On Thursday morning that week, we planned to drive up to Martinsdale to visit the Bair Museum. As we were loading the car, Susan, our host, hurried out of her house to tell us she’d arranged a visit to Melville Elementary School. “I’m leaving in a few minutes. Follow me!”
Here’s the backstory:
I booked the cabin through Airbnb. Susan is a Superhost. That means she goes the extra mile to make sure her ranch guests enjoy their stay. When she messaged me after I made the reservation and asked if I had questions, I wrote back to tell her I’m an author, and I’d set my latest book series in Sweet Grass County. I had two special requests if she could help. One was to get a look inside Melville Elementary School. Originally a one-room schoolhouse, it’s the model for Hollister Elementary in my stories. Several of my characters work at the school. I hoped to get some photos to add more color to my descriptions.
I also mentioned to Susan that “I understand public access to the Crazy Mountains is limited, but if you have any insight on how we might explore that area, that would be great.”
Susan replied a few minutes later. It just so happens that she’s the County Superintendent of Schools, so she could get me inside the Melville school. And the woman in the office next to hers is the county planner, and her family owns Sweet Grass Ranch in the Crazies. So maybe I could meet her and get access that way?
Heart in my throat, I wrote back: “Oh my gosh! This was meant to be. I actually have goosebumps right now. Yes, I would LOVE to visit the school. AND see Sweet Grass Ranch. I’m assuming it’s the same Sweet Grass Ranch that is connected to the Van Cleve family? Because that’s the ranch the fictional guest ranch in my books is loosely based on. Wow.”
Here’s the thing. Months earlier, when I was working on The Wrangler’s Wish, the third book in my Sweet Grass-Montana Romance series, I needed some visual inspiration. That story’s fictional setting is a working cattle and guest ranch in the Crazy Mountains called JT Cattle & Guest Ranch. I had a general idea of the ranch layout, some of it based on descriptions of the Lazy K Bar ranch from Spike Van Cleve’s memoirs, some based on the Lodge at Fallen Leaf Lake in South Lake Tahoe where generations of my family had spent summer vacations since 1906. While searching the internet for photos of the Lazy K Bar—which the Van Cleves sold a few years back—I came across photos of another ranch: Sweet Grass Ranch.
The photos of Sweet Grass Ranch were almost a perfect match to my imaginary layout of JT Cattle & Guest Ranch: a main lodge, a line of guest cabins bordering Sweet Grass Creek, stables, corrals, open pastures, the Crazy Mountain peaks a stunning backdrop. I printed out several photos and taped them to the wall above my desk. It wasn’t until further along in my research on guest ranches I discovered the connection between Sweet Grass Ranch and the Van Cleves. Sweet Grass Ranch is owned and operated by Spike’s daughter Shelly and her husband Bill. Read more about the ranch history here.
So, you can now understand my joy and excitement when Susan mentioned Sweet Grass Ranch. See what I mean about “this was meant to be?”
Most of the land in the Crazies is private. It’s one thing to drive by a ranch and take photos from a distance, but to get a more up close and personal look would be amazing. And to visit the actual ranch that inspired much of my fictional ranch’s footprint? To have the chance to step inside the photos hanging above my desk? Wow! Most of all, I thrilled at the chance to meet one of Spike’s children or grandchildren.
We set out for Melville that morning on a wing and a prayer. You see, it had been a busy week for Susan with hauling in the winter hay, attending a work conference and preparing for her son’s upcoming wedding. And it was a busy week for the Sweet Grass Ranch family too; they were shutting down the guest ranch for the winter, cleaning out the guest cabins and lodge, moving the horses to their winter pasture, etcetera. With all the busyness, Susan wasn’t able to make arrangements for our visit. We took up the suggestion to drive to Sweet Grass Ranch anyway hoping Shelly wouldn’t shoo away a friend of Jennifer or Susan.
But first the schoolhouse.
Montana has around 60 rural and one-room schools in use today, the most in America, and Melville Elementary is one of them. Built in the early 1900s by the Norwegian immigrants who homesteaded the area, it served as both school and church until they built Melville Lutheran Church in 1914. Although additions have been made to the original one-room schoolhouse in recent years, it’s still a dramatic difference from the schools I attended in my childhood. Where I grew up, the average elementary class size was 30-40 students. Melville Elementary currently has 27 students TOTAL across grades one through eight. Most of the students were on a field trip that day, but I got the chance to speak to some young students sharing the same small, brightly lit and colorful classroom. One was in first grade, two in third. They responded with happy grins when I asked how much they liked their school and teachers.
I got to chatting with Christine, a teaching assistant hailing from Back East. Christine and her dad came to visit Montana a few years back (she’d never been to Montana), and they stayed at Sweet Grass Ranch. Christine loved that experience so much, she hired on to work as one of the crew at the ranch the following summer. And she stayed on, met a local man, married him, and here she is living and working in the Sweet Grass and loving it.
Goosebumps again! I shared with Christine that one of the upcoming books in my series features a young woman from Back East who lands a teaching job at Hollister Elementary. She meets a local man and… Well, you’ll have to wait until the book comes out to read the rest of the story.
Christine gave me precise directions to Sweet Grass Ranch and said to tell Shelly “hello!”
While we were chatting, Susan was trying to get a hold of a friend who volunteered at the Crazy Mountain Museum. We’d told Susan about our visit to the museum the previous day and finding it closed. Susan thought she could find someone to open the museum for us. Cell phone service in the area isn’t the greatest, so she wasn’t having any luck.
