Only a few miles away from town, there is a piece of history tucked away where it’s been since before Montana was a state.
More than 20 volunteers came out to the Moon-Randolph Homestead on Saturday for the second annual “Prune the Moon.” Volunteers helped cut back the trees in the orchard on the property, all of which were originally planted when the homestead was first settled in 1889.
While the non-professional workers spent most of the afternoon on the ground, using loppers or extension pole saws to take off small branches from the trees, experts also turned out to lend a hand with the more difficult or dangerous pruning.
Able Tree Service brought a five-person crew of volunteers out to the homestead Saturday with some of their more specialized equipment, from chainsaws to climbing ropes and harnesses.
“We’re trying not to prune too aggressively. Most times, fruit trees would be kept much shorter than these,” said Cooper Elwood, co-owner of Able, gesturing up to the tops of the trees, many of them more than 15 feet tall. He said the trees will be kept close to their current height to preserve their historic element, and only cut back to make them healthier.
The crew with Elwood used trim saws – a smaller, shorter chainsaw – and motorized saws on extension poles to take down the biggest branches and gnarls. For the places too high to be pruned on foot, they strapped on harnesses and hoisted themselves into the upper branches, or climbed three-legged orchard ladders they used to steady themselves while they worked.
“The ladders taper at the top, so you can fit them into the tight, high branches and still be able to get up there,” Elwood said.
Able Tree Service also brought a wood chipper to the homestead to use on all of the branches volunteers pulled away from the base of the trees and stacked into small piles near the fence line.
The trees themselves had a scraggly, wild look to them, with branches still bare from winter. Most of the trees in the homestead orchard were apple trees, but there were also cherry and pear scattered among them.
“They look pretty feral, but they still produce fruit every year,” said Matthew LaRubbio.
LaRubbio, 31, has been living on the homestead with his wife Meredith for the past year as its caretakers. He had worked on a nearby sheep farm for years and been to the property many times, and jumped on the opportunity to apply for the position when the previous caretakers left.
“This place is unique because it is preserved with its original buildings and layout,” he said.
The LaRubbios live on the property for free, and in exchange work the ranch and all of the jobs that come with it.
“There’s a garden to be planted, we raise the goats and the pigs. The homestead has nesting hens as well as meat birds, and of course the orchard,” LaRubbio said. They would do more, but there is very little water on the homestead, so most of it has to be brought in with a large water tanker truck.
The homestead was first settled by Ray Moon in the spring of 1889, a few months before Montana became a state. Moon and his wife lived on the land for five years, before it passed to another family before being bought by William and Emma Randolph in 1907. It stayed in the Randolph family until 1996, when the city eventually bought it.
“They could have sold it to someone else who could have torn down the buildings and put a nice little home up here,” LaRubbio said. “But they wanted to keep it preserved as it is.”
The homestead is managed and overseen by the North Missoula Community Development Corp., and Five Valleys Land Trust. The property totals 470 acres, with a smaller 13-acre area as the main homestead. In 2010, the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places. This year marks its 125th anniversary.
The homestead sits just outside of town over the top of the North Hills, up a skinny dirt road. LaRubbio said during this past winter, the snow was so deep on the road he and his wife were stuck at the homestead for four days, and when the snow melted, the road was an impassable river of runoff and mud.
Michael Billingsley, one of the volunteers, spent most of the afternoon using a set of pruning loppers to take off low-hanging branches and snags. He also owns a small orchard in the Bitterroot Valley and said he wasn’t used to dealing with trees this large.
“I don’t like getting up high in these trees, I’ll leave that to the pros,” he said.
Most professional orchards, including his, use dwarf trees that only grow about ten feet tall. At most, Billingsley said, he needs only to get two or three steps up a small ladder to reach the top of those.
The rehab of the orchard will be a three-year job. Last year, the professionals and volunteers who took part in the first Prune the Moon focused on making bigger cuts to the trees, taking out the larger dead branches. This year, LaRubbio said the focus is less on raw productivity, but also on education; teaching the volunteers about the history of the property in addition to proper pruning and tree care.
The pruning is only one part of the rehab for the orchard, which still bears fruit every year. The homestead also has a bee colony and other native pollinators to help it be as healthy and prosperous as possible, LaRubbio said.
Arborist Mark Vander Meer was one of the volunteers on hand to help teach the best ways to take care of the old trees. He was part of the team that started the three-year rehab project for the Moon-Randolph Homestead last year. In addition to appreciating the historical element of the place, he also has a personal connection to the homestead – he and his wife had their wedding there in 2009.
Vander Meer is a soil scientist and a partner at Watershed Consulting, a firm that works on everything from tree service and stream restoration to land stewardship consulting.
“The biggest lesson I tell people is that when you leave a tree, it shouldn’t look like you’ve been there, you should just be making a more beautiful version of the tree,” he said.