STEVENSVILLE — It would be hard to imagine that Sam Gates could be much happier as he sat at the head of the kitchen table in the home where his family has gathered for generations.
Just before Christmas, Gates and his siblings signed off on a conservation easement that will keep the family farm intact forever.
With his 4-month-old granddaughter in one arm and his daughter at his side, Gates shared the stories about this place his family has called home since 1955.
Light spilled in from the large picture window that looked out on the 160 acres that has raised all sorts of critters and crops — not to mention a pair of young brothers who grew up in a time when you could count all the houses between Lone Rock and Stevensville on the fingers of both hands.
“My brother and I chased each other all over these 160 acres,” Gates said. “I think that’s why we were really good at track. … We were renegades, just running wherever we wanted up and down the creek. We had so much freedom.”
As his daughter, Elizabeth, listened to the stories that she’s certainly heard before, Gates remembered a life well lived as part of a family where the value of work was learned early and making ends meet was sometimes a daily challenge.
If there were hard times, that’s not what Gates seemed to remember.
He’d rather talk about the good memories that included stopping at the Stevensville Creamery and eating handfuls of warm cheese curds. And there were all those the forts that he and his siblings built along Threemile Creek. He smiled as he talks about their visits to his grandparents who lived nearby just off Ambrose Creek.
“My dad always had horses here,” Gates said. “He loved horses. When people couldn’t pay their bills, all of a sudden we would have a new horse or two. There were always animals around here.”
Gates and his siblings built the addition to the family home for their parents. A china cabinet that Gates made in high school still graces one wall in the dining room.
“There are just so many memories wrapped up in this place,” he said. “All of these things that have tied us together as a family are right here in this place that we grew up.”
The 160 acres of prime farmland that comprise the easement are located just west of the Lone Rock School.
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The family home is down at the end of the dirt track called Gates Lane that runs along the edge of the school’s baseball diamonds. There’s an old building back behind the house the Gates family used a barn that some say was the original school. Just beside that, there’s an even older building that Gates believes was used as a stage stop.
His parents, Joseph and Lois, picked up and moved their family from the Hamilton Heights area to the new farm that had good water rights and rich soil. Over the years, they raised beets, corn and eventually alfalfa. For a time, they had a few dairy cows, but pigs brought in most of the cash flow.
While Joseph Gates’ primary business was moving houses, it was the farm that he brought him joy.
“This is what he wanted to do,” Gates said. “This is where he wanted to be.”
Elizabeth Gates lives in the family home now. She and her partner and their baby are creating their own memories with some goats, chickens and a few geese that she’s not quite sure about yet.
The bulk of the land is leased to a rancher who raises hay and grazes cattle there.
“I definitely didn’t want to see this place broken up,” Elizabeth Gates said. “I never would have been able to come back here again if that had happened.”
A lot of her young memories are wrapped up in this place where she had the opportunity to spend wonderfully long days with her grandmother.
The Bitter Root Land Trust helped the Gates family develop their conservation easement that included funding from Ravalli County’s Open Lands bond program.
"All of us here at the Land Trust are so honored to have had the opportunity to work with Sam and the entire Gates family to conserve their farm,” said Bitter Root Land Trust Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs. “The Gates family's deep connection to this land is evident whenever they talk about their lives growing up here along Three Mile Creek, and we're happy to be able to provide this tool that gives local landowners like the Gates an option for ensuring their family lands are part of the valley's agricultural future.”
Conservation easements — which allow families to set aside development rights in perpetuity in exchange for tax breaks and payments — aren’t new to the upper Three Mile area. Three different property owners in the upper reaches of the valley have conserved more than 7,000 acres of land.
“Conservation easements work in Ravalli County because they are a voluntary, landowner-driven tool to safeguard our agricultural heritage and economy,” Ricklefs said. “Landowners like the Gates are leaving legacies, not just for their families, but for all future generations of the valley and we owe them our gratitude."
Gates’ siblings are James Gates, Terri Anderson and Christina Bauman.
“Right from the very first time that we started talking about it, everyone was board,” Gates said. “I think my dad is smiling down at us right now and I think mom would be too now that we’ve completed the process. … It’s a wonderful thing when you know that you can always go home.”