HELMVILLE – Hugh Geary was the one brother among seven who never left home.
He lived, labored, laughed and absorbed the stories from his elders here at the ranch just north of town from October 1924 until October 1989.
So he’s been gone for more than a quarter of a century. What does time mean around here?
Whether you knew him or not, unlatch the door on the bunkhouse that Uncle Hughie lived in for most of his life, step inside and he’s everywhere.
There’s his straw mowing hat hanging above the bed in the hired hand’s alcove, and its felt counterpart, equally sweat-rimmed and rumpled, on a hook above his bed.
Tacked to a wall next to a torn ad for a long-ago Helmville Rodeo (“Harvest Dance. Chicken Dinner”) is a yellowed clipping from January 1962. It trumpets the news that a young Montana cowboy named Benny Reynolds had just won the world all-around rodeo title in Dallas.
Then there’s Hughie’s record collection – vinyl album upon album, none of them spun in years, on his dresser and desk, in boxes and in a suitcase almost too heavy to lift. Steve Lawrence, Hank Locklin, Floyd Tillman and Johnny Horton; Doye O’Dell, Wayne Newton, and Hugh’s favorites, the Sons of the Pioneers.
“Hughie lived here all his life until my grandmother’s hip broke and he had to go in the house so she wouldn’t be alone,” his nephew, Bob Geary, said last Tuesday. “This is authentic. There’s nothing staged. This is the way he lived.”
It’s not happenstance. Building after building, room after room on the home ranch of this 148-year-old cattle operation remains the way it was, if not a bit tidier, when Bob’s grandmother, Madge, died in 1986 and Hughie left the scene three years later.
Madge Fogarty Geary came here in 1919 from upper-crust Butte when she married Tom Geary, moving into the “big house” across the way and making it her domain over the next 67 years. That traditional two-story ranch house is awash in, among other things, old photos of the legions of Gearys and their kinfolk, their dogs and one black bear. Bob Geary's Uncle Tommy kept the young bruin chained in one of the “Little Stables” in the 1940s until Fish and Game found out.
“We’ve got pictures from my dad’s generation of a little Boston bull terrier named Sam,” Bob said. “Sam knew how to torment the bear, but he also knew how long the chain was – until one day the chain broke and the bear ate Sam.
“Now in all the pictures in the photo album of us Geary kids growing up, there’s Sam I but also Sam II.”
Bob is of the fourth generation of Helmville Gearys. He opens the door to the old horse barn that still smells like every horse barn you've ever been in, even though the last time a horse was used for haying on the ranch was in 1963. He remembers because he drove it as a 14-year-old.
After hitches in Vietnam and the Peace Corps, and 12 years managing the Hofbrau in Helena, Geary returned to the ranch of his boyhood in 1991 and moved into the "Big House" his grandparents occupied for so long. Ever since, the missions of keeping a large cattle operation running, its history-drenched buildings upright and its past alive have been front and center at the Geary Brothers Ranch.
The ranch is corporate-owned, and he's had help from family, neighbors, friends and contractors, but Geary is the maestro and the primary funder.
“It’s because of Bob that the place looks like it does now," said Geary's sister, Joyce Scott of Missoula. "I have to say that it’s really 99 percent Bob’s hard work and vision, with the help of a couple of local guys. He’s an amazing rancher as well as having his eye for aesthetics and history.”
Every building has been re-roofed, including the two barns that appeared in the 2011 “barn book” – “Hand Raised: The Barns of Montana” by Chere Jiusto and Christine Brown of the Montana Preservation Alliance.
“Foundations are the next priority, in my opinion," Geary said. "These old rock foundations are slipping out. We have wetlands coming up closer every year, so things are sinking.”
Bob’s brothers Daniel, of Missoula, and Dick, who lives down Geary Lane, have lent elbow grease, ideas, materials and decorating skills to shape this museum of a working ranch. Their sister Joyce and her husband Mike Scott have been especially helpful lately, after Bob suffered a severe heart attack in April. It required five bypasses, one of which failed a few months later. He had two stents put in shortly before the Labor Day weekend rodeo and a family reunion that drew 150 guests.
