Family legacy: Corvallis family works to preserve agricultural heritage of ranch

Kay Holloron McArthur poses with her son's family at the entrance to the historic Holloron Ranch. Mike and Amanda McArthur and their daughters, Madison and May, have all agreed to place a conservation easement on the land that's been in the family since the early 1900s.

Perry Backus - Ravalli Republic

CORVALLIS – It’s hard to know just how old it is, this solid oak table with scratches worn deep in its side and the leaf that doesn’t quite fit perfectly any more.

No one alive remembers the first day it came through the door of the Holloron home.

For maybe a century, it has offered generations a place to rest their elbows as they shared their lives centered on a pretty little piece of ground just northeast of Corvallis.

Who knows how many pies had their beginnings on its solid foundation? Who can imagine the conversations, the hopes and dreams and heartbreak it’s heard?

Today, it’s the centerpiece of Mike and Amanda McArthur’s kitchen. Just along its edge, the next generation has already made its mark with Little Mermaid stickers pasted out of sight.

Family, tradition and heritage – all of those things mean something here in this home.

No one has forgotten the sacrifice that Libbie Holloron made for the family she loved.

Sometime around 1905, James Holloron brought his bride, Elizabeth, to this piece of ground on the eastside of the Bitterroot Valley.

To her family, she was always Libbie.

Her life must have been hard.

Her husband had been a stone mason who followed the mining camps from Idaho to Montana before deciding to settle down and raise the food his growing family needed to survive.

The couple had 10 children when this traveling man apparently decided he wasn’t ready to settle down in one place forever.

He picked up and moved on, leaving behind Libbie and the children.

For many, that would have been devastating.

But Libbie pulled on her boots and gloves and went to work.

Her granddaughter, Kay Holloron McArthur, lives on a hill overlooking her son’s home. She remembers hearing stories about her grandmother.

They’d talk about her quiet fortitude. They’d tell about seeing her out in the fields doing the irrigating and tending the stock. They’d remember that she drove a horse-drawn wagon that served as the community school bus way back when.

McArthur grew up with a deep admiration for this woman who gave everything to hold her family together against the odds, through two world wars and the Great Depression.

McArthur and her brother, Jerry Holloron, grew up in a house that’s now gone. Her father, Dee, and his brother, Bob, raised beef and feed crops on the 170 acres that were mostly homesteaded back in early 1900s.

“I grew up here,” McArthur said. “It was a wonderful place to live. I loved it.”

After spending 30 years in California, she and her husband returned to the valley.

“It really makes you appreciate the Bitterroot,” she said.

Sometime around 2000, McArthur and her brother began to talk about the future of this place that the Holloron family has considered home for more than a century.

“We talked with Steve Powell a lot over the years,” she said. “He was always so quiet, so nice. He helped us through all that time. He helped us a lot.”

Powell was one of the founding members of the Bitter Root Land Trust. He spoke to the siblings about the potential of preserving this land for its traditional use of agriculture.

“We knew we had to zero in and do something,” McArthur said. “There were subdivisions happening all around us. This place was changing.”

In a letter to Bitter Root Land Trust, Holloron wrote that Libbie had expressed her desire that the ranch remain a working one many decades ago.

“A ‘plat of Summerdale Orchards,’ dated Sept. 8, 1908, shows the ranch – unsubdivided – surrounded on three sides by dozens of new 10-acre ‘orchard lots,’ ” Holloron wrote. “Today, the ranch is still an island of open space, as surrounding areas, particularly to the east and north, have undergone rapid development.”

Today, the McArthur’s longtime neighbors and friends, Lee and Lorena Erickson, lease the ranch to raise cattle and pasture.

After some long discussions among all the family members, Holloron and the McArthurs agreed that a conservation easement that protects the property from future development was the right thing to do.

Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs said the project to place a conservation easement on the family’s property is an embodiment of what Ravalli County’s open land bond program is about.

“It’s all about keeping active working ranchlands in family ownership and preserving those opportunities to continue traditional agricultural uses,” he said. “That is getting harder and harder to do.”

As families grow, it can be challenging when it comes time to pass land from one generation to the next.

For many families – like the Hollorons and McArthurs – retaining those traditional uses on land that holds special family ties is important, Ricklefs said.

“We’re lucky we have a tool like this to help them,” Ricklefs said.

The family’s proposed conservation easement is working its way through the Ravalli County open lands bond process. If approved, county bond monies could be used to leverage additional funds from the federal Farm and Ranch Program to help pay for the easement.

That federal program focuses on preserving working farm and ranch lands. Ravalli County has qualified six times over the past three years for the federal dollars.

“This piece of ground scores very well,” Ricklefs said. “This federal program recognizes the importance of retaining important agricultural ground like this. They are not making any more of it.”

The two families understand that intrinsic value of the place they’ve always called home.

“Our goal is to see that the land remain intact, not only as a tribute to our ancestors, but so the public can continue to share in its value as open space,” Holloron wrote. “We want to assure that the land can continue as a working farm and part of the agricultural economy so important to the Bitterroot.”

“And we hope to continue its roles as a sanctuary to birds and wildlife,” he wrote. “We plan to maintain family ownership for decades.”

McArthur believes her grandmother would be happy.

“She worked so hard to keep this place together and in our family,” she said. “I’ve thought about this a lot. No one has the right to do anything with it after all she did.

“This is the right way to go,” McArthur said, her hands folded neatly over that old table top. “This is the right thing to do.”

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.