The Gilmans

Alder, MT

When I asked Les Gilman about his ranch and what it means to him, he took a long pause before he answered.

“There is a verse in the Bible,” he said, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

Les went on to explain why this verse popped into his head in the context of ranching and living.

“Because our predecessors toiled and labored not only for their present needs but also for what we currently have. They have left us a legacy and we stand in their presence with the responsibility to honor them by being good stewards today and planning for tomorrow.”

The past, the present, and the future are all very close at hand to the Gilmans. Les, his wife Donna, their son Charlie, and Charlie’s wife Kaycee, all sat down with me in early January to talk about their ranch in the Ruby Valley, their decision to place it in a conservation easement, and about the future of agricultural communities.

Les’s ancestors arrived in the Alder Gulch area shortly after the Gold Rush started in Virginia City in 1863. When I ask about their history there, Les jokes, “It’s too much to tell!”

The evidence of that extensive history is a 250-page book written by Les’s father, Lowell Gilman, containing the history, memories, and photos of their family and the mining and agricultural activities of the community surrounding Alder Gulch.

One of his great-grandfathers, Isaac Harvey Gilman, homesteaded in the area very early on, although they aren’t sure of the exact year. However, he registered the brand they still use today, IH, in 1873, the first year that brands could be registered in the Montana territory. Numerous other great-grandfathers and grandmothers homesteaded in the area as well. The core of the ranch they now own has been in the family since 1909.

Charlie is the sixth generation of Gilmans to ranch on the land and the move toward a conservation easement with The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) was a natural outgrowth of generations of Gilmans working to conserve and protect their heritage. The easement was finalized in 2016.

Over the last 40 years they had seen good productive agricultural land subdivided and parceled out and wanted to make sure that their ranch maintained its integrity as a working landscape. When Les was growing up, everyone that lived on a ranch was a rancher. If the ranch was sold, it was to another rancher. Things are different now.

“Our family has a philosophical desire to protect, to keep the land intact that we’ve had such a long history and connection to. We knew we never wanted to see this place broken up into chunks,” said Les.

Charlie agreed.

“I always knew I wanted to stay here and ranch and I never wanted to see our place subdivided now or in the future. A conservation easement is a valuable tool to keep these good agricultural lands viable,” said Charlie.

Charlie and Kaycee have four children: Coleman (16), Molly (12), Quinn (9), and Max (8).

One of the things that stood out to me about the Gilmans was their focus on making sure that the ranch stays viable into the future by intentional planning and keeping the lines of communication open.

“We all sat down and put together a vision and mission statement for our ranch. We want our ranch to be profitable and enjoyable. We want our kids to be able to ranch here if they choose to. The people before me have always been forward thinking and I want to continue that,” said Charlie.

Kaycee, who also came from a ranching family near Sheridan, Montana, said it best when I asked what each of them love most about their life on the ranch.

“Every day is bring your child to work day.” The entire family laughs when she says this.

“Whether they like it or not,” Les chimes in to more laughter.

Donna also comes from an agricultural background and gets choked up when she remembers helping her dad on their farm and when she thinks about Charlie and Kaycee taking over the ranch.

“I’m so proud of these kids for all that they’ve done here and that they wanted to come back and ranch. It’s a tough go sometimes but they were willing to take it on. It gives me hope for our agricultural communities.”

At the end of the interview, we walk down the county road to find a pretty spot to take a picture. The January wind is whipping through the valley, the sky is bright blue, and the border collies are running out in front of us.

“You are here walking down the road or standing in a spot where very likely your great grandfather or grandfather was. It’s a solemn responsibility. Our role is to protect and preserve the legacy,” said Les. “The conservation easement makes a statement by the generations that create the easement. It is an irrefutable statement of intent that the property will not be divided up.”