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Treasured estate
A pair of carpenters works Tuesday afternoon rebuilding the original homestead cabin of Ray Moon at the Moon-Randolph Homestead site in Missoula's North Hills. The cabin was the first building constructed on the property in 1889.
Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Caretakers ponder enduring homestead's future

When Ray and Luella Moon homesteaded this hidden draw in 1889, they had five years to "prove up" their worthiness as landowners and stewards of Missoula's North Hills.

They built a little two-room cabin, stacking boards like playing cards and papering the walls with newspapers. They ploughed and planted, miraculously providing for themselves and five children. Their orchard soon claimed 75 splendidly producing apple trees.

Five years later, the Moons reported on their successes and were rewarded - by the U.S. government - with title to the 160-acre homestead.

Now comes the city of Missoula's proving up as owners of the historic property, purchased in 1996 with open space bond money, then managed - beginning in 2000 - by the nonprofit Hill and Homestead Preservation Coalition.

In the Hill and Homestead folks' care, the orchard is again producing bounties of fruit and cider, and new starts are being cultivated from the heritage trees. The little two-room homestead cabin is being reconstructed using a combination of the original boards and some much-needed, newly milled interior supports.

Children again play in the yard, busloads of them. For two summers, children from Missoula Youth Homes helped to tidy up the place, artfully stacking rusty bolts, latches, oven doors and tools in similarly rusty bins and basins. This time of year, the school children come, a class or two at a time, to learn about Missoula's early settlement - and about the passing of time.

"There aren't many places where kids can watch things decay," said Sarah DeSilvey, who with sister Caitlin has shaped the Hill and Homestead Coalition's educational and restoration work. "Kids love this place. We've tried to let them use their creativity to tell the old stories - and to write new ones as well."

"There's a liveliness about this place, a texture to it, that's so valuable," said Caitlin DeSilvey. "You can just sense there are stories here waiting to be told.

"There's a trick to doing historic preservation without erasing the history of a place. We've worked so hard not to lose anything."

Sometimes, the history is literally written on the walls. On the side of the homestead cabin, marked in pencil and somehow not erased by a hundred-fold winters, is this:

No rain May 6-August 19, '33.

Aug. 19, '33 hail.

Inside, the walls tell stories from across the country, by way of crisply yellowed newspapers stuffed into and pasted onto the walls. A Daily Missoulian from 1892 contains a full column of "Local Political Gossip." A Spokane Spokesman-Review from March 1909 features a front-page discussion of "Dresses for the Taft Inaugural."

Nearby, in the homestead's milk shed, Caitlin DeSilvey has assembled a tiny museum. A collection of artistically worn brooms. A trunk filled with books reduced to bits and pieces by mice, now covered with plexiglass and free of rodents. Baskets of newspapers in various states of disrepair. Fruit boxes ready for use as artifact keepers.

On Saturday, the DeSilveys and their co-workers at the North Missoula Community Development Corp. will report on the successes of the past three years, and ask folks to dream about the future of the little homestead. All who are interested are welcome to attend.

It will be, the sisters said, "a day of planning, prophecy and picnicking."

"It will be," Caitlin said, "our proving up."

"We've learned much about what is possible - youth mentoring, agricultural revitalization, artifact curation, building stabilization," she said. "Now it's time for us to step back and reflect on where we've been and where we want to go from here.

"If we want to prove up on our claim (and sustain our good partnership with the other entities that make our work possible), we need to have a clear set of priorities and a plan of action that has a community vote of confidence."

Ned Kaufman, director of the organization Place Matters, will join the group for the day.

"It won't be easy," Caitlin said. "We have to grapple with issues that range from the dully practical - how do we tackle the parking problem? - to the philosophical - what is an appropriate balance of human and wild habitation?"

The collaboration between the city of Missoula, the Hill and Homestead Coalition and Five Valleys Land Trust (which holds the conservation easement on the land) has been a resounding success, said Philip Maechling, Missoula's historic preservation director.

"It's been great," he said. "We have multiple checks and balances, and boundless enthusiasm. We brought the state historic preservation officer up here a while back, and now he wants to volunteer for a weekend. In a low key way, this is all working."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

If you're interested

This weekend's events will begin with a public tour of the Hill and Homestead at 4 p.m. Friday. All those interested in the tour should meet at 819 Stoddard St. Saturday's get-together will begin at 10 a.m. at Whittier School, 1001 Worden St. The morning will be spent at the school, reviewing the past three years. Then the group will move up the hill to the homestead for a picnic (bring a sack lunch) and an afternoon of brainstorming. The coalition will provide an evening meal and drinks at the end of the day. If you plan to attend either Friday's tour or Saturday's workshop, call 829-0873 to register.

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