and several hundred cattle. The extended drought and low prices of the "dirty thirties" dictated a reduction in livestock numbers.

The problems of predators, disease, and the difficulty of getting competent men to work with sheep, coupled with low prices, made it an opportune time to get out of the sheep business. After nearly sixty years of raising sheep, the bands of sheep were sold about the year 1935. As the range returned to normal after the drought, cattle numbers were increased to fill the void caused by the disposal of the sheep.

The long drought of the 30’s was the impetus needed to get ranchers thinking soil, water, and grass conservation. The time was right to put additional hay land and pasture under irrigation, to build stock water reservoirs, and to construct drift fences for proper grazing practices. The late '30's saw the construction of a large dam for irrigation water storage. It also provided the fringe benefits of recreation.

The transformation from horses to machines was very dramatic. The labor force was reduced from twenty or more to ten, and the total production was greatly increased.

The Voldseth's eldest son, George, returned to the ranch after a stint at Montana State University in Bozeman. George, in 1938, married Karen Grande, and they had five children: Gary, Kenneth, Ronald, David, and Susan. Karen died in 1966, and George married Adeline Mallette in 1973.

Having survived the hectic years of wartime operation, Nels and Mina wished to retire. George had leased the ranch for a time and after Norman returned from the Navy, the three sons bought the ranch. In 1947, it became the Voldseth Brother's TG RANCH. TG is the livestock brand recorded by the Grande Brothers in 1882.

George and Norman operated the ranch and Edward continued in the education field in Alaska and Iowa.  During this time, acreage was increased to some 25,000 deeded acres. The larger acquisitions were the pioneer ranch of Henry Tice purchased from Ole Sondeno and a tract of the former Smith Brothers Sheep Company purchased from the 71 Ranch Company.

During the period from 1947 to 1959, the ranch was operated as a partnership of George, Norman and Edward. With the purchase of a D-8 Cat and a large earth mover in 1947, an extensive program of land leveling was begun. Hayfields were smoothed for more efficient use of water and to eliminate much of machinery downtime caused by rough ground and bog holes.

In 1959, George and Norman bought Edward's interest in the ranch. They then divided the acreage and began to operate separately. George retained the TG Ranch, and Norman took land mostly acquired from other sources making his headquarters at the former Tice Ranch. However, Norman kept his home at the TG Ranch and continued to live there.

Another machinery transformation was taking place in the 1960's. Larger haying machines such as swathers, large balers that baled round and square bales, automatic bale retrievers, power stackers, and equipment to feed the hay bales to the livestock were all considered necessities. With these high volume machines, manpower was reduced so that five men could harvest 4000 tons of hay in a season.

On August 7, 1965 Mina Voldseth passed away suddenly, thus severing the last close family link with Martin Grande, the great pioneer of the Comb Creek area. Nels Voldseth continued living at the family ranch and enjoyed good health until shortly before his death on January 1, 1974.   In 1971, the Bonanza Creek Ranch became available. It had been founded by Andrew Berg, Mina's blood father). Norman bought it with the idea of increasing his cattle numbers.

At about this time, David and Kenneth Voldseth (sons of George) came home and started working for Uncle Norman. In 1972, David married June Wilson, from Thermopolis, WY,  and the Bonanza Ranch became their home.  In 1976,  Kenny, David & June purchased all of Norman’s machinery and livestock, leased his lands, purchased the 5500 acres of the Bonanza Ranch and began management of the TG ranch.   

George Voldseth died in 1981.  In 1984, Norman bought the TG Ranch from George’s heirs.  At the same time, David and June Voldseth bought Kenneth’s interest in the Bonanza Ranch as well as his share in all the cattle and machinery.  In January of 1985, David suffered a spinal injury from a tractor accident and was paralyzed from the waist down.  However, he and June continued to successfully operate the ranch.  The 1990’s brought the beginnings of a long standing drought.  This drought has brought the addition of three major sprinkler systems to the TG Ranch. 

In 1993, June and David decided to diversify and build Bonanza Creek Ranch consisting of the lodge and 3 cabins.  It is a working ranch open for everybody.  In 1997, they added one more cabin.  They have been aided in this adventure off and on by their three children:  Sonia born in 1973, Vance in 1975 and Laura in 1979. 

Sonia stayed with the livestock industry and worked in Washington DC for National Cattleman’s Beef Assoc. She is now married to Grant McDonald and living and practicing environmental law in New Zealand.  They have one daughter Skylar Lily.  Vance married Kimberly Stoner, from Menlo Park, CA in 2002.  They are home working on the ranch and busy with 3 sons, Gavin, Tristan and Brooks.  Laura was the first to move to New Zealand marrying Chris Hunter in 2003.  They own and operate a sheep farm of 5000 sheep and Laura teaches part time.  They have two sons, Oliver and Elliot. 
 
The TG Ranch, owned today by Norman Voldseth and David & June Voldseth  consists of 34,000 acres of deeded land and runs around 1500 head of cattle which are mostly Black Angus.    
 
July of 2002 marked the 125th anniversary of the TG Ranch.  It has been in one family for five generations starting with Martin Grande in 1877.   
 
 


TAGS: bonanza creek ranch, montana, martinsdale, working ranch vacation, history of bonanza creek ranch, ranch history

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