Set back from the main road on the north side of the Pryor Mountains is a hidden-in-plain-sight piece of history, the Sage Creek Ranger Station.
Close to the banks of a small spring and tucked into the furrow formed by straw-colored hills rising close on either side, the L-shaped log structure has been getting a facelift to keep it from disintegrating.
Adding to the damage wrought by weather and time, marmots infiltrated the structure last winter and, unable to find their way out, chewed through a rotten sill log that had to be replaced.
That was pretty minor compared with the work done in 2006-2007, when the entire structure was jacked up so a new cement foundation could be installed. Since work began in the early 1990s, new flooring has been laid in the kitchen, fir floors have been sanded and refinished, electrical wiring has been updated, old plaster patched and painted and cabinets installed.
Despite all of the work, finishing touches need to be done, including the installation of a heat source, possibly a pellet stove.
“We’re not looking at making a hotel-type building,” said Mike Bergstrom, zone archaeologist for the Custer National Forest. “It’s the rustic setting that we’re looking for.”
Witness to history
The area roughly 90 minutes south of Billings is peaceful, but it wasn’t always so. Horse stealing and cattle rustling, an ambush of Crow Indians and neighborhood disputes over water rights plagued the area after the Pryor Mountains were withdrawn from the Crow Reservation in 1892 and white folks rushed in to exploit the resources.
“Grazing of cattle on the Pryors became quite extensive after the ‘ceded strip’ was opened to settlement in 1892,” wrote David Harvey in a 1974 publication on the history of the area.
As residents battled outsiders for grazing lands, vigilante groups formed that were eventually successful in driving out intruders, Harvey wrote. Then the law came, or at least a representative of the federal government.
“All this changed in 1907 when the U.S. Forest Service came into the Pryors,” Harvey wrote. “They gave local residents protection, reducing the temptation for some to take the law into their own hands.”
In a finely crafted 16-foot-by-24-foot line shack probably constructed for use by cowboys, a Forest Service ranger set up shop just south of Sage Creek. It was one of four manned cabins established by the fledgling Forest Service in the Pryors, each within a day’s horseback ride from the next.
More than 100 years later, there’s no sign of the other structures, but the Sage Creek cabin endures as a remaminder of wilder times.
“That’s absolutely gorgeous country,” said Kirby Matthew, an exhibit specialist for the Northern Region in Missoula, who has worked to restore the Sage Creek Ranger Station. “We’re a little sorry it’s close to being done because we’ve enjoyed going there.”
Matthew began work in 2006, a few weeks at a time as money was available, to keep the structure from falling further into disrepair.
The cabin hadn’t been used regularly since the 1970s and was run down, Bergstrom said.
It was a seasonal work station until the late 1990s, said Halcyon LaPoint, Custer National Forest archaeologist.
Rather than let the structure disintegrate, the decision was made to minimally restore it for either administrative or recreational use as a rental cabin.
“It went 100 years with low maintenance,” Matthew said. “With a new foundation it will go another 150 years with low maintenance.”
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History in wood
The original structure that the Forest Service took over, built around 1892, is the most finely crafted portion of three connected buildings. Thick Douglas fir logs were sawn on two sides at a nearby mill to create the walls and beams for the structure.
Sometime in the 1920s, another building that now contains a kitchen and bathroom was added on. LaPoint believes Ranger
Raymond Coster built the addition to house his wife and child, rather than have them stay in Red Lodge.
To keep his wife and family separate from work crews that were stationed seasonally to build fence, cut timber and do other work, another section was added onto the kitchen that was used as a combination bunkhouse and dining hall.
“My theory is that Coster had to fix it up for his wife to make it comfortable for her,” LaPoint said. “He had to keep the men separate and give her her own bedroom and closet space.”
In a 1990 historical survey of the building, the investigator wrongly assumed that the two later additions were the original buildings because the logs used there were hand-hewn with an ax. But LaPoint and Bergstrom determined that there were several sawmills operating in the area in the late 1800s that could have provided the wood.
Matthew calls the rough-hewn later construction “vernacular architecture,” meaning it was developed locally.
“It’s a mix of lots of things,” he said, largely because the people who did the work had minimal carpentry skills. “There are design elements we want to maintain, but we also have to get it so it can be maintained.”
“We’ll only change it if it’s a detriment to the building,” he said.
Cabin for rent?
To bring the facility up to current cabin rental standards, a wheelchair ramp and handicapped-accessible front door were added and a new outhouse was constructed. Although the structure seems close to being usable, an access issue still stands in the way of putting it on the Forest Service’s rental cabin program.
A portion of the road that leads from outside Bridger to Sage Creek crosses a corner of the Crow Reservation. Some of the lands the road crosses were at one time allotted to tribal members. Over the years, ownership of even small sections has ballooned to many family members. Trying to get multiple owners on multiple sections to agree to an easement has proven difficult for the Forest Service, said Trautie Parrie, Beartooth District Ranger.
“We’ve only gained a quarter-mile of easement in the last 10 years,” she said. “So we’re not making much headway.”
So the agency is turning its focus to the possibility of upgrading an existing jeep road on its property that follows a power line route across the northern base of the Pryor Mountains and on to Sage Creek.
“It would be a long-term project, but in the end we’d have access and an easement,” Parrie said. “So that’s an attractive alternative for us.”
If an easement can be secured, Parrie said, she is open to the idea of renting the cabin to the public. Until then, it will likely be used seasonally by forest workers or those from other state and federal agencies looking for temporary housing while working on projects in the Pryors.
Bergstrom, LaPoint and Matthew all agree that if the cabin is ever made available to the public, it would become a popular getaway.
“It is one of those gems that you can have to yourself until the word gets out,” Matthew said. “You’re secluded, but not that far from Bridger. But it feels farther.”