October 26, 2017

From the Ground Up: Montana Women and Agriculture

Brad Hansen
Federal Grants Manager
State Historic Preservation Office
Montana Historical Society
Thirty-seven ranches along the Missouri River near Townsend, Montana, were drowned when Canyon Ferry Dam was completed in 1954. Dorothy Hahn’s ranch was one of them. Determined not to lose her home, Dorothy and her husband Paul refused the federal government’s low-ball offer of $42,000 for their $200,000 property. They hung on, hoping the project might be cancelled, or at least the location of the dam might be moved upriver to Toston. The project wasn’t cancelled, and the site of the dam did not change. The summer of 1954 they watched as the Missouri swallowed their fields, their fences and their way of life. In an oral history conducted by the Montana Department of Natural Resources & Conservation (DNRC) Dorothy recalled,

“So, we ended up going to court and they awarded us $82,000 and we had to pay the lawyer $20,000. We ended up with $62,000 for our $200,000 place. We had a set of scales just like the ones they have at the stockyards, and they wouldn't let us take ‘em. They put the water over them. We had wire fences and they wouldn't let us take those, so they are all under the lake, and if anybody gets caught in that wire they will never get out… That was the best land in Broadwater County. Real black soil. There were so many trees that went along the river. All those leaves built up... Paul, he worked up one piece of ground and put it into oats and it made 100 bushel to the acre… It was hard on Paul, real hard on him. He even cried when we had our trial. You know, it just took it all away. We figured we'd raise our kids there on that ideal spot. There was hunting and fishing and we could make a good living for them.”

While Dorothy and Paul did move on to successful ranching careers in Winston, Montana, Dorothy never really got over losing the original ranch. At ninety-one years old (at the time of her interview), you can still hear the emotion in her voice as she recalls what the land and animals meant to her. Her story, now recorded for present and future generations to enjoy, spans decades and reveals how ranch life in Montana evolved. Her life is an excellent example of the important role women played in the growth of Montana’s agriculture and ranching economy.

 And, Dorothy is just one of many exceptional women with a background in ranching and/or agriculture who have volunteered to participate in the Montana DNRC’s From the Ground Up: Women and Agriculture Oral History Project. To date, over 40 women from across the state have shared their stories. Combined, the oral histories form a collection of primary sources that document and explore the history of ranching and farming in Montana from the perspective of women. They are well worth a listen!

Audio files and transcriptions of the interviews are available online at Montana DNRC or by visiting the Montana Historical Society Research Center. To learn more about the oral history project or to volunteer please contact Linda Brander, Program Specialist at Montana DNRC. LLBrander@mt.gov 406.444.0520.

Photo: 1870s “View of the Missouri River and
Canton Valley Looking South from Avalanche Creek”
Photo courtesy of Helena as She Was: