Montana ranchers offering paying guest bunkhouse hospitality
October 10, 2004
By Jeff WelschBozeman Chronicle Sports EditorRick Jarrett and life-partner Karen Searle call it "metamorphosing to something radically the same."
Fellow cattle ranchers Leo and Lois Cremer warily view it as a way to salvage a lifestyle dating back to the era when their families came to the sweet-grass country in wagons.
With similar skepticism, neighbors Kenny and Donna Laubach see it as a chance to put a favorable face on their culture while learning about other cultures they may never experience.
The three Sweet Grass County families, along with five others scattered among the hayfields and coulees, have undertaken a unique venture they hope will sustain a fading lifestyle for themselves, their children and grandchildren.
They're calling it Montana Bunkhouses, a co-op of eight vast spreads offering paying guests authentic ranching experiences.
· One has the classic cattle drive.
· Another has lambing and raises pheasants.
· Another has calving by day and trout fishing on the Yellowstone River by evening.
Still another combines the total ranching experience on 6,000 semi-arid acres with cabins tucked into remote corners of property overlooking the Boulder River valley.
"Each ranch is so unique," said Searle, who hatched the concept at an agriculture conference in Europe two years ago.
"It's, 'What would guests enjoy most?'"
If all goes as planned, guests eager to escape the rat race and reconnect with the land will call Searle, a.k.a. The Matchmaker, for the working vacation that suits them.
The selling point, one they're still not convinced will actually take root, is this: Montana Bunkhouses is not to be confused with dude ranches, where guests retreat in luxury, have guided fishing/hunting and ride "tail-to-head" on somnambulent horses.
"The intrigue is what we do is real," says Jarrett, a fifth-generation rancher who lives with Searle in a century-old home on 2,500 acres in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains on Duck Creek.
And their goal is, for them, a poignant one:
"Being in a position to pass it on to my kids," Leo Cremer said. "If I screw it up, my kids won't have the opportunity."
Tough times are not new for family ranches.
Even as beef prices reach all-time highs, operating costs have skyrocketed and ranch hands are nearly impossible to round up.
Government regulations seem to change hourly and the reintroduction of the wolf hangs over them, real or imagined, like an ominous cloud.
The seven-year drought has forced innovative and expensive searches for water.
Corporations and wealthy out-of-staters are gobbling up land as ranching families grudgingly sell increasingly valuable property they can't afford to inherit.
Searle was laid off from her job at the Livingston hospital. Lois Cremer and Donna Laubach were forced to seek 9-to-5 jobs in Big Timber to make ends meet.
"You look at the books at the end of the year and you scratch your head," Leo Cremer said. A
dds Kenny Laubach, who owns 3,000 acres with two miles of private access to the Yellowstone: "The banker does, too."
Hope surfaced when Searle traveled to Spain to promote a kids cow camp. A woman there, hearing Searle's story, asked why she hadn't considered a co-op similar to the popular European Farm Holiday model.
When Searle returned, she and Jarrett scribbled the concept on paper, determined to remain true to authenticity and to limit stays to one family or group.
Jarrett and Searle, an affable couple whose steady stream of hearty laughter belies their constant challenges, made a list of fellow ranchers they deemed suited for Montana Bunkhouses.
"We were real careful about who was doing it," Jarrett said. "We wanted a cohesive group."
The Laubachs and Cremers were skeptical, first about bringing the outside world into theirs and then about people paying to help out with ranch chores, wade to their hips in irrigation ditches and be up to their elbows in calf placentas -- possibly in sub-zero weather.
"You could get the wrong guests and say, 'why the heck am I doing this?'" said Laubach, brother-in-law of Montana State men's basketball coach Mick Durham.
Not even assurances from bunkhouse members Terry and Wyoma Terland, who for nine years have charged nearly $2,000 for summer cattle drives, allayed the early doubts.
"You guys will be surprised what people will pay to do," Wyoma Terland insisted. "There's so much romance and spirit. It's a life-altering experience for most people.
" Perspectives began to change when Travel Montana sent Montana Bunkhouses six travel writers, including one from Sunset Magazine who stayed with Jarrett and Searle.
The writer was eager, his wife wasn't. While he spent an entire day working on fencing and irrigation, she went antique shopping.
The next day, buoyed by his experience, he coaxed her into helping with the project.
She stayed all day.
"I never got on the four-wheeler without her after that," Jarrett said. "She loved it. It was an eye-opening experience for her and us. It gave us the confidence to go forward."
A television crew from Taiwan was similarly engrossed. And then came a family from the East and a 12-year-old boy who was on Cremer's heels like the family pet for nearly a week.
They have also had guests from Europe.
"You meet wonderful people and they become friends," Wyoma Terland said. "They don't leave as strangers.
"And we show people back East that we're not all out decimating the land or killing the wolf."
Thus far, business has been slow.
Montana Bunkhouses has a Web site, bought an advertisement and distributed brochures, but as lifelong ranchers treading new ground they're not even sure their pricing is right.
"We're kind of flying blind yet, really," Leo Cremer said.
Their hope, of course, is that the concept flourishes. Other ranchers around Montana have contacted them, but thus far there are fewer clients than bunkhouses.
At this point, at least, the ranchers are beginning to embrace the idea.
"I'm proud of our lifestyle," Donna Laubach said. "I wouldn't mind showing it off."
But the primary reason for this "metamorphosis to something radically the same" is heard through the voice of Jarrett's 8-year-old granddaughter, Jordan, who, along with 5-year-old brother Jess, clearly is at home on the range.
"Papa," she said to Jarrett recently, "I'm going to buy this land from you, just like your dad."
Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations LLC
Ten Sweet Grass County ranch families work cooperatively to provide a unique vacation experience. Enjoy the opportunity to meet and get acquainted with authentic Montana ranch families. Montana ranch hospitality at its best. Ranch experiences vary by the season and include everything from riding the ditches with the irrigator to haying and fencing. Lambing and calving in the spring. Bird watching and hiking and photography in every season. Read a book in the shade of the tree next to the babbling brook or have another cup of coffee at the ranch house. See the Charlie Russell sunrise and experience the sunsets. Move cattle to summer pasture or be part of the fall round up. Live the old west ranch experience.
Lodging, meals and ranch activities are included in the working ranch vacation rates. Accommodations may vary from private bunkhouses or guest bedrooms in the ranch house to vacation home rentals. You can even choose to stay in a sheep wagon or a tipi. Ranch vacation rates vary from $150 to $200 per person per day based on availability of seasonal and family rates. Rates for vacation home rentals or a luxuriously furnished bed and breakfast (with or without the option of working ranch activities) vary from $50 to $200 per night. There is a three-day minimum stay for the working ranch vacation.
Contact Karen at Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations, LLC, to request more information or to make a reservation with the ranch family most suited to your interests whether they be cattle, sheep, horses, farming, history, hiking, wildlife, fishing or hunting. Don't be confused by all of these options. Just call Karen, she knows what each ranch has to offer and she will help you find the ranch vacation that suits your interests and fits your budget. Email: Karen@montanabunkhouses.com or phone her in the office at 406/222-6101 or at the ranch 406/932-6719.