HELENA – For more than 150 years, members of the Gehring family have been working the land in the hills northwest of Helena. Today, Bill Gehring carries on that tradition, raising cattle and bison on more than 2,800 acres.
“I feel like I’m living my dream,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a rancher.”
Now, this century-long heritage has been officially recognized, as the Gehring Ranch was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Gehring family celebrated the designation on Saturday, along with some of the other people who helped make it possible.
“I sure can’t thank them enough,” Gehring said.
Gehring contacted Lewis and Clark County heritage preservation officer Pam Attardo for help pursuing historic status. She said the ranch immediately stood out, because of the number and variety of original buildings still standing there and because the Gehring family had diaries, photos and other documentation to show the history of the land.
“The one thing I said to him was, ‘It’s not a matter of if, it’s when you get listed,’” she said.
Paul Putz, a consultant who works with the city-county Heritage Tourism Council, took the lead in writing the proposal for the historic designation. He estimated there are more than 20 structures with historic value on the ranch.
Putz said the extensive family records played a key part in securing historic status.
“It made things better and worse,” he said. “It took a lot of time to go through it and to figure out how the information there related to the buildings, but at the same time, it gave us great depth and understanding of how each building worked and the role it played throughout history at the ranch.”
The Gehring Ranch evolved over the years, as the family adapted to changing economic conditions. It started in the 1860s, not long after Helena’s founding. The Gehrings were initially farmers and sold their produce to travelers passing by on the roads between Helena and Fort Benton. They later took up large-scale hog farming, then cattle and bison.
“Anybody who’s going to keep agricultural property has to be responsive to markets and to historical trends,” said Putz. “The Gehrings managed to do that over time, successfully.”
Putz said the historic value goes beyond the buildings to the fields themselves. The Gehrings kept detailed records of when and how they used each piece of land.
“This ranch is unusual in that it’s a historic whole,” he said.
The historic designation is the second major milestone for the Gehring Ranch in the last two years. In 2016, Bill Gehring worked with the county and with the Prickly Pear Land Trust to put a conservation easement on the land – permanently preventing it from being divided or developed.
“We’ve seen ranches just outside of Helena turn into subdivisions,” Gehring said. “It’ll be my legacy to know that it’s been preserved.”
For now, the Gehring Ranch will remain a working operation. Bill Gehring said he’s honored to be able to continue his family’s heritage on the ranch.
“To preserve this land is just phenomenal,” he said.
The Gehring Ranch joins two other ranches in Lewis and Clark County on the National Register of Historic Places: the Hilger Ranch near the Gates of the Mountains, and the Silver King Ranch outside Lincoln.