OVANDO – Arthur Stone didn’t waste much ink describing his trip up the Blackfoot in 1911.
Most of the Missoulian editor’s weekly “Following Old Trails” column that appeared on Sept. 23 was devoted to memories of his first trek up the valley behind a team of spirited horses in October 1892, and to written accounts of others’ journeys, in particular that of Gov. Isaac Stevens between treaty talks in 1855.
Nineteen years earlier “there were a few ranches on Camas prairie,” (the Potomac Valley), Stone wrote. “Beyond, at Sunset and at Clearwater, there were centers of scattering farmers. Ovando and Helmville, beyond, were the business points for a country that was of older settlement and of longer cultivation.”
Back then, he said, the Blackfoot was a country of “inviting richness, but there was nothing to it then, compared with what there is today.”
Always a civic promoter, Stone called the Blackfoot country in 1911 “one of the most remarkable farming sections of western Montana.”
He noted the Big Blackfoot Railroad that was about to begin operating between the Anaconda Co. lumber mill at Bonner and McNamara Landing 11 miles upstream, and predicted that rails would extend further up the valley after that.
“The possibilities beyond are too great to be resisted,” he asserted.
Stone would be proven correct, to an extent. Rails were laid into the Ovando Valley, and a rail bed was surveyed and graded in 1912 as far as Brown’s Lake en route to Great Falls. But no trains ever made it that far, as financing for the Milwaukee and other giant railroads dried up in the winds of war in Europe and the completion of the Panama Canal.
“There is no finer grain and grass land in the world than is found in this region,” Stone gushed. “There are no valleys so splendidly watered as these; there are no meadows more fertile; there are no crops more abundant than those which are produced in these valleys that skirt the Blackfoot trail.”
He noted the Blackfoot country had been discovered and fortunes were being “quietly made” by farmers, cattlemen and sheep growers.
“The country has just quietly come into its own; the settlers are many now,” Stone wrote.
Jim Stone maneuvered his Rolling Stone Ranch pickup down Montana Highway 200 one windy day last week.
An award-winning land steward and chairman of the Blackfoot Challenge board of directors, Stone had just bid adieu to a University of Montana wildlife and recreation class that was touring his Ovando ranch. He was headed for his childhood home on the lower Clearwater River to visit his mother, Jane, and to follow some old family trails.
There wasn’t a whitetail deer or a bighorn buck in sight, but there could have been.
Stone, 51, had read his great-grandfather Arthur’s 1911 column earlier in the day. To him it didn’t matter when the valley was considered – 1892, 1911 or 2012.
“I’m not a big history buff, but the thing I got out of that was what he saw when he came up the valley on either one of those was much the same as it is today,” he said.
Sure, there are cell towers along the road, and roadside bars, and grizzly bears and a wolf pack or two, not to mention a high-speed asphalt highway. At 65 mph, Stone was holding up nobody as he drove down the valley.
The landscape and many of the animals, wild and otherwise, are much the same as when Meriwether Lewis came through this “prairie of the knobs” in 1806, “other than there’s a few more of us critters to go along with it,” Stone pointed out.
Except for his high school years in Colorado and a collegiate career at Montana State University, Stone has lived here all his life, the youngest of John Stone’s two sons and the one who stayed in ranching in the Blackfoot. His father, now residing at an assisted living home in Missoula, was the youngest of George Stone’s two sons.
And George, born in Anaconda in 1890, was the oldest of six children Arthur and Adelia raised in Missoula. That was where Arthur worked in the newspaper business, first as western Montana correspondent for Marcus Daly’s Anaconda Standard and, from 1907-1914, as editor of Sen. Joseph Dixon’s Daily Missoulian. In 1914, he moved to the University of Montana to become the first dean of the school of journalism.
“I should know a lot more about his background, and know how much impact he made in what we’re doing now up here,” Jim said wistfully of his great-grandfather.
As it turns out, the Blackfoot connection in the Stone family came from a Bitterrooter. That’s where Mildred Ingalls came from. She married George Stone, a grandpa Jim never knew, in 1913 and, like her husband, worked at the Missoulian for a time. Mildred was a society editor when George left to fight in World War I.
After the war, George and Mildred Stone moved to Chicago, where their first son, Dean, was born in 1922 and John Stone, Jim’s father, was born three years later.
“They wanted to name me after my grandfather, but my mother didn’t like Arthur,” the Rev. Dean Stone, a retired engineer and Episcopalian minister, said with a chuckle last week from his home in Overland Park, Kansas.
