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Agriculture Heritage Notebook
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Agriculture Heritage Notebook

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LONE ROCK – On the second day my husband and I were flying our search pattern above the Bitterroot Valley to identify and photographically record historic barns, we saw the Hanlan barn, with its distinctive mottled green roof and a warm brown wooden silo attached on the south end. From the air we could see that the silo was not in very good shape, missing its cover, but I knew that this would be a barn with an interesting story. Three years later I finally began discovering its secrets.

Near the end of September 2011, when I was working on another barn story in the area, I decided to see if I could find the Hanlan barn on the ground. The phone numbers I found under the Hanlan name all proved to be dead ends, so I wasn’t sure who now owned the barn. I knew it was near the Lone Rock School northeast of Stevensville, so I drove out Ambrose Creek Road to the Lone Rock junction, and ended up right in the barnyard of the beautiful old silo barn. I knocked on the doors of the three houses on the property, but no one seemed to be home. I decided to walk down the lane next to the barn to get a better look at the building.

“Can I help you?” I heard a male voice call.

“Uh-oh,” I thought. “I hope I’m not in trouble for poking around uninvited!“

I walked toward the man, who was coming out of one of the homes, leaning on a cane and flanked by two friendly black Labs. When I reached the gate to his yard, I stopped and introduced myself.

“I’m known in the Bitterroot as the ‘barn lady,’” I said, “and I’d like to do a story on your barn.”

“Oh, how I wish it were mine!” he replied. “I love this old barn, but it’s owned by Mr. Price, who lives up the road a ways.”

We stood and chatted for perhaps a half-hour, and in the meantime his wife returned from a grocery shopping trip. John and Diana Ford provided contacts in the community that proved to be a goldmine for my research on the Hanlan barn. They graciously offered their spare bedroom to me if I needed a place to stay while I worked on the story – a wonderful display of true Montana spirit, with a willingness to take in a total stranger after a half-hour’s conversation! I was pleased when they told me they had even read a few of my previous barn stories.

***

My schedule on that trip didn’t allow me to make any further personal contacts, but when I arrived home, I called Nova Robinson Hanlan, who now lives in Missoula, to set up an appointment to visit with her about the barn she and her husband Floyd used to own. She agreed without hesitation.

I knocked on the door of Nova’s apartment, and was greeted by a clear-eyed woman, slightly stooped from seasons of laboring alongside her husband to make a living in the difficult world of agriculture. I took a minute to introduce myself and explain my mission, eager to begin my interview with this obviously mentally sharp Bitterroot pioneer.

Nova tells me that in 1950, she was hired to teach at the Lone Rock School. At the time, Floyd, her husband-to-be, was working for Mr. Francis Donegan, managing the ranch where the Hanlan barn stands while Donegan worked in the timber industry in the Darby area to help pay the mortgage on the place.

“I think Floyd and I probably first met at one of the community dances held in the schoolhouse, and we married in 1955,” Nova says. Her eyes mist a bit as she adds, “Floyd passed away in 2003. I really miss him.” He rests in the Sunnyside Cemetery, just down the road from the ranch he nurtured for nearly 50 years.

Nova goes on to say that she and Floyd decided that they had worked long enough for their absentee ranch owner, and they signed a contract to buy the place from him in May 1956. They soon had a small herd of 25 milk cows – Guernseys, Jerseys and Holsteins – and were kept busy with milking chores, haying and tending a large garden. Nova continued to teach at the school to help supplement the income they earned by selling their milk and cream to Foremost and through Howe’s Creamery co-op. She admits she didn’t help much with the milking, limiting her relationships with the cows to occasionally hooking up the milking machines. She says with pride, however, that she filled her pantry every year with jars of home-canned goodies from the huge garden she tended.

I ask if they ever used the silo to store feed for their cows. She shakes her head, “No, Floyd was very careful and never even stored hay in the barn. He thought there was a risk of it catching fire. I’m not sure when the barn was built, but by the time we bought the place, the silo roof was already gone. We irrigated out of the Big Ditch, first by flooding, and later we bought some irrigation handline. We put up hay by hand, and stacked it at the edge of the field.”

Luxuries were non-existent in the Hanlans’ world. Nova says they spent the first 25 years of married life living in an 8-foot-wide mobile home, while Floyd’s elderly parents occupied an old rock-foundation house near the barn. It was a real treat when the couple was able to replace the old trailer with a double-wide in the 1980s, after Nova retired from teaching school. They continued the dairy business until 1999, when Floyd’s health deteriorated to the point where he could no longer care for his beloved cows. Nova describes the day she had a neighbor haul the cows to the auction yard in Missoula. She expected to sneak them by Floyd, who was living in an assisted-care facility in Stevensville at the time. Unfortunately, he was out and about with a friend to have a cup of coffee and saw his cows leaving town. “He was not happy to see them go,” Nova says with a catch in her voice.

