On Jan. 2, 1917, 13-year-old Robert Randolph went to his diary and recorded the temperature at his family’s homestead, tucked away in the hills north of Missoula. It was a balmy 30 degrees that day.
Exactly 100 years later on a day where temperatures didn’t break the single digits, Katie Nelson and Caroline Stephens are sitting in the kitchen at the historic Moon-Randolph Homestead, probably within a few dozen feet of where Robert wrote those words.
Nelson and Stephens are the new caretakers of the city-owned property, and they marvel at what life must have been like for the Randolph family in those years.
In many ways, the property hasn’t changed much. There’s still an old but visible entrance to an abandoned coal mine, there’s still the two-room shack that was once home to seven members of the pioneering Moon family, and there’s a hundred-year-old apple cider press that still works.
For Nelson and Stephens, it’s an honor and a privilege to preserve the memories and artifacts of Missoula’s early life.
“We definitely feel that sense of wonder,” Stephens said. “We have an opportunity to create that sense of wonder for other people too.”
The homestead is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is cooperatively managed by the City Parks and Recreation Department and the North Missoula Development Corporation. The caretakers are given a place to live, but aren’t paid or given food. In exchange, they manage the place and host workshops and open houses every Saturday from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. May through October.
Stephens and Nelson were chosen from a pool of applicants because they have backgrounds in farming and ranching. They also plan to be in the place for several years.
The house has no running water, so they have to haul it from town and connect it to a cistern underneath the house. However, they do have electricity for light and heat, which is a big upgrade over the uninsulated wall tent they lived in last year, using a woodstove for heat and headlamps for light.
“We realized, really first hand, that not everything from the homestead era is worth recreating,” Stephens said, laughing. “It could be really challenging. I found I was much less interested in taking risks on hikes in the backcountry because my daily life involved so much risk. That was a really huge learning opportunity.”
Nelson teaches field courses for the Wild Rockies Field Institute, and Stephens was managing a five-acre vegetable farm in the Mission Valley last year. Both studied environmental science at the University of Montana, where they met, and when the opportunity at Moon-Randolph came up, they both felt it was the chance of a lifetime.
Moving in last summer was “a crazy transition” because they both had jobs. But now that things have settled in for the quieter winter months, they have a chance to understand how they want to help the community of Missoula connect with this publicly owned asset.
“I’m so excited to implement a really strong system that incorporates the livestock into the composting process that we then use on the garden,” Stephens said. “I’m excited to do a lot of quality demonstrations on gardening.”
Nelson said they also have time to dedicate to improving the administrative structure of the homestead, which means improving things like the website and signage.
“We really wanted to make a thoughtful plan for our agricultural system that we put in place here, which requires understanding the nuances of the existing infrastructure,” she said.
The 470-acre property was purchased in 1996 to preserve open space for animals, plants and people. In the summer, the ranch will be alive with chickens, fruit trees, a vegetable garden and probably other animals. Nelson and Stephens will host private tours, community gatherings for organizations, workshops, weddings and other gatherings.
It’s clear they both love the history of the place. They’ve been dusting off Robert Randolph’s old diary entries, and they’ve inventoried all the old farm equipment and other artifacts that are still much as they were a century ago. Stephens said she isn’t living there to recreate Robert Randolph’s lifestyle but to have a little connection to that time in history.
“The point is not to recreate this bygone homestead era necessarily, but become curious about the ways of the past and to pull some of those ways of life back into the present,” Stephens said. “The things you think are worth bringing forward, the best parts of the past.
"We do have parts of our lives — fermenting, canning, gardening, animal husbandry and raising livestock and wild harvesting our tree and wreathmaking — activities that really enrich our lives and connect us with the land and other people and our culture that are worth doing.”
On Jan. 3, 1917, Robert Randolph noted in his diary that the temperature climbed to 32 degrees. He went to school and later celebrated a friend’s birthday. His diary from that month, though sparse, logged activities like hunting rabbits, skiing through deep snow, working on the windmill, hauling straw and getting a knife for Christmas. Other activities included setting traps for weasel and, curiously, “girl chasing.”
His words are unadorned, simple and direct, probably a lot like his life. But there is beauty in the simplicity. Nelson and Stephens are hoping to preserve that tradition.