Zane Fulbright is an archeologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. He’s leading a restoration of a two-story log barn that Edwin Wartzenluft and son, Paul, carved out of the prairie with axes next to the log house in 1914.
More than that, Fulbright is trying to explain to today’s generation what yesterday’s homesteaders endured.
The nearest blacktop highway is 25 miles away.
“Until you drive out here, you don’t get it,” Fulbright says of the homesteading experience. “And you say, ‘Holy cow’ and think, ‘People lived way out here?’”
An effort by the BLM to save remnants of the state’s homesteading heyday in northcentral Montana is under way, before they disappear like the people who built them, taking the important history with them.
Restoration of the Wartzenluft barn falls on the 150th anniversary year of the Homestead Act, which was signed May 20, 1862, by Abraham Lincoln, and it’s no accident. Fulbright sees the anniversary as an ideal opportunity to educate the public about this site and others in the area.
“This is a public resource,” Fulbright said. “This is a recreation site. People drive right by it. It’s a local landmark. We have an opportunity here to preserve some of the local history.”
Structures that remain standing from one of the most important eras of the state’s history are artifacts in the eyes of Fulbright and Kirby Matthew, an exhibit specialist with Region 1 of the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula.
The BLM asked Matthew’s five-member building restoration team to help in restoring the two-story barn built by the Wartzenlufts.
“We look at these as big open air museum exhibits,” Matthew said. “We’re working on artifacts ¿ just big ones, big ones with a roof.”
Last month, Matthew’s crew was camped at the site like pioneers, living in tents during the duration of the restoration project. The only sounds were coming from the whistling wind and prairie birds.
Staying on the site saved driving time as opposed to returning nightly to Lewistown, which is 73 miles to the southwest.
“We’ve got so much to get done,” Matthew said.
The Homestead Act was passed in 1862. It gave 160 acres ¿ and later 320 ¿ to anybody who could “prove up” the land, in effect successfully farming it for five years and later three. The land rush in Montana occurred roughly from about 1910 to 1917 with the 151,000 homestead applications the most in the nation.
In Fergus County alone, where the Wartzenluft place is located, the population swelled to 28,344 by 1920. Today, it’s 11,600.
Over the years, the BLM, created in 1946 with a merging of the General Land Office and U.S. Grazing Service, has acquired land with homesteads as a result of land exchanges, donations or purchases, Fulbright said.
Now it’s attempting to preserve structures constructed by homesteaders who were able to successfully acquire title to the property.
“We are losing them rapidly,” said Kate Hampton, preservation coordinator for the Montana Historical Society’s Historic Preservation Office.
There’s no record of how many homestead structures remain standing but it’s a good bet there are thousands, Hampton said. Not all of them should be saved but well-preserved sites, such as those in the Missouri River Breaks, are worth the trouble, she said.
Everybody’s heard the familiar hardy-folks-came-West-and-made-the-land-great story, she said.
Homesteads that retain multiple features, such as fence lines, rows of trees and root cellars, tell a more complete and accurate story about the experience, she said.
“These places really show you what a struggle it was to be out there and dependent on good weather, good crops, hard work and a lot of good luck,” she said.
Since 2005, the BLM has spent $150,000 to $200,000 preserving five homesteads on its lands in northern Fergus and southern Blaine counties.
The Wartzenluft place, which is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, is the sixth.
Besides the Wartzenluft restoration, the BLM also plans to fence a homestead cemetery in Petroleum County later this year. One name is still visible on a headstone and thus its name ¿ Nordahl Cemetery.
Oral and written histories of many homesteaders already have been recorded, the BLM’s Fulbright said.
What’s missing from the stories, however, is the “bones of it” ¿ physical remnants, the cabins, barns and cemeteries. That’s where the restorations come in, he said. Today, it’s rare to find an original homestead landscape that has not been modified for contemporary use, he says.
“I hate to see a part of the story lost,” he said.
Saving the structures is personal for Fulbright. His great grandparents homesteaded 10 miles north of Ingomar.
Edwin and Paul Wartzenluft came to Montana in 1914 from Illinois and each homesteaded on the Musselshell Road. They sold the land in 1926. The BLM acquired it in a land exchange in the 1980s.
They used axes to square the logs so they were flat on each side and dovetailed the corners to prevent warping and settling. Matthew said the process of smoothing out the logs would have taken a tremendous amount of labor.
“We’re guessing it was logged locally,” said Fulbright, as a row of people carried off a log from the barn.
Wooden pegs were used to hold the logs together.
The buildings have held their shape over the years.
“This is a really cool barn,” said Betty Westburg, a BLM employee who was assisting at the Wartzenluft restoration. “They were really master craftsmen.”
Westburg knows the history of the area as well as anybody. She serves on the board of the Central Montana Museum and her grandmother, Elma Webb, who was born in Denmark, was a homesteader who ran the post office and store in a community called Wilder, not far from the Wartzenluft place. She traveled by train as far as Roy and made the rest of the 35-mile trip by team and wagon.
Fulbright says the Homestead Act anniversary is a perfect time for an aggressive restoration effort of the Wartzenluft place.
One interesting feature of the two-story barn is that it was constructed with the lower level situated into a hillside.
That allowed the wagon to be backed up to the second story to unload hay. The hay could be easily unloaded without having to hoist it up to the second floor, with the food simply dropped to the animals on the lower level.
“It’s not very often you see a two-story log barn,” Westburg said. “So I think it’s really wonderful it’s being saved.”
In the house, sleeping quarters were in a loft. The main floor served as a kitchen and the general living space.
In conjunction with the 150th anniversary, the BLM is developing a self-guided auto tour of 11 homesteads on private, BLM lands and Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge in Fergus County.
A 60-mile loop, beginning on Sand Creek Trail and ending on Wilder Trail off U.S. Highway 191, will take 5 1/2 hours to drive.
The Wartzenluft homestead is one of the places on the tour.
The log barn stands 18 logs high on each side and has a total of 72 logs.
One by one, logs are being taken down from the walls and put aside during foundation improvements.
As part of the restoration, 40 new logs will be needed. That will require a crew to hew them with an ax ¿ just like the Wartzenluft’s did nearly a century ago. The restoration is expected to be completed in July.
“We’re going to rebuild this as it would have looked when it was new,” Fulbright said.