***

To change the subject, I asked Nova how she and Floyd found their way to the Bitterroot. She says that Floyd was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1918, where his parents homesteaded. The family moved to Gillette, Wyo., and Floyd enlisted in the Army during World War II. His duties included packing mules that hauled supplies from Burma to China. After the war, he worked on ranches in the Gillette area for a time, then moved to Broadus, Mont., and finally to Stevensville in 1951.

Nova says she was born in Long Beach, Calif., and moved with her family to Wyoming when she was only six months old. In 1937, her father loaded up his wife and children and moved them to Garnet, Mon., when gold prices doubled and a reinvigorated boom in mining was in full swing. He built a new schoolhouse for the burgeoning community, replacing the one constructed in the late 1800s. Nova attended high school in Drummond, then worked for her room and board in Missoula so she could attend college. The war interrupted her education, and she enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“I’ll bet you can’t guess what the Marines trained me to do!” she says with a laugh.“I was an aircraft mechanic! I worked on fighter airplanes at El Toro Air Base in California, but mostly I just planted geraniums in the flowerbeds around the base. The sailors had a hard time getting used to working with a woman, and anyway, the war was winding down.”

After the war, she returned to college, this time in Billings, and received her teaching degree. Her first teaching assignment was in St. Ignatius, then she moved to Marysville near Helena, then to Hall, and finally to Lone Rock at Stevensville. Her teaching career spanned almost 30 years, and though she and Floyd were never blessed with children, their home was always a refuge for boys and girls in need of a freshly baked cookie. Some of those now all-grown-up children still stop by to see her in Missoula.

I asked Nova if I can give her a hug before I left. I feel her frailty in my arms, and am glad to have had the chance to meet such a spirited woman and hear about her life in the Bitterroot when it was still a largely agricultural community. I promise to stay in touch, and to send her some enlargements of the photos I plan to take of the ranch where she and Floyd spent so many happy years.

***

After calling Dave Price, who now owns the ranch, for permission to traipse around his property, I return to the barn on a chilly fall day, and spend several hours inside and out of the building. I try to guess when it was built, but am puzzled by some miss-matches in building technique. It has a concrete floor with a trough down the center, end-to-end for drainage, as many modern dairy barns have, and it appears that the floor was poured before the barn was built. Anecdotal evidence supplied by Mr. Price, as well as carpentry techniques, suggest that the barn was raised in the 1920s, but this is the first with a concrete floor I’ve seen in the Bitterroot.

I call Nova again to see if she might have an explanation. She says the barn had a concrete floor when they bought the ranch. Later research uncovers a 1917 issue of a magazine called “Concrete,” that describes the “fireproof” practice of using concrete for both barn walls and floors. It appears that whoever built the Hanlan barn was up-to-date on the latest techniques in barn building.

I spend a frustrating afternoon at the Ravalli County Courthouse trying to trace land ownership records back to the first transfer. The trail runs cold on any transfers previous to the one between Francis Donegan and Floyd and Nova Hanlan in 1956. I decide to wait until I talk to Mr. Price, who is, according to Nova, in possession of the title abstract for the property. On another visit to the Bitterroot, I arrange to see him, and he does have a set of abstracts for all the parcels he bought from the Hanlans. The mystery is solved when we find a notice of satisfaction of a mortgage between Francis Donegan and several mortgagors recorded in 1966, 10 years after the Hanlans contracted to buy the ranch. This could be evidence of a Montana “handshake” deal where Donegan agreed to continue making mortgage payments after the sale. Tracing back from the mortgagors who released the debt, I find that the original homestead was obtained from Uncle Sam by James Wilson in 1903.

The property ended up in the hands of the Bitter Root District Irrigation Company in 1908 (no surprise, given the remnants of an apple orchard east of the barn), and was sold to Hyatt Haselton of Cleveland, Ohio in 1910. His son, Guy, who owned other agricultural parcels in the area, inherited the land upon which the barn stands in 1920 when his father died. He owned the ranch until 1929. Because of the Haseltons’ relatively long period of ownership, it’s probably safe to assume that Guy is the dairyman who built the barn, perhaps using the latest method of barn-building being employed “back East.” Support for this theory comes from a water right filing on a groundwater well made by Floyd Hanlan after he purchased the ranch. The well is described as “hand dug in 1926,” which indicates that at least a house was built at that time. The well, located near the old house, is still in use.

Satisfied at last that I have found all the information I can on the history of the Hanlan silo barn, I wrap up the story. I hope it brings back some happy memories to Nova, a very special woman, and that some of her former students now know a bit more about their favorite Lone Rock School teacher.

Wendy Beye has lived in Montana for 45 years, and spent almost 20 years as a flight instructor in the Bitterroot Valley. Her unique aerial view of a changing landscape resulted in a desire to help document the evidence of a rapidly vanishing way of life – the beautiful historic barns scattered across the valley floor. As a freelance writer and photographer, she is working on a multi-year project to preserve the agricultural roots that help create our sense of community.

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