ALL IN THE FAMILY: Over 100 years later, Janssen Ranch still stands strong |

ALL IN THE FAMILY: Over 100 years later, Janssen Ranch still stands strong

Jeri L. Dobrowski
for Tri-State Livestock News
Helen, Lynnette, Lewis and Robert Janssen operate the ranch homesteaded in 1910 by Lewis’ grandparents, John W. and Anna Janssen. Photo by Jeri L. Dobrowski

Unhappy with paying two-fifths rent as a sharecropper, John W. Janssen was captivated by a promotional brochure showing a farmer turning up coins from the soil with a walking plow. John and his wife, Anna, saw the brochure in May 1910, when a Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway exhibit car stopped in Rockwell City, Iowa. With dreams of owning their own land, John left Iowa that fall for Montana, making his way to a homestead south of Miles City.

Born in Illinois midway through the Civil War to German immigrants, John came to Montana to farm and raise livestock. He became a respected merchant and businessman. His biography appears in the 3-volume, leather-bound Montana, Its Story and Biography: A History of Aboriginal and Territorial Montana and Three Decades of Statehood, published in 1921 by the American Historical Society of Chicago.

Of the 191,964 homestead claims filed between 1900 and 1920, an estimated 60,000 were abandoned. Bucking the odds, John and Anna received title to the land on which they settled. Today, a grandson and a great-grandson, Lewis “Lew” and Robert “Bob” Janssen, run the ranch at Coalwood, the community that sprang up around the original homestead.

In 2010, as black-hided cattle grazed near a large party tent, the Janssens hosted descendants and friends at a centennial celebration acknowledging the milestone. The story shared that day told of John boarding a westbound train accompanied by sons Sam, age 16, and William M. “Bill,” 14. The trio arrived in Montana, crossing the state line between Marmarth, N.D. and Baker, Mont., on October 10, 1910. Anna stayed behind in Rockwell City with two other sons and a daughter who was teaching school.

Upon reaching Miles City, John and the boys unloaded their belongings from a chartered boxcar – an emigrant car – transferring what they could into a wagon and a buggy. They stored the rest under the depot to be retrieved later. Along with two horses and two cows, they headed 55 miles south to a location John had selected while on a home seekers’ excursion sponsored by the railroad. He picked a location near a spring over parcels he inspected in South Dakota.

John’s skills as a carpenter and stonemason served him well in Montana as he set about preparing for the arrival of his family in the spring. He and his sons built a dugout that they lived in that winter. By the time Anna arrived with 20-year-old Fred, 18-year-old Carrie and 13-year-old Albert, a cabin and small frame house were waiting for them. All of the Janssen children went on to claim homesteads of their own near Coalwood, so named because there was “plenty of coal, plenty of wood, and plenty to be thankful for.”

Early on one of the Janssens’ cows died. Lew’s father, Bill, recalled the event saying, “We lost half of our cattle herd in one day.” He also noted that crops were scant in southeastern Montana, nothing like what they were accustomed to in Iowa.

Located between Miles City and Broadus, the Janssen homestead was a convenient stopping-off place for settlers, travelers and neighbors. John ran a freight business, hauling goods between scattered settlements and homesteads. In 1912, he was appointed as United States Postmaster at Coalwood. Patrons began asking him to stock items such as ink and tobacco. In 1915, the post office was expanded to include a general store. He and Anna also operated a road house, feeding travelers and providing sleeping space on the porch.

In 1920, after returning from WWI, Bill purchased the post office, store and homestead from John and Anna, who moved to Miles City and ran a grocery. Bill and his wife, Hallie, farmed and ranched while running Janssen Mercantile. In 1934, they traded the store and post office for a section of land. The new owners moved the store half a mile west, locating it near the Miles City-to-Broadus highway.

Bill and Hallie added to their holding while raising three sons: Floyd, John M., and Lew. During WWII, Floyd served in the Army Air Corp, and John worked in California in the defense industry. Lew was granted a farm labor deferment. He worked not only for his father but also for neighbors who needed help. After the war – and following a brief go at farming and ranching –Floyd moved to Alabama. At that time Lew and Bill formed a partnership.

Lew married Helen Lyons, who was the business teacher at the high school in Broadus. When John married Alice Campbell, Bill divided the pasture and farmland between Lew and John. At the time, they were running horned Herefords and raising small grains and hay.

Lew recounted Bill’s purchase of their first Prince Domino bloodline bulls: “Dad stopped in Roundup, Mont., on his way back from Great Falls and bought two bulls, then sent me up to get them. I was 17, hadn’t ever been to Roundup before. I thought I could save a lot of miles if I’d come back by way of Ingomar. The road wasn’t graveled, and it rained. It was a long trip home in that ol’ Chevy truck!”

They raised Herefords until the 70s, when frustrated with horns and sunburned bags, they tried Simmental, Charolais and Gelbvieh. As Lew said, that left the herd “looking pretty motley.”

“The Mangens from down at Broadus started raising Angus,” he continued, “and we gave them a try. I liked the black-Gelbvieh cross. Then I saw black baldies for the first time while visiting our daughter at Roy, Mont. We raised them for years. Still have a few, but our herd is becoming more and more solid black. We really like the Lund’s B Bar Angus bulls. They have a good disposition, and it makes the herd easier to work with.”

Disposition is important because of the family-oriented nature of the operation. Bob’s wife, Lynnette, helps with the cattle, as do his sisters Jane and Mary, their husbands and the grandchildren. It’s always been that way. Except for an occasional high-school- or college-aged relative, Lew and Helen depended on their children for summer help.

At 88, Lew is out of the house by 7 a.m. most mornings and can be found working in the corrals, the shop or the field. On a recent fall morning, he and Bob replaced bearings and sprockets on a nearly 40-year-old Hesston StakFeeder. While they own a round baler, Bob prefers feeding hay put up with a Hesston StakHand. Lew said that in all his years on the place he’s never bought a bale of hay.

Less productive pieces of land that previously were farmed have been put into alfalfa and CRP. At that, they harvest approximately 650 acres of wheat and barley.

In 1950, two years after earning his pilot’s license, Lew retrofitted a 105 Piper Cub for crop dusting. Initially spraying his own crops, he expanded the aerial application of herbicides, insecticides and defoliants into a business that served many of his neighbors. In 1988, after 40 years as a pilot, he sold his last plane – the seventh one he owned in his lifetime – a Cessna Skylane II.

Bob is the fourth generation of Janssens to have run a business enterprise in conjunction with the ranch. Trained as a refrigeration technician, he serviced commercial and household accounts for many years. He’s since phased out his heating-and-cooling business to devote more time to the ranch established by his great-grandparents 104 years ago and fostered by his grandparents and parents.

“It’s special to carry this on to another generation,” Bob said. “There are very few families who have been here for 100 years, let alone 100 years on the same place. There were people who came and moved on. It didn’t work for everybody. It would have been easier to quit, but this is where their hearts were. This was their vision. This is our vision.”