Jennifer Barrett knew she’d see deer on the Moon-Randolph Homestead, but she didn’t know she’d encounter an abundance of wildlife.
A red fox trotting by. An owl sweeping past. Coyotes chattering the first night she and Chris Kailing spent the night on the land they will oversee for at least the next year.
Barrett and Kailing are the new caretakers of the homestead for the North Missoula Community Development Corp., and this weekend with a fall gathering, the couple begins their quest to strengthen the connection between the people of Missoula and the old ranch and apple orchard.
“It’s a lesson in human ingenuity and survival and sustainability before the word existed,” said Kailing of life on the homestead.
On Saturday, the Moon-Randolph Homestead holds its annual fall gathering, and it celebrates staples of its earlier days, like cider pressing, and modern innovations, like “chicken poop bingo.” The festival runs from 2 to 10 p.m., and it includes a barbecue, games, a campfire and more. Entry costs $5 per person or $10 per family, and families are encouraged to bring a side dish to share.
Barrett, a planner, and Kailing, an architect, moved to Missoula in February, and they sought out the caretaker post on the 470 acres because they wanted to live in a place that connects them to a rural area and an urban one at the same time. The homestead isn’t far from town, but the property the city bought in 1996 and NMCDC helps manage is tucked just over the North Hills, so in many ways, living there means being removed from modern life.
“I exist in the 21st century, but I live in the 19th century,” is the way Barrett puts it.
The first week of August, Kailing and Barrett moved to the homestead, and the secrets of the ranch are continuing to reveal themselves as summer turns to fall. Things once hidden in tall grass are coming to light, like an old wagon and a pig shed.
“There are things you continually are uncovering here,” Barrett said. “Just since the leaves have been off the trees, I’ve been noticing things.”
The homestead has had four other caretakers, and Kailing and Barrett are the fifth, said Bob Oaks, executive director of the North Missoula Community Development Corp. (He said that count doesn’t include a police officer who stayed on the property in his RV for a while.)
“If there’s a common thread, it’s the attraction to the place,” Oaks said. “People really have to kind of love it to want to live up there. It’s not exactly easy to get in and out of in the wintertime.”
Many caretakers also have been interested in gardening, and some have worked on farms, too, Oaks said. In fact, Oaks said, Barrett herself grew up on a farm, but it was the couple’s enthusiasm for outreach that attracted the interview committee.
“They’re intensely community-oriented, and that’s really exciting,” Oaks said. “That came across very clearly in the interview with them, and they have really been showing that to be true with just the organization they’ve been doing around the fall gathering.”
After the fall festival, the couple plans to take on some other homestead projects. Kailing would like to do some work to the old buildings on the site, and he’d like to figure out a way to increase the homestead’s water supply. He’d like to preserve more of the spring runoff and get more water to the garden, too.
With help from the community, Barrett would like to update the homestead’s 2003 strategic plan and put into place new goals. She wants the community to be more involved with the ranch and be active there, too.
Barrett, who has done work with museum education, plans to have school groups visit, and she’s putting on a tour for people reading “My Ántonia” as part of The Big Read, a project of the National Endowment for the Arts and, locally, the Missoula Public Library. She wants more artists to visit the property, and she’d like to have events around butter making, basket weaving and photography.
Living on the homestead is a lesson in living with less, but in some ways, Kailing and Barrett also consider it the best of both worlds.
“I’ve already noticed how much I feel more in tune with the seasons,” Barrett said.
The fall gathering is at 1515 Spurlock Road. For directions and more information, go to www.facebook.com/moonrandolphhomestead or call (406) 728-0451.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, firstname.lastname@example.org or on MissoulaRedTape.com.