MADISON RIVER — After years of dismantling old barns to sell their wood, it seems odd that Walter Kannon decided to save rather than dismember what’s now called the Old Kirby Place.

His reasoning is simple.

“Way back in high school, I always wanted to run a place,” Kannon recounted of his interest in hotel management. “Ever since I was a teen, I enjoyed cooking at hunting and fishing camps. I would love to do the entertaining, the cooking -- the big roast beefs, stews and liver and onions.”

He also recites poetry from memory and once played running back for the New York Giants exhibition team with Frank Gifford. In college he lettered in five sports, all of which seems to make him even less likely to buy a collection of old buildings along the Madison River.

New keeper

Yet in 1988, with the help of three partners, he opened the fly-fishing lodge about 34 miles upstream from the small community of Ennis. He personally didn’t have much interest in fishing, although the river is world-renowned for its trout. In the process of fulfilling his dream, though, Kannon helped preserve a little piece of history in the valley — the Old Kirby Place.

Bruce Alverson, a Las Vegas attorney, is the latest keeper of the Kirby place. He purchased it from Kannon and company and continues to run it as a riverside lodge. He also purchased the main lodge, outbuildings, pond and 15 acres with the provision that Kannon stay on as the official host during the summers. Consequently, Kannon resides in an apartment he had built over the top of the ranch’s old barn.

“I make believe I still own it,” Kannon said.

“If you want a little realism, I can give you a few of the bills,” Alverson joked.

Tied to history

The property sits across the river from where the West Fork of the Madison joins the main river. The first structure built on the property was erected in 1885. That was when Mathew Dunham built a cabin and the first bridge across the Madison. Dunham charged a toll to cross, a way to pay for the hand-built bridge that provided access along a route that continued on to Idaho and what would become Yellowstone National Park.

Only a year later, Dunham sold the business to Israel Ammon Hutchins. Hutchins grew the ranch and continued to operate the bridge to collect tolls until 1900. That was when Madison County purchased the bridge along with a right of way through the ranch. Shortly afterward, a cattle stampede across the bridge demolished the structure. In 1902, the county built a steel truss bridge that still stands. In 1999, the bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hutchins’ daughter, Edith, married Otto Kirby, providing the present name for what’s left of the original spread. According to Kannon, Otto Kirby was averse to work and would take out loans from the bank, putting portions of the 15,000-acre ranch up as collateral. When he failed to pay up, the bank would repossess the property. In the end, little of the ranch that Hutchins had built remained. But many of the old buildings still stand and have been refurbished and updated for current use.

The main house, two older log buildings that were eventually joined in the middle by a two-story structure, sleeps six upstairs and provides the dining area, living room and kitchen. An old bunkhouse that was remodeled sleeps another two people. One other small cabin has been refinished by Alverson as his summertime residence when he visits. The barn was moved to its present location and the apartment built for Kannon upstairs. Downstairs the building is used for storage.

Found on a fluke

Alverson came to play at the lodge after visiting a friend in Bozeman and taking up fly-fishing. His wife heard about the lodge while having her hair done in a salon. Now Alverson has paid to stay.

“I just fell in love with the place,” he said. “One of the things that make this work for me is the fact that it was old. That really appealed to me.”

One day while having cocktails with Kannon on the porch, Alverson asked if he had ever considered selling the place. Kannon told him he’d had lots of offers, but that he wanted to stay on. Alverson thought keeping Kannon around would be perfect, so they worked out a deal.

“I bought the place because I was afraid it would be sold and we wouldn’t be able to stay here,” Alverson said.

When the neighbors found out a Las Vegas attorney had purchased the property, they were instantly suspect.

“It’s kind of funny,” Alverson said. “They were afraid I was going to throw up a bunch of condos. There was a collective sigh of relief when I told them I wouldn’t.”

Investment in history

So now when he can get away from his law practice, sometimes making the 11-hour drive rather than flying, Alverson tinkers around the property on his John Deere tractor, mows down weeds along nearby Papoose Creek or sits in his aptly named Caddis Shack gazebo along the Madison River and watches anglers catching trout, moose wandering down to the stream or bald eagles dive bombing for fish.

“You know the old saying,” he said. “Running a bed and breakfast is great if you have a real job.”

Others tell him what a great investment he’s made.

“It may be a great investment for my heirs, because I’ll never sell it.”

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Outdoors editor for the Billings Gazette.