Patricia Nell Warren got nationwide fame as a writer in the mid-seventies with The Front Runner, a groundbreaking novel about the gay love story between an ex-marine track coach and his protégé, an Olympic athlete. But although Warren, a literary icon of the gay community, followed The Front Runner with a sequel in 1994 and then a third in the series in 1997 (Harlan’s Race and Billy’s Boy, respectively), there is another theme that has been a constant in her writing: the American West.
Warren, who grew up in the famed Grant-Kohrs cattle ranch in Montana, was most recently inspired in that direction by the Autry’s invitation to participate in Hidden Histories, a program in May 2010 that examined gay relationships in the historical West and was part of the Autry’s Out West series.
It got her thinking about her personal links to the region, and the result was My West, a memoir of place that explains as much about what shaped Warren as her sexuality. On Sunday, she returns to the Autry to talk about it.
“People know me for a group of novels and one non-fiction book that I have written,” Warren said. “But over the years I’ve written dozens and dozens and dozens of magazine articles and essays and scholarly pieces and editorials and blog rants about the West.”
Grant-Kohrs shaped Warren from her earliest memories, even though its glory days were largely gone when she grew up there. A leading beef producer for the Chicago meatpacking industry during the mid– to late 19th century, Grant-Kohrs was established by John Francis Grant in the 1850s, then purchased in 1866 by Conrad Kohrs, Warren’s great-grandfather, who became known as the Cattle King of Montana.
“There was this period when everybody was throwing out great, big, huge herds out on the northern Plains,” Warren said. “Our ranch had a really big range operation in Eastern Montana, Wyoming, Colorado … four American states and two provinces in Canada. We had about 2 million acres of leased grazing on public lands.”
In its heyday, Grant-Kohrs shipped 10,000 head of cattle a year to the Chicago stockyards. But the cattle boom began to wane before the end of the century, thanks to overgrazing and a killing winter in 1886–87 that put many operations out of business. Grant-Kohrs survived, but after the death of Kohrs’ son in 1901, no immediate male heir remained to keep it growing. The industry itself had also transitioned out of open-range grazing and into smaller, fenced homesteads that grew hay to feed their cattle during winter.
Kohrs himself died in 1920. Warren says her great-grandmother continued to live on the property, selling it off in pieces until only the main house and a small core property remained in a trust. In 1932, Warren’s father, Conrad Kohrs Warren, abandoned a promising future as a doctor to hire on at the ranch, against the family’s wishes. He worked his way up to manager, then eventually bought back the main house and 1,500 acres of surrounding land, reestablishing the ranch, instituting modern techniques and introducing Hereford cattle.
Warren grew up steeped both in the ranching — she worked on the ranch and competed in area rodeos, becoming a champion barrel racer — and the history of the place.
“We were not only addicted to the stories and the oral traditions, but we never threw anything away,” she said. “Eventually, stuff becomes artifacts. The thing that somebody might have tossed on the trash heap maybe 50 years before that, all of a sudden is very precious. Even ephemera like horse show ribbons and stuff like that.”
Warren said both her parents were fascinated with history, working with the great-grands to carefully record family lore. But it was her mother, Nellie Flinn Warren, who first realized that the house had historic value beyond the family in part because it still contained the original artifacts — the family’s things, really — and all the ranch’s records and documents.
“My mother began to really study the stuff that was there,” Warren said. “She organized and looked at everything, from the silverware and the linens to the German china. The old folks were German, so they dragged all kinds of wonderful stuff from Germany every time they went home to visit. And [she began] to organize the documents and the records and ledgers and the pedigrees. Little by little my mom became aware that what was there was like a time capsule. It was very complete.”
It was also Nellie who began encouraging her husband to get in touch with the U.S. National Park Service, in part because she saw that her children were not likely to go into the family business. She did not want to see this record of a life, an era and a region dispersed after they left home.
The idea was to have the National Park Foundation buy the property, and they would then donate everything inside it towards setting up a living history museum. So in 1960, Grant-Kohrs became a national historic site, and in 1972, the family moved out and the Park Service began running it as a working ranch.
“It gives such a different picture than what people see in the movies and on television,” Warren said. “They see the real stuff that’s there.”
With other historic sites, preservationists often focus on keeping the “big house,” the showpiece, the place where the élite of the area used to live. But at Grant-Kohrs, everything, even the workers’ quarters called the bunk house, is as it was.
“You walk into our bunk house, and what you see is what was there,” she said. “The old iron beds, the very table, the very china that was used, the dishware, the cooking pots, the old wood cook stove, because they were still using that when I was a little kid.”
So it’s possible to see that, even during World War II, that area of Montana was still living, as it were, in the previous century.
“There were big parts of Montana that didn’t even have electricity when I was a little kid,” Warren said. “So people were still transitioning out of wood cook stoves and to have a fancy new electric stove was a very big deal.”
Warren says she admires her mother’s foresight in taking on the preservation of Grant-Kohrs, even before anyone else understood her project –“an absolute visionary,” she calls her — but she also knows it grew out of a ravenous hunger for knowledge.
“She was self-educated,” Warren said. “She never got to go to college because she grew up during the Depression and she worked to support the family. But she always educated herself. She always had books. We were drowning in encyclopedias at our house. We had them all.”