History of the J.B. Grierson Ranch

A couple weeks ago, when I wrote What IS a corporate ranch, anyway? Part 1, I promised to soon post details about what this ol’ ranch was like before it transformed into a corporate ranch 17 years ago.  I know the details of the J.B. Grierson Ranch well because my dad, who has worked for this place for 51 years, knows the story by heart, and raised me immersed in the story, and taught me to love it too.  In May of 2006, when I was working at the weekly Agri-News in Billings, I put together “J.B. Grierson’s Ranching Legacy:  The history of Treasure County’s PV Ranch” for publication.  I’m reprinting the story here now, minus (unfortunately) several fantastic old pictures that accompanied the article when it originally printed and which I will have to track down again.  (I’ve had to update the story in a few places due to the passage of time, and also because… well… I am an insatiable editor.)  Enjoy!

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It was 1875 when a few brave government employees decided to engage in a commercial venture and — ignoring federal orders not to — build a stockade on the Yellowstone River between the current towns of Hysham and Custer, Montana.  Fort Pease, as it came to be known, was just a collection of ramshackle buildings on the north bank of the river.  And it was not enough to protect the entrepreneurs within.  In 1876 the fort was besieged by Sioux and Cheyenne Indians and abandoned.  Rumor has it that this encroachment on American Indian territory was the last straw following several government violations leading to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, fought 40 miles to the south that same year.

Even so, that particular part of the wide, rich-soiled valley, with rolling grasslands sweeping as far as the eye could see to the north and the Hysham Hills towering to the south, was from then on referred to as the Pease Bottom.  Eventually a steamboat landing was established there and the pioneers came, followed by the homesteaders.  A little meeting place called Rancher was centralized in the Pease Bottom community, and in early years was namesake to a school, a church, and a cemetery.

A Scotsman adventurer by the name of Robert Grierson was so impressed by the Pease Bottom that he ended his journeys and stayed.  He sent letters to his brother John, who was still in Scotland, gushing with tales of grain growing without irrigation and free pasture for livestock.  As to the objections, he wrote, “The insects are pretty bad and next to that horse stealing by straggling Indians is too common.”  Nonetheless, “I most decidedly think this is the best of the United States to go to.”

And so in 1881 the John Grierson family set sail from Scotland.  They came on a family-owned sailing vessel, and many steamboats passed them along the way, the passengers waving their regards.  From New York trains, riverboats, and finally a stage brought the Griersons to the Pease Bottom.

John Grierson made his living in Montana doing odd jobs:  carpentering, carrying mail, gathering buffalo bones to be sold for fertilizer.  It was his son, J.B., known to friends as Jimmy, who started the ranching legacy.

As a young man, Jimmy worked as a cowboy and homesteaded near the mouth of Muggins Creek, a good-times waterway that wanders through the northside country and meets the Yellowstone in the Pease Bottom.  Jimmy found jobs on such outfits as the 7UK, a giant ranch headquartered near present-day Forsyth, 35 miles east.

Pease Bottom was at first part of the huge expanse of Custer County, which encompassed most of Eastern Montana at one time.  It was later drawn into the boundaries of Rosebud County, and made one final change when Treasure County was cut from Rosebud.  Jimmy Grierson was the first Clerk of Court of Rosebud County when it was formed in 1902.  He married Rosalia Duff, who worked in his office.  Together they returned to the Pease Bottom, where Jimmy turned his full attention to ranching.  Eastern Montana was filled with range horses in those days, and it wasn’t long before a fair share of them were wearing the monogram JB brand on the left shoulder.

Jimmy’s ranch grew quickly.  He obtained the PV brand from his brother, Henry, who had purchased it with a bunch of cattle so marked from a homesteader.  (Henry Grierson is remembered as a colorful character.  He worked for the historic FUF — a huge, investor-owned range horse outfit operating just east of Jimmy’s stomping grounds — and was known as a top bronc stomper.  Later he was elected Sheriff of Rosebud County.)

Soon Jimmy’s cattle, all wearing the PV brand on the left hip, grazed open range both west and east of Muggins Creek.  His horses and steers grazed further east, along Froze-to-Death and Starve-to-Death Creeks.  Ingomar and the present-day ghost towns of Sumatra and Vananda served as the northern boundaries to Jimmy’s territory.  And his mother cows went as far west as Alkali Creek.

Alkali, Muggins, and Froze-to-Death Creeks all reach the Yellowstone within ten miles of each other in the Pease Bottom.  And in the center of those ten miles stood Jimmy’s home site, what we know now as the Grierson Ranch headquarters.

PV 1920
The J.B. Grierson Ranch, circa 1920

About 15 miles up Muggins Creek, Jimmy claimed a quarter-section homestead and called it Horse Camp.  The stout corrals there saw many a horse roundup, and the warm barn was always a welcome site for the cowboys who rode with Jimmy.  “Down among the sagebrush by a little stream stands a little cabin, finest I’ve ever seen,” wrote local cowboy Bob Kinsey years later.  “Stands a little cabin, looks mighty good to me, and the brand on the cabin is the old PV.  Going down old Muggins with a whoop and a whee, the cowboys are singing on the ol’ PV.”

Jimmy Grierson saw many homesteaders come and go.  This northside country wasn’t as easy to tame as the government had promised them it would be, and the typical homestead had way more wind and cactus than it did wood and water.  When hard times forced folks to give up, Jimmy was obliged to claim their plots.  Through drought and terrible winters and wars he persevered, and his ranch grew piece by piece.  Still today many pastures are named for those who first lived on the land:  the Creek Place, Nansels’, Ransier, Ruskosky, and Isaacs’.