The Scotts helped spruce up the place for a visit by the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in July.
“We cleaned buildings that I haven’t cleaned in my lifetime, and we found some great stuff,” Bob said.
Upstairs in the main house, Geary pulled open a drawer in the “Cowboy and Indian Room” that his father Bill and uncles occupied when they were boys in the 1920s and ’30s. Small white Sunday suits they all wore to church as lads are still folded neatly inside.
Back by the family outhouse – a five-holer – is what Bob calls his “Ranch Crap Museum.” Among its contents is an old sewing machine he found while walking one hot summer day across another historic ranch in the valley after his truck died. Geary carried it four miles to the road, cached it where he could find it again, then walked another 10 miles back to Helmville.
“Bob’s vision is that the ranch is kind of the history of the valley,” Joyce Scott said. “If you take a tour with some of older generations of the valley, he can tell them, ‘This came from the Wales Ranch’ or wherever. It might just be a board or rhubarb or a lilac bush.”
The whole valley notices.
When the postmaster spots someone drive by with an interesting load for the dump, she calls Geary. He laughs (now) about the time he got into the Dumpster in order to retrieve a treasure and couldn’t get out.
“Some of the most beautiful items he’s gotten from the dump or from other people in the area,” sister Joyce said. “It can be chickens, ducks, a horse or an amazing piece of furniture.”
Geary counts 14 structures on the home ranch in an aerial photo from the mid-1980s. Now, there are 20.
“I keep adding buildings,” he said. “I have a burn pile here that’s the community burn pile, rather than throw it in the dump. I have five or six buildings that were going to the burn pile that I’ve put to use. What’s it called? Upcycling?”
“Use,” in these cases, is more like salvaging and preserving.
The crown jewel is the log homestead cabin, built in the 1860s by Bob’s great-grandfather John Geary and John's cousins, Big Mike and Jim. It was the first of three Geary homes that remain on the immediate property and is surely one of the oldest standing structures in this swath of Montana.
Three years ago, Bob paid to have it moved from its long-standing place in the yard, where one end had been cut out to make a garage and “was just generally full of decay,” he said.
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Daniel and Jesse Shoup of Clinton did most of the work of moving, re-roofing and repairing it, replacing the open end and adding a front porch and a large picture window. In the process, they found a dozen or so “foreign” logs of similar vintage from deteriorated buildings in the valley.
Geary has repopulated the interior of the cabin and the porch with an eclectic assortment of items. It feels like a museum, but with no apparent theme.
“I don’t know what you’d call this really,” he said. “It’s contributions from so many people, and I’m still finding stuff from around the ranch.”
There’s the leather-and-horsehair chaise from the Fogarty home in Butte (“This is a wonderful place to sleep in the summer, with the exception of the mosquitoes,” Geary said) and his grandmother’s old cookstove. A three-legged deer lamp was going to the dump and an egg incubator that was doing its thing last week came from the antique shop in Deer Lodge.
“The artificial plant is something that my type of neighbors will bring me as a joke,” Geary said with a chuckle. “It’s not part of the decor. It came from the Helmville School, and originally it came from the dump.”
Beside and behind the cabin stands a wooden outhouse with two levels of thrones, the lower one for children. Geary’s handyman, Ed Coughlin, rebuilt it, but not for its original purpose. It was one of about 15 falling-down outhouses spread around the rodeo grounds across the field.
“I eventually weeded them all out but kept this one,” Geary said.
A dead tree is fastened to a fence corner near the "New Horse Barn." It came from down on the Blackfoot River and neighbor Jay Coughlin thought it would fit in here. They went down together to fetch it.
“You know, it’s been kind of fun that way," Geary said. "I’ve got the space here, I’ve got the time, and I’ve got the energy. The birds love it. I keep suet feeders in there.”
Indeed, he probably spends more on bird feed than on his pigs and cattle, Joyce said. And her brother loves chickens.
