Missoula’s North Hills are part of the vast territories of the Séliš (pronounced SEH-leesh, known in English as Salish or “Flathead”) and Ql̓ispé (pronounced Kah-lee-SPEH, known in English as Kalispel or “Pend d’Oreille”) people. Situated between Interstate 90 and the Rattlesnake Mountains, the North Hills represent the transition area between the higher elevation forested lands within the Lolo National Forest to the north and the Clark Fork River basin to the south. Bound to the east by the Rattlesnake Valley and the west by the Grant Creek Valley, this roughly 3,000-acre area provides a scenic border along the northern edge of the City of Missoula. The North Hills provide land for forage and migration for many species of birds and large animals, as well as habitat for small animals and native plants.
Beginning in the late 1800s, settlers established small farms and ranches in these hills. They raised livestock and harvested produce from their orchards and gardens to sell to the rapidly growing Missoula community. By the 1990s, the modern era of land conservation in the North Hills was well underway. The decades of conservation work that followed were made possible by hard work and collaboration between many partners, and critical funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Open Space Bonds passed by the residents of Missoula County in 1980, 1995, 2006, and 2018. In 1992, Bill Randolph placed 230 acres in the North Hills, including his family’s historic homestead, under conservation easement. He wanted to protect the open space, ecological, historic, and scenic values of his property, while also maintaining the 100-year tradition of agriculture.
Nearly all of the Randolph Property is covered in native grassland and pasture. Pastures in the vicinity of the historic homestead are primarily composed of smooth brome, a grass introduced as livestock forage. The native grasslands on the property are dominated by bluebunch wheatgrass and Idaho fescue, and also contain western wheatgrass, Sandberg bluegrass, needle-and-thread, prairie junegrass, rough fescue, Idaho gumweeed, arrowleaf balsamroot, cushion wild buckwheat, fleabane, yarrow, Woods’ rose, silky lupine, sulfur buckwheat, blanketflower, fringed sage, Missoula phlox, and more.
Missoula phlox is a rare perennial cushion plant with small white-to-purple blooms that lie close to the ground. It is a Species of Concern in Montana and is listed as sensitive by both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Missoula phlox is typically found in dry, exposed habitats. One of the largest populations of this Montana endemic is found on the Randolph Property, along the North Hills Ridge. This Missoula phlox population is threatened by noxious weed infestation and heavy recreational use of the North Hills trails.
There are several woody draws on the Randolph Property that support dense thickets of Douglas’s hawthorn, Woods’ rose, mock orange, common snowberry and other shrubs. American plum is common in these draws – an important food source for wildlife and also for the Séliš and Ql̓ispé people whose traditional homeland encompasses the North Hills.
The mosaic of vegetation on the Randolph Property provides important habitat for a wide variety of animals. Birds, such as vesper sparrow, western meadowlark, western bluebird and mountain bluebird feed and nest in the Randolph grasslands. Red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, Swainson’s hawk, and other raptors hunt for ground squirrels, deer mice, meadow voles, montane voles, and other rodents. Red fox, bobcat, coyote, and other mammals make good use of the Randolph grasslands as prime hunting grounds. A different suite of birds use the woody draws on the Randolph Property, such as black-capped chickadee, pygmy nuthatch, red-breasted nuthatch, red-naped sapsucker and downy woodpecker. Great horned owls are thought to use abandoned magpie nests.
The core of the Randolph Property began as a 160-acre homestead in 1889, farmed by Ray and Luella Moon. The Moons filed their claim and began the homesteader's work of proving up. In those first five years, the Moons built a small claim shack and a small barn. They built miles of fence and planted one, then two, then five, then ten, then thirty acres of crops. Like many homesteaders in Montana, they planted an orchard of apple and cherry trees. After five years of hard work proving up on their 160 acres, they sold their newly-owned land to relatives George and Helen Moon and moved on.
In 1907 the Moon Homestead was purchased by William and Emma Randolph, who, unlike the Moons, intended to stay and make a living on this small parcel of bunchgrass prairie. Emma Randolph kept a flock of laying hens, at one point selling 55 dozen eggs per week. Bill Randolph grew vegetables, bringing them to town on his Casaba wagon and selling to stores and families in Missoula. The Randolphs raised dairy cows and a herd of cattle for beef. They kept bees and harvested honey. They continued to harvest apples from the trees Ray Moon had planted decades before. Like other families homesteading the North Hills, they prospected and developed a small coal mine on the property, at one point pulling enough coal out of the mine to hire miners. Theirs was a highly diversified, subsistence farmstead. When the Great Depression hit, the Randolphs were able to feed themselves, as well as relatives who stayed with them during those hard years. The Randolphs farmed the property until Bill and Emma died in the late 1950s. Bill Randolph Jr., their youngest of three sons, continued living at the Homestead. In 1992, Bill placed his 230 acres under conservation easement with Five Valleys Land Trust. In 1996, following Bill Randolph’s death, the City of Missoula purchased the property as part of a larger effort to protect land in the City’s North Hills Open Space Cornerstone area.
In 1997, Missoula resident Caitlin DeSilvey joined a group gleaning apples from the old trees up at the Homestead. She became curious about the old ranch, so close to town, yet tucked away behind the hills. DeSilvey received permission from the City of Missoula to access the buildings on the site and began archiving the materials she found, which was no small task in a place where almost nothing—no scrap of paper, no piece of hardware—had been thrown away. She worked with historian Ann Emmons to reconstruct the Homestead's history from found materials and additional research. They told the story in a nomination that declared the Homestead eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and in the book, Butterflies and Railroad Ties: A History of a Montana Homestead.
In 1998, DeSilvey and a group of concerned citizens from the North Missoula Community Development Corporation formed the Hill and Homestead Preservation Coalition to campaign to preserve the historic homestead site and its adjacent hillsides as a place to explore our collective, local natural and human histories. Caitlin and her sister Sarah DeSilvey were the first of many caretakers who have maintained the orchard and garden and who have raised livestock in the old pastures.
In 2010, the Homestead was listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. The Moon-Randolph Homestead is considered historically significant because it typifies a small-scale, diversified truck farm of the type that flourished in Montana and elsewhere in the western United States from the late 1880s through World War II.
Today, the Randolph Property is accessible to the public by foot trail from the Froelich Trailhead at Orange Street and the Waterworks Hill, Mountain View, and Sunlight Trailheads off Duncan Drive. A trail follows the Waterworks Hill ridgeline and descends to the homestead, which provides the public with a unique glimpse into Missoula’s agricultural heritage.
More than a century since this small farm was proved up, chickens continue to lay eggs in original nesting boxes in the old chicken coop, pigs range on the open pastures, century-old trees drop small, rare varieties of apples from their tangled crowns. The Homestead is managed through a cooperative agreement between City of Missoula Parks and Recreation and the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, who work closely with the City of Missoula's Historic Preservation Office. Caretakers live on site year-round and offer Saturday tours, as well as many volunteer events, workshops, summer camps, and school programs.
As the Homestead moves into its second decade of public ownership, there is a strong agreement that it is unique from other area parks, open spaces, or places for recreation. It is the Homestead’s power to engage and inspire that, above all else, makes the it an invaluable civic asset to the City of Missoula and beyond. Visitors to the Homestead can experience the remnants of a century's worth of small scale, subsistence agriculture in western Montana, from the 125-year old apple orchard to a rehabilitated 1890s claim shack. Visit moonrandolphhomestead.org to learn more.
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