George was assistant city editor of the Chicago Daily News when he died suddenly after an appendicitis operation in 1926. The boys were 4 and 1 at the time.
“My mother brought us back from Chicago and she worked
for a while at the university,” Rev. Stone recalled. “Then she bought a partnership in the (E Bar L) ranch. She thought that would be the place to raise us boys.”
The Potter family’s storied E Bar L Guest Ranch in Greenough, which Jim Stone called the oldest single-owner guest ranch in the Northwest, would prove to be a honing ground for future Stones. Mildred taught Dean and John at the Clearwater school north of that river’s confluence with the Blackfoot, on what’s now Sunset Hill Road.
They lived and roamed the E Bar L for 10 years, Rev. Dean said, until Mildred sold her interest and moved the family to California’s Santa Ynez Valley. Jane Stone, who is from Massachusetts, remembered meeting her future husband, John, on her family’s summer stays at the E Bar L.
“John was a kid, and I think it was the first year we came out, he was there and he was taking a bell and he’d go around at 7 o’clock in the morning and wake everybody up,” she remembered. “Then he’d do another round at 8 to get them all up for sure.”
When John Stone was out on his own after high school, he made a beeline back to the Blackfoot, his older brother said. He’s been there ever since, marrying the girl he used to wake up at the E Bar L, working his way into partial ownership of the guest ranch, and raising his own two boys.
“He spent his entire career there, really, whether he was a fishing guide or a fix-it guy,” son Jim said. “He did a lot of the cabin work and all the water work. He got people out on the river … just sort of an all-around hand for the Potters.”
It’s hard to say if or when Arthur Stone, John’s grandfather, came up to visit before he died in 1945. His descriptions in “Following Old Trails” columns reflected a deep appreciation and admiration for rural folks and their ethics.
But Jim Stone can pinpoint the sources of his own land stewardship sensibilities: his own parents.
“Obviously my father didn’t fall far from the tree with his grandfather,” Jim said. “He spent his life as a person who really understood the human dynamics. There is no one I’ve ever met that could reach out and bridge gaps between people, bring people together and get them talking to each other like he could.
“He was an amazing, amazing communicator.”
That ability, carried on by John’s son, has paid dividends on the trail Arthur Stone traveled 100 years ago.
His work with the Blackfoot Challenge keeps Jim Stone hopping these days. Just in the past week he conducted three tours and the group’s annual board meeting. The Blackfoot Challenge describes itself as a landowner-based group of individuals, agencies and user groups that coordinates management of the Blackfoot River, its tributaries, and adjacent lands.
Jim Stone was in on its formal formation in the early 1990s, along with the likes of Land Lindbergh, a retired cattle rancher and a neighbor of the Potters and the Stones on the Blackfoot and lower Clearwater in Greenough.
“Land was really one of those guys, for sure,” Stone said. “It was those guys who built it, and the early Potter family, the way they sort of moved (around) here and the way they treated their neighbors back before it was sexy to be in conservation.
“They were doing things that made a lot of sense, and that’s just really moved down through the generations, looking for opportunities to maintain this type of a working landscape.”
And work it does. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a business or what type of business, Jim Stone said, “something’s happening with it.”
It’s the kind of “something” that would have made Art Stone proud. Through complicated and sometimes unlikely coalitions — the Blackfoot Challenge has no fewer than seven committees, Stone said – the meadows and forests of the Blackfoot remain as productive as A.L. Stone envisioned. The valleys are still splendidly watered, if not quite to the extent they used to be. Stone, the writer, couldn’t have foreseen the recreation industry that helps keep the Blackfoot and western Montana afloat.
“I think what’s mildly different from where my folks went or my grandparents went is, in order to keep this moving forward, we’ve got to sort of reach outside of our boundaries,” Jim Stone said.
For him that means the occasional trip to Washington, D.C., and rubbing shoulders with state and federal officials. He and the Blackfoot Challenge have welcomed the likes of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Gov. Brian Schweitzer to his Rolling Stone Ranch and around the valley, including the front step of the Stray Bullet café that wife Colleen runs in downtown Ovando.
That was where Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar spoke last year, calling the Blackfoot “the birthplace of the conservation concept for the 21st century.”
Arthur Stone wasn’t looking this far ahead a century ago when he described the valley that would become so integral to his descendants.
“It is,” he simply wrote, “a beautiful trail to travel and it possesses historical associations that add to the delight of the journey.”