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Everything feels like yesterday up here.

From the crumbling root cellar to the rusty metal headboard pressed into service as a gate, your senses tell you 1920s. Thirties at the latest.

But that's not why the Moon-Randolph Homestead is Missoula's latest entry to the National Register of Historic Places.

Since the spring before Montana became a state, it has been a ranch where, in truth, none belonged. Tucked in a draw just over the highest knob of the North Hills, the homestead in early spring 2010 is as hardscrabble as ever. Water is scarce. Egg-snatching magpies are adept and abundant.

As you read, the garden that was converted from a wheat and alfalfa field in the mid-1940s is being prepared for spring planting.

Caretaker Andy Smetanka, who lives here with his wife Joanna and their two young sons, says lettuce will be planted next week and a routine that can't have changed much in 6 1/2 decades will recommence. The Smetankas and two helpers will spend one to two hours a day hauling water by the bucketload. They'll watch sprouts poke up. And they'll see the sparrows and the meadowlarks gobble up the tender shoots.

"It's like man versus nature up here," Smetanka says. "There's nothing new about it."

***

In the language that the National Park Service requires, the Moon-Randolph Homestead is historic "at the local level of significance, for its association with broad patterns in Missoula Valley settlement and agricultural history."

Roughly translated, that means Ray Moon couldn't find any other place to settle when he arrived in Missoula from Minnesota in the spring of 1889. The nation's first Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, was more than a quarter-century old, and the roots of white settlement in the valley ran just as deep. Most of the fertile land was already spoken for.

In "Butterflies and Railroad Ties: A History of a Montana Homestead," Caitlin DeSilvey's eloquent guide to the Moon-Randolph, she imagined Moon's decision-making process at a time of year "when the grass was just starting to green after the gift of winter moisture."

"Ray traced a slim creek up the ravine to an open bowl, and a hillside spring," DeSilvey wrote. "A few trees grew on the gentle slope, and a red-tailed hawk circled above. A young doe watched him from the ridgeline. Ray may have stood on the wide skirt of land and thought, ‘Yes, I can live here, this will do.' "

By the time Moon and his wife, Luella, filed homestead papers on the 160-acre tract that June, four families had already tried and failed on adjacent plots. In 1894, the Moons proved up, then sold out to George and Helen Moon, whose relationship to Ray and Luella isn't clear. In 1907, William and Emma Randolph took over the ranch, and it remained in the immediate Randolph family until 1996, a year after their son Bill passed away.

He'd lived alone on the ranch for nigh on four decades, as what production there had been dwindled and "the homestead slipped into the eddy of time," DeSilvey wrote. Randolph spent much of his later years mending fences and walking the hills.

Deer and owls re-established residency in the draw. Wildflowers and weeds took over the fallow fields. A niece told DeSilvey that Randolph didn't want a single rock moved.

"His attitude was, ‘That was there yesterday, it will be there tomorrow,' " she said.

***

Three years before he died, Bill Randolph agreed to place a conservation easement on more than half the ranch. The city of Missoula bought the land with open space bond money in 1996, and in 1998 the North Missoula Community Development Corp. sponsored a community campaign to preserve the homestead, creating the Hill and Homestead Preservation Coalition.

Since 2000, the NMCDC has managed the homestead through a cooperative agreement with the Missoula Parks and Recreation. DeSilvey was the catalyst for virtually everything that happened, according to Philip Maechling, Missoula's historic preservation officer.

"She was the spirit behind the whole thing, and also the worker," he said.

Now living in England, where she's a lecturer at the University of Exeter in Cornwallis, DeSilvey and her husband, Russ Johnston, were the first caretakers on the ranch. She collected and catalogued everything, sometimes to humorous lengths.

In the back room of the Moon claim cabin, the first building constructed by Ray Moon in 1889 and rehabilitated in 2003, shelves of tattered National Geographic magazines and boxes of carefully stored artifacts and just plain junk line the walls. Smetanka produced a Kerr jar filled with cherry and apricot pits that had been gnawed clean by mice.

"And then," he said, holding up another jar, "here are the mice themselves."

DeSilvey had gathered the skeletal remains of rodents who met their maker while availing themselves to the fruits, stacks of newspapers and other fooferaw that she was going through. The dead mice were part of the homestead's story, she must have reasoned.

***

Historian Ann Emmons wrote the nomination to place the Moon-Randolph homestead on the National Register in 2000, and Sara Scot Adamson, an architectural historian, updated it in 2007. After the requisite tweaks, the State Historic Preservation Office gave its stamp of approval, but then - nothing.

Maechling speculated the nomination got lost on a desk in Helena. A few weeks later, on March 1, word came down from the National Park Service that the homestead was on the list.

A couple of historic homesteads in the Missoula area - the Flynn Ranch to the west, the Cook/Lerch Farm to the east at Marshall Grade - reflect humble beginnings and later prosperity in the form of solid brick homes. Many others simply disappeared over time.

"With the Moon-Randolph Homestead, you had sort of the last tier of lands available to homesteads, and they were pretty difficult lands to farm," Maechling said. "They literally eked out a living. It happened to have a couple of limited resources to keep people up there - a small spring that delivered some water and a small coal mine."

And so they stayed, two Moon families and three generations of Randolphs, and now the city's caretakers who keep it alive with the daily list of chores that all their predecessors faced.

There are the same late dawns, the same sunsets over the draw. It's old up here, which means dust and rust, dank dark corners, shaky sheds, mouse turds, skunks and a sense of isolation that is somehow enhanced with the knowledge that, just over that hill, Missoula buzzes and roars.

"Imagination," wrote DeSilvey, "snags on images that belong simultaneously to past and present. ... History bends back on itself like a box elder branch, twists around toward the light, and sprouts new growth."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

 

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