“You have an obligation to maintain something like this,” said Geary, who lost his father Bill in 2011, just months before the death of his Uncle Dan, the last of the third generation of Helmville Gearys.
Growing up, Bob rarely saw eye to eye with his uncle Tommy Geary, who died in 2003. But both came to acknowledge and embrace the other’s ethic of preserving a place and a lifestyle worth keeping.
“Tommy really was the catalyst,” Bob said. “He believed in the legacy of this ranch and this valley.”
There’s some serious, if sometimes quirky, history elsewhere. A stolen, decades-old highway sign Geary found somewhere points the way to the Gates of the Mountains. Geary has mounted it on a row of decaying fence posts that date back to the 1880s, like most of the corrals and outbuildings on the place.
He placed them there, he said, not for any practical purpose but as a tribute to the hard work of his forefathers who built this ranch and this life.
“All these poles were 4 feet in the ground, hand dug,” he said, point to the evidentiary rot on the butt ends.
“I think it’s so important to the history of Helmville,” said Mary Ann McKee, who finished her own history of the town a couple of years ago. She called it “Seventy-Seven Years on Main Street.”
“I really believe people should know the history, what happened in our valley, and Bob is doing such a good job of sharing it with people," McKee said. "He gives the greatest tours.”
Like most folks in these parts, McKee has Geary blood running through her veins. Her grandfather’s sister, Marianne McCormick, married John Geary, Bob’s great-grandfather, in the 1880s.
It's not easy to keep track of Geary bloodlines, even if you’re one of them. Witness to that was borne on Labor Day weekend, when 150 people gathered at the ranch for a family reunion. Several came from the 15th-century Geary home base in Ballyduff, Waterford County, in southern Ireland. Most spent time studying family tree charts that Camille Coughlin, whose mother was Patsy Geary Guay, prepared. They stemmed from each of those first three Gearys. Each of two sheets of butcher paper stretched a couple of yards down the side of a barn.
John Geary arrived in Montana from Ballyduff in 1863 to follow the gold rush. The story goes that a couple of years later he was in a saloon in Blackfoot City above present-day Avon when two new prospectors walked in – Mike and Jim.
By 1867, the Gearys had water rights on Nevada Creek and were ranching on the first 160 acres of a spread that grew to encompass all of downtown Helmville. They built the homestead cabin on Nevada Creek, and in the 145 years before the 2012 move, the cabin was displaced just once. The pioneers moved it up to the barnyard near where John Geary built a larger home for Marianne. As Bob heard the story, all but one of their seven children were born in that second house before John constructed the stately two-story ranch home in 1900.
“Another thing he has been so conscious of is making sure trees have been replaced and caring for them,” Joyce Scott said.
“After he had his heart attack, my husband Mike went out and stayed with him for five or six weeks,” Scott said. “Bob had ordered all these trees, hundreds of trees, so Mike helped replant them. Bob plants trees every year to make sure there’s a windbreak. That’s a big thing.”
The Geary Brothers Ranch turns 150 in a couple of years, and a lot of work lies ahead to keep it intact for another 150. Money is always an issue, Geary said. He pays for many of the improvements out of his own pocket, and barters for others.
“Somebody said, ‘How do you find time for all this?’ Well, I’m here seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and I make time. It’s mental health, whether it’s planting a tree or sweeping out some of these old buildings,” he said.
Geary admits his heart attack has lent a sense of urgency.
“Before that, I knew, like Uncle Tommy, that I would live forever, but now I know I’m not going to,” he said. “I want to get it all done by ’17, which would be the full 150 years, if I’m allowed that much time.”
And then what?
The succession on the ranch to the next generation is unresolved.
"To the shareholders, and there's way too many of us, what we appreciate is that Bob has worked hard to make sure there is a place for us to come out to," Joyce Scott said.
“It bothers me a little bit that it’s all going to be dispersed someday,” Geary allowed. “Just because there isn’t anybody else to carry this on.”