So, after cheerful goodbyes, I packed my parents in the SUV to finish our tour of Melville. Established in 1877 and named after Rear Admiral George Melville, the arctic explorer, Melville was THE place to be on Saturday night once upon a time. In its heyday, it had a flour mill, a cheese factory, a hotel, several saloons, two stores and a drug store. People throughout the region gathered there for Saturday night dances, horse races, rodeos and gambling, resulting in Melville earning a rough and rowdy reputation.
Here’s Melville today:
After our two-minute tour of Melville, we took a left on Melville Road, crossed Sweet Grass Creek and aimed for the church. Suddenly, I noticed a pickup truck with flashing headlights approaching us from behind. It was Susan. I pulled over.
“I’ve just heard back about the museum,” she said as she hopped down from the cab. “Someone can meet you there at 2:00 today, but they have another commitment at 3:00. Will that work for you?”
“Absolutely! Thank you, Susan!”
Airbnb Superhost, indeed!
We continued up the road.
The weather forecast for the following day called for decreasing temperatures and rain, but today blessed us with vast blue skies and pleasant temperatures in the low 70s. We snapped photos of the church before driving a few yards up the road to Melville Lutheran Cemetery.
Unless you’re looking for it, I imagine many tourists drive right by the cemetery without knowing it’s there. Nestled in a pasture of knee-high grass, visitors must pass through two gates to gain entrance. As we drove along a rutted road to the second gate, I imagined how the funeral processions of one hundred years ago might have looked with wagons and Model T’s perhaps, mingled with people walking. What a beautiful place to take the final rest, especially with the views we enjoyed on this glorious late morning. My parents and I walked among the tombstones and reflected on the lives and stories beneath the names and dates etched in stone.
Then we continued on to Sweet Grass Ranch.
I paid careful attention to Christine’s directions and her caution to stay on the main road. We’d be driving through private ranch land, pastures of grazing cattle. If we came to a closed gate, be sure to close the gate behind us. If the gate was open, leave it open.
As we rolled along the dirt road through the foothills, getting closer and closer to the Crazy Mountain peaks, my heart thumped with anticipation. With each passing mile, we oohed and aahed at the spectacular scenery, took a few photos, and opened a few gates. My dad got a kick out of being our official Gate Opener (and Closer).
We passed through an open green pasture dotted with black Angus, their healthy coats gleaming in the sunshine. Sweet Grass Creek sparkled in the distance.
Up a hill and down another. Up again. And there it stood, cradled in the mountains, the log buildings with red roofs I’d only seen in photos. Heart in my throat, I eased the SUV down the road and through the open gates towards the main lodge.
There were a few vehicles parked in front of the lodge. As I made to park alongside them, I noticed a trim, white-haired woman in blue jeans and a cotton shirt working alongside a greenhouse. She glanced in our direction. I knew immediately it was Shelly.
No doubt she wondered who these strangers were driving onto the ranch. I got out of the car and hurried towards her. “Shelly?”
She nodded warily.
I don’t recall my exact words. I was so thrilled to meet her, I spoke in a rush. I think I dropped Susan’s name, and Jennifer’s. Her face brightened when I mentioned having just met Christine down at the school. I explained that I was an author writing a series set in a fictional version of Melville and how much I’d learned from her dad’s memoirs. I apologized for showing up without notice, knowing they were busy closing down the ranch for the season.
Shelly was warm and gracious and expressed genuine interest in seeing my books. Well, naturally I’d brought a box of them with me on the trip! I told her it would be my honor to give the books to her.
My parents had approached by then. As the three of them were around the same ages, the conversation soon turned to shared memories and experiences of their generation.
I asked Shelly if she’d mind if I explored the immediate area and took some photos. With her generous permission, I set out to do just that. I grinned when I noticed the saddle pads and blankets draped across the top fence rail in front of the lodge. It was a scene straight out of The Wrangler’s Wish.
I peeked inside the lodge, taking note of the dining room tables and the stone fireplace, the rustic front porch. I strolled down to the creek and dipped my hands in the cool water.
Ah. After writing about Sweet Grass Creek in my stories, what a pleasure to experience the real thing.
I stopped at the car to gather books for Shelly before returning to the others. To my amazement, Shelly had a book for me too. A beautiful coffee-table book filled with gorgeous photos and delightful stories about the ranch, its history and the many guests who’ve stayed there through the years. I will treasure it always.
I signed my books for her, and she signed her book for me. I read an excerpt from Trusting Travis to her where Travis makes the same “improper” remark her dad made when he first spotted his future wife. Shelly laughed, her eyes twinkling.
Not wanting to outstay our welcome, we said our goodbyes, expressed the hope we’d see each other again, and, with a final wave to Shelly, departed Sweet Grass Ranch.
Like me, I’m sure there are days in your life that stand out as The Best Day Ever. Days that are absolutely Perfect from beginning to end. The kind of rare, magical day filled with experiences that can never be replicated, no matter how you try. I have about five of them on my memory list.
This day is one of them.
There is so much more I could share about this amazing week in the Sweet Grass and the wonderful people my parents and I met. But I’ll end the trip here. The memories I took from this experience will live forever in my books. I left the Sweet Grass refreshed and ready to tackle the next set of stories in the Sweet Grass-Montana Romance series.
I’ll leave you with this precious video a guest at the Van Cleve’s Lazy K Bar ranch filmed in 1975. Although there’s no sound, I can hear the laughter and the thud of horse hooves, smell the cook fires and branded hides. And I can hear Spike’s voice saying what a lucky man he was to “live in God’s pocket.”
[Video courtesy of Fran Smith, YouTube]