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Preserving the Leonardi ranch

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Preserving the Leonardi ranch
Once a Marcus Daly dairy and blacksmith shop, the Leonardi Ranch could have a future as an agricultural learning center. WILL MOSS - Ravalli Republic

Pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and Ravalli County commissioners, a newly formed historical preservation group has lofty goals to save the Leonardi ranch and turn it into an agricultural learning center.

Comprising 106 acres between Golf Course Road and the Ravalli County Airport lies the original Pendegrast homestead where Marcus Daly ran a dairy and blacksmith shop before the ranch was sold to the Leonardi family.

It was Robert Leonardi’s dad who immigrated from Italy at the beginning of the 20th century and traveled with seven other Italian friends searching for work on Montana’s dams and hoping to create their own American dream.

He and his wife settled down near Willow Creek to start their family and eventually bought a section of the Daly family’s land holdings in 1936.

“Dad paid $10,000 for 110 acres and all the neighbors told him he was crazy and he’d never pay it off,” Robert said.

Profits from sugar beets proved his critics wrong.

“Back then you had to work like hell to make any profit. They charged you 10 percent on any money you borrowed, so it was rough,” Robert said.

He grew up on the farm and has more memories relating to hard labor than to sentiment.

About the same time Leonardi planted sugar beets, Doc Hayward bought a ’37 aircraft and turned a nearby pasture into a dirt runway, according to Robert.

“Doc took a road grater and made a little path through the pasture. If it got muddy, they wouldn’t fly,” he said.

Hayward had been a pilot in World War I and “he liked to fly his airplane three or four times a year,” Robert said. “The Forest Service would use the runway too. They had an old tri-motor and would take a semi-load of salt out and drop it to the elk n they’d load it up and away they’d go.”

Robert remembers a tall tree planted in front of the white-washed house where pilots would align themselves in order to make a straight landing on the runway.

“We figured the tree kept the airplanes off the top of the house,” he said.

In 1967, Robert and his wife Fern bought the ranch from his father and continued the hay and cattle operations. They granted air easements to the county, but contention over the easement as well as airport expansion led all parties involved to the courtrooms more than once.

“We got tired of it and finally put it up for sale,” Robert said.

In 2001, the county bought most of Leonardi’s ranch for $1.9 million using a grant from the FAA, according to the Leonardis. In 2004, public discussion ensued over what to do with the property and former airport manager Red Caldwell was quoted as suggesting they gate the land and let the buildings disintegrate.

The county instead has been leasing the property where a local rancher raises hay and keeps a small herd of cattle.

Robert and Fern kept an adjoining 56 acres on the east side of the ranch and built a home for their retirement. Out a picture window from their dining room, they still have a clear view of the two-story white house and big red barn.

On a recent walk to the old ranch with visiting relatives, they were horrified to see the condition of the place now. The wood stove and kitchen sink have been removed from the old house as have all the antique doorknobs and most of the carpeting.

“It was sickening to see how they had the place,” said Fern. “Especially after I had spent so much time cleaning it up.”

Robert said the orchard hasn’t been pruned in years and everything is overgrown.

But according to a new group of preservationists, all that will hopefully change.

The Bitter Root Cultural Heritage Trust was established last year and has its eyes set on the Leonardi ranch as one of its first projects.

The BRCHT board consists of Vicky Bohlig, Kristine Komar, Dale Linhart and Dave Schultz.

With some professional structural assessments in hand and potential funding projections, the group has met with county commissioners and made a preliminary proposal of their ideas for the county-owned property.

Their goals include restoration of the home, barn, bunkhouse and outbuildings; development of public interpretive programs to tell the story of the historic operations; utilization of the irrigated farmland for agricultural education and contributions to the local food system; and then somehow incorporate two of the oldest hangars at the airport by moving and then restoring them on the north end of the property.

The end result has been initially named the “Farmers and Flyers Heritage Park.”

They envision the park to include museums, interpretive displays and trails, educational facilities, picnic areas as well as restrooms and benches.

They want to restore the house and use it as office space for the nonprofit organization. They want to convert the bunkhouse that housed Leonardi’s seasonal workers from Mexico during sugar beet harvests to a type of hostel for interns and volunteers. They hope to restore the impressive red barn to become an agricultural museum that could facilitate educational activities for scout troops, 4-H, FFA and other children’s programs. They want to maintain the apple orchard and even establish a community garden on the property.

As for the vintage hanger buildings that Robert Leonardi claims were built by Doc Hayward, the BRCHT wants to move them to foundations on the property and restore the facades to historic accuracy as well as plant a grass runway that simulates the original 1930s use.

They envision using the larger hangar as a community meeting center and the smaller hangar as an air museum and possibly provide facilities “for use by a Boy Scout Aviation Venture Post where aircraft restoration or homebuilt construction projects could be done.” They also see potential for antique airplane displays and space “acceptable as a flying site for radio-control modelers.”

“We need to work with the FAA to further refine all these ideas,” said Komar.

Funding for their myriad of goals is planned in stages to keep momentum building and incorporate as many community groups as possible. They anticipate revenue through public and private partnerships as well as earned income and contributions. They also plan to heavily rely on nonprofit staffing and volunteer labor.

Because the old hangars are considered historical resources by the state’s historical society, they also anticipate eligibility for federal funding through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program.

While leaders at the county and the airport are considered BRCHT’s most important allies, they also have hopes to create collaborative relationships with other groups including the Daly Mansion Preservation Trust, Ravalli County Right to Farm and Ranch Board and even the Tired Iron Club.

Robert Leonardi shakes his head at long list of proposed projects, “I’d like to see them keep it up, but it’s a mess over there,” he said. “It’s going to take an awful lot of work to make any of that happen.”

For more information on The Leonardi Place Restoration Plan, contact Kris Komar at 360-7019 or kristine.komar@worldnet.att.net

See next week’s Ravalli Republic for a story on The Bitter Root Cultural Heritage Trust’s last ditch efforts to save the silver bridge.

Reporter Stacie Duce can be reached at 363-3300 or sduce@ravallirepublic.com

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