There was a problematic calving Wednesday at the Line Ranch high above Missoula.
For one thing, the mama Hereford had prolapsed during last year’s delivery and she needed help again.
For another, that help was scattered across the valley.
Tim Line, an attorney, was in his office downtown. Brother Chris was at his job at the Living Room furniture store on Reserve Street. Tim’s wife Julie was teaching kindergarten at Paxson School. And the brothers’ four boys, grades 5-8, were in school at Paxson and Washington Middle School.
Ann Line, the ranch matriarch, recently had back surgery. But she had her eye on the cow out back when the birthing began, the Line’s 29th of 30 this spring. Ann quickly messaged her sons and Julie.
“From that text message, Chris decided that he was the one who was able to come home,” said Tim, the younger of the Line brothers at 44.
Chris, 46, drove across town and up the hill, exchanged his work dress for overalls and spent the next hour and a half pulling the calf to life. It arrived well, if wobbly.
Chris posted the news to his Facebook friends.
“They like to watch the lifestyle of a ranch,” he explained. “I said that with good diligence watching the cow on Mom’s part, I was the lucky one to pull the calf today.”
There’s not much of Missoula you can’t see from the calf’s new world at the top of Whitaker Drive.
It’s a view that four generations of Lines have been waking up to for 80 years, over corral fences, feed buckets and the handlebars of four-wheelers, through the guts of the Great Depression, World War II, the unrest of the 1960s, and the steady creep of civilization up the South Hills.
Text messaging and Facebook weren’t ranching tools when Robert Campbell Line, dean of the business school at the University of Montana, surprised friends and family by buying 640 acres up here in 1933.
His sons, Bob Jr. and David, were 10 and 8 years old at the time, and they had two sisters, Louise and Harriet. The boys remained on the ranch for the rest of their lives.
David, who never married, died of cancer in 2003. Young Bob, Ann’s husband, passed away in December 2006 at age 83. Both passed on to successors their love affairs with a ranch on the side of a mountain that interacts daily with the hustle and bustle of Montana’s second-largest city.
“His primary goals were to preserve open space and to pass the land on in better shape than how he found it,” read a line in Bob’s obituary. “His family will do the same.”
That was on the minds of their survivors in 2007. The Line Family Ltd. Partnership – Ann, Chris and Tim – agreed to place into a conservation easement the upper 480 acres stretching into the timber atop Dean Stone Mountain. The Rimel and Hayden families did the same on adjacent lands. The result was 1,050 acres of gently sloping grasslands and forests protected from development and serving as a buffer between the urban fringe and the open lands beyond. It also preserved a heck of a view.
The next generation of Lines played a large role in the decision.
Chris’ sons, Hunter and Bridger, are in eighth and sixth grades, respectively, at Washington Middle School. Tim and Julie Line have Griffin, also an eighth-grader at Washington, and Justin, who’s in fifth grade at Paxson. Any or all of them stand to take over the ranch when the time comes.
“It was a big decision, just trying to figure out should we do that or should we not, because you’re locking up a big chunk of land forever,” said Tim. “Here Chris and Mom and I are making that decision, and we talked about it with the kids, but it was a weird thing to make that decision that’s going to affect their lives.”
Robert Line Sr., brought the family from Columbus to Missoula in 1927. He and Louise, a woman of refinement from Wisconsin, were raising their kids in the Rattlesnake Valley when they bought the ranch on the hill six years later.
“Part of the story was everybody thought Grandfather was crazy because he worked at the university, and as I understand it there were no houses between the university and this property,” Tim Line said. “They said, ‘Why would you buy land that’s so far out of town?’ Which is funny to us because we’re on the edge of the city limits now.”
Robert Sr., who passed away in 1983, moved the family into a ranch house with no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and all the work that goes with raising and caring for horses and milk cows.
It was originally the farm of Richard Whitaker, a Montana pioneer from England who built Whitaker Drive around the turn of the 20th century so he could get his threshing machine up the hill.
Missoula County’s sheriff from 1914 to 1916, Whitaker raised wheat and hired itinerant workers to harvest it for 20 years or more. He apparently sold the ranch and moved to town sometime in the 1920s.
The Lines bought the 640-acre spread for $4,500 from Arnold Zaugg, a farmer and land speculator from West Riverside near Bonner. Zaugg unsuccessfully urged Robert Sr. to buy even more – the hillside to the east that’s now Mansion Heights.
Her father-in-law wasn’t a farming wannabe, Ann Line said. He had owned a large spread in the Yellowstone Valley near Greycliff.
“Ranching was not new to him, so when this came up the only thing Arnold Zaugg had to tell him was it’s soaking with water,” she said. “My husband said his father said, ‘That’s it. I’ll buy it,’ because he knew the value of water on a ranch.”
Today, two or three natural springs supply water to four homes and keep the duck ponds full.
No one has ever gotten rich – or even made much of a living – off the Line Ranch.
That’s never been the point for Chris and Tim, who share the workload with Ann, Julie and the boys while balancing their 9-to-5’s in town.
“As a kid, I always enjoyed living on the ranch and working on the ranch,” Tim said. “I didn’t really have any formal thought, but I guess in my mind I just sort of assumed I would probably stay here and continue.”
“There was the identity thing growing up,” said Chris. “Who were we? Were we city kids or were we country kids? Because by that time in the ’70s, houses had crept up to the fence line, but we were definitely living an agricultural lifestyle.”
Griffin, Hunter, Bridger and Justin face the same questions now, but you won’t hear them grousing. They’re free to roam the hills and expected to do their chores. They handle the dual life just fine, and sometimes even revel in it.
“I can’t define myself as one or the other because we’re so close to town,” Griffin said. “I get home after school and I see the cows, see the horses and just realize we also have a ranch to deal with, too.”
That’s not a bad thing, he added. When his friends plan to hang out, “they all want to come to my house.”
“I’ve had my friends up here and they’re greatly jealous of it,” Hunter said. “I guess there’s no better word than jealousy. It’s pretty nice up here.”
And what do the girls in town think?
“Pretty rad,” he said.
A lot of them are already acquainted with the Line Ranch. For the past 22 years, Julie has brought 60 to 80 kindergartners and their parents up in the last week of school. For many it’s their first hayride, their first horseback ride, their first chance to see a cow up close.
The Rimels and other neighbors pitch in to make it a special experience.
“It’s wonderful,” Ann said. “People always remember that day.”
Every other August, the Lines host a barn dance in the hayshed. It features music by County Line and the Ranch Band, for which Chris plays guitar and Tim the drums (their father played trombone for the UM Alumni Band and the Missoula Elks Band). By “burger count,” the barn dances have attracted 500 people or more.
The Lines say it’s a way of sharing a place that’s unique to Missoula, something they hope their boys don’t take for granted, and something worth hanging on to for another 80 years.
“It’s just kind of nice not to have neighbors,” said Bridger, Chris’ youngest.
“I’m not saying they’re bad, but it’s just kind of nice when it’s all quiet and you can hear the birds in the morning. It’s a nice experience to be up here. Not a lot of kids get to have that.”