On the Friday before the Fourth of July, as the camper trailers started rolling by on the Boulder River Road where it turns to gravel about 30 miles south of Big Timber, Carl Ronneberg performed a decade-old ritual.
At the Main Boulder Ranger Station, a log structure that’s one of the oldest Forest Service facilities in the country, he’d spent the morning sweeping the floor and tidying up. Then he went out, raised the American flag on a wooden pole and opened the station’s doors for another summer season.
“I like meeting people, explaining what this cabin is all about,” he says. “And I just enjoy being up the Boulder.”
These days, the carefully restored building is a museum that provides a window into the life of Harry Kaufman, the district ranger who built it, in 1905, as a headquarters for overseeing roughly 300,000 acres of surrounding national forest. Kaufman married his wife, Coral, in 1911, and lived here with his family, which included two children, through the early 1940s.
Ronneberg, who worked for the Forest Service for 38 years out of Big Timber, doing trail maintenance, noxious weed control and other jobs before retiring in 2004, has his own connection to the place.
“I stayed in this cabin,” he says. Last used as a district headquarters in 1945, the station became a bunkhouse for trail crews, firefighters and other seasonal workers. Another, less historic cabin on the property still serves that purpose.
By the late 1980s, “there was some talk of tearing it down,” Ronneberg remembers of the ranger station. He’s modest about it, but it’s clear that he played a role in saving the structure.
“I said, ‘We better do something with that building,’ ” he recalls. “I kind of pushed to get this turned into a museum.”
Restoration began in 1991 and continued through the mid-2000s. The Forest Service paid a local contractor to pour a new foundation and replace the floor joists. The Forest Service’s regional historical preservation team, plus volunteers from around the country, enrolled in a Forest Service program called Passport in Time, installed a new roof and generally oversaw the building’s transformation into a museum.
The results are impressive. Aside from the photos and interpretive displays that line the walls, the place looks and feels strikingly like an early-20th-century backwoods homestead.
Ronneberg estimates that he put in six months on the restoration. And for about the past 10 years, he’s volunteered his time to staff the station three days a week during the summer, commuting to and from his home in Big Timber.
“People can’t believe how well-kept the artifacts are,” he says.
There’s a shiny wood cook stove and an antique ice box, pots and pans and an ancient-looking telephone. Glass displays hold Kaufman’s binoculars, camera and myriad other items.
Visitors could spend days just reading Kaufman’s journals, which he penned in pocket notebooks. Now transcribed into three thick binders, the journals chronicle the incredible number of miles Kaufman trekked while patrolling a huge swath of the northern Absaroka Range and beyond, interacting with miners, sheepherders and loggers.
The journals contain some riveting episodes, including Kaufman’s involvement in fighting the Great Fire of 1910, which burned an area roughly the size of Connecticut across areas of Montana and the Northwest.
Another binder contains original photos taken by Kaufman and his family. One photo, displayed on the wall, shows Kaufman standing beside Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service.
Ronneberg received some stories firsthand from Betty, Kaufman’s daughter. She remembered when the Civilian Conservation Corps was stationed nearby in the 1930s, building campgrounds and trails in the area.
These days, around 25 visitors might stop by the station on a typical day, Ronneberg says. “People come in here from all over the country.”
When Stan and Rita Starr of Billings pause at the door with their son and daughter-in-law, Ronneberg tells them to “come on in” and launches into an impromptu tour. “This was Harry’s office in here,” he says, leading them to a rustic table with a typewriter.
The Starrs say they’ve been coming up to the Main Boulder for many years to camp. This year, they decided to stop and check out the old ranger station.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Stan Starr says. “There’s a lot of history here.”
Ronneberg is part of that history, too. As he chats with the visitors, it’s clear he knows the trails and the waterfalls, from having spent years in the backcountry. And he has his own stories—ones that sound like chapters in Kaufman’s journals.
As the morning tips into scorching afternoon, Ronneberg remembers another July day, back in the early ’70s. He was working trail crew, camped in the backcountry.
They woke up to four inches of snow, he says. “We just got out of there.”
The Main Boulder Ranger Station is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday through Sunday, from the Fourth of July weekend through Labor Day.