July 23

This Day in History

Old West

Jul 23, 1920:

Montana rancher Conrad Kohrs dies

Conrad Kohrs, one of Montana's first cattle barons, dies in Helena.

A native of Denmark, Kohrs immigrated to the United States in 1850 at the age of 15. Seeking his fortune, he headed west in hopes of finding a gold or silver mine. He had some small success in California and British Columbia, but the "big strike" eluded him. In 1862, he joined the latest western gold rush and headed for western Montana, where rich gold deposits had been found at Grasshopper Creek. There, Kohrs realized that he could make more money mining the miners than mining for gold. He established a butcher shop in the mining town of Bannack and began to prosper.

Working as a butcher led Kohrs into the cattle business. Cattle were in relatively short supply in frontier Montana, and Kohrs traveled around the territory to purchase prime animals. He had several brushes with the highwaymen who plagued the isolated roads of Montana. Determined to stop these murderous bandits, Kohrs joined a group of Virginia City vigilantes, and helped track down and hang the outlaws. By 1864, robberies in the territory had plummeted.

Increasingly, Kohrs began shifting the focus of his meat processing business to the supply side. In 1864, he established a large ranch near the town of Deer Lodge, where he fattened his cattle for market. Kohrs was virtually the only major rancher in the western region of the territory, and his business boomed as Montana grew. Eventually, competition from cattle driven overland into the territory from Texas began to challenge Kohrs' monopoly. He continued to prosper, however, and remained the largest cattle rancher in Montana for several decades.

In 1885, Kohrs translated his economic strength into political power, winning election to the Montana Territorial Legislature. Kohrs and his fellow ranchers exercised considerable influence over Montana in the years to come, and Kohrs became a state senator in 1902. The big ranchers never had a free hand in Montana, however--mining interests and farmers always kept the ranchers in check.

Widely celebrated as one of the greatest pioneers in Montana history, Kohrs died in 1920 at the age of 85.

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