The cowboys who rode for Jimmy, wrangling Herefords and what some old-timers claimed were the stoutest range horses ever seen, had to be tough; Jimmy expected nothing less.  Though darn handy himself, Jimmy was more than a cowboy.  He was a visionary, an insightful man ahead of his time.  While the U.S. Hereford industry was preaching and breeding short and square, Jimmy directed his son, John, to travel to Canada for long, tall, lean genetics.  He and a partner formed the First National Bank in nearby Hysham, and Jimmy was an advocate for range management long before stewardship was the trend.  A founding member of Montana’s Grass Conservation Board, he instilled in the generations that followed him a sense of responsibility for caring for the land.  When he attended meetings, he wore oxfords and a suit.  “The bigger the hat, the smaller the ranch,” he liked to say.

The bottom fell out of the horse market following World War I, and the last of Jimmy’s range horses were gathered and shipped in the 1940s.  Jimmy died in 1959, a few years after forming the J.B. Grierson Company.  He left the ranch to his son, John, and daughter, Rebecca Almond.  John assumed daily management while Becca handled finances for the expanding business.  They carried on a strong family Republican tradition, remained active in the Montana Stockgrowers Association, championed local grazing districts, and believed in higher education just as their father had.  “The thing about it is, if you send your kids off to school, you never know for sure if they’ll come home,” Jimmy once said.  It was a gamble he took, sending both Becca and John to the University of Montana.

PV 1940s
The J.B. Grierson Ranch, circa 1940

John Grierson was not the cow and horse hand his father was, but he equaled and maybe surpassed Jimmy in his management skills as he oversaw the next generation.  With the purchase of land on Alkali Creek in Yellowstone County, a J.B. Grierson Company cowboy was stationed full-time at the newly-acquired Butte Camp.  Another cowboy moved into Horse Camp to stay.  Ranching was changing, and that was verified by the emergence of horse trailers, two-way radio, and range supplement.

When John died in 1984, Becca oversaw the operation with her son, Jim Almond (a banker by trade), and with John’s son, J.R. Grierson (a surgeon).  The ranch continued to prosper, growing to 78,000 deeded and 85,000 leased acres and 3,000 mama cows when in the late ’80s J.B. Grierson Co. purchased an existing ranch south of Sumatra.  The new acquisition came to be known as Ridge Camp, and together the three Grierson cow camps formed a triangle, each 13 miles from the other two.  Nearly all the land between was home to PV cows.  Come summer, the PVs grazed on the Fort Pease and Froze-to-Death grazing districts, along with cattle belonging to neighboring ranchers (a few of them distant relatives to the Griersons!).

Back at ranch headquarters in the Pease Bottom, a farm crew stayed busy raising silage corn and backgrounding PV calves in the ranch feedlot.  About 1990 the ranch started down the long path toward a primarily black cowherd, breeding Hereford dams to Angus bulls.  Not long after, the J.B. Grierson Company was recognized as the second-oldest family ranch in the state of Montana.

Eventually the third generation of Griersons made the difficult decision to sell.  In early 2003 the cattle, the land, and the historic PV brand were all sold to an investor named Stan Kroenke.  A farm auction later in the spring marked the end to Jimmy Grierson’s ranching legacy.

Jimmy’s daughter, Becca Grierson Almond, passed away in 2006 at age 98.  Today her son Jim and his wife Sandy live near their grandchildren in the western part of the state.  J.R. Grierson and his wife, Di, live on a small piece of the ranch that belonged to their family for so long, in a house built with logs harvested from homestead cabins on the place.  They still own the monogram JB brand, and they operate an antique store inside the historic Rancher Schoolhouse.

Today known as the PV Ranch, Jimmy Grierson’s vision is still largely relevant.  This place maybe grew beyond his imaginings, but continues to operate as a conventional, commercial cow-calf ranch.  Manager Harold Arvik, my dad, has been riding for the brand for 51 years and saw the business through the transition from family legacy to corporate ranch.  These days Dad enjoys a slower pace, while my husband Beau has risen to the task of handling all that’s demanded of a 21st Century ranch manager.  We live here at headquarters in the house where Jimmy himself lived, built in 1912 by Jimmy’s father.

In 2014 the PV acquired a fourth cow camp, called the VX, 40 miles north of headquarters on the Ingomar-Cohagen Road.  A camp cowboy lives at and handles the daily work at each camp.  Here at headquarters a crew of four maintains the feedlot with the help of dayworkers.

The new owner of the ranch has never attempted to change the way work is accomplished here, and my family has made an effort to remain as traditional as possible to the J.B. Grierson legacy.  Cows are still handled and country is covered horseback, critters are wintered on the range if at all possible, calves are roped and dragged to the branding fire, and the ranch remains home to Eastern Montana’s economy cowboy — not specific to any particular style or rig, but instead known for working hard, riding tough horses, and watching over cows that flourish on stout grass.

It’s been more than a hundred years, and the cowboys are still singin’ on the ol’ PV.

© Tami Blake

3 thoughts on “History of the J.B. Grierson Ranch

  1. What a legacy! I so enjoyed living next door to Becca in Hysham. She was in her mid 80’s – sharp as a tack, very witty and always had interesting stories!
    Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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