The historic Ewing-Snell Ranch northeast of Lovell will get a new lease on life as an art, science and research center if the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is able to obtain grant money to rebuild the ranch house that burned to the ground last December.
Bighorn Canyon has applied for an ArtPlace America grant to rebuild the ranch house to not only restore the character of the ranch but to also once again provide a place for artists, researchers, visitors and others to use and enjoy.
ArtPlace America is a collaboration among a number of foundations, federal agencies and financial institutions working to position art and culture as a core sector of comprehensive community planning and development in order to help strengthen the social, physical and economic fabric of communities, the organization’s website states.
Bighorn Canyon is seeking a $250,000 ArtPlace grant.
“I feel we fit into this because the Ewing-Snell always was an educational, cultural and art center for the community with the Artist in Residence program, archaeology field schools, research and Crow cultural ceremonies,” said Bighorn Canyon Chief of Interpretation Christy Fleming, noting that the project appears to fit a number of the grant program’s stakeholder activities listed in the grant information and many of the program’s 10 disciplines listed within the grant’s art and culture field.
Fleming said entities applying for the grants must first fill out a pre-grant application because of the large number of applications received. She said ArtPlace America received around 1,400 pre-applications, and the organization chose 80 to proceed with the grant process.
“We were one of the 80,” Fleming said.
ArtPlace America will make a site visit to each of the 80 applicant locations, and the applicants must also make a formal grant proposal.
Bighorn Canyon’s site visit is scheduled for Friday, July 15, Fleming said.
The $250,000 request is based on estimates to rebuild the ranch house as a slightly modified version of the house that burned, with the park staff providing much of the labor. Electric and solar work, and perhaps plumbing, would have to be subcontracted.
“The only thing we forgot (in the funding estimate) is official blueprints for the project,” Fleming said, adding that the park staff is looking at solutions and would love to find a volunteer to create the blueprints.
“We’ll know by December 3 whether we will get the grant,” she said, “whether we will receive a Christmas present or not.”
One of the major components of the project is showing that there is public support for rebuilding the ranch house, demonstrating that the Ewing-Snell is an important part of economic and cultural development for the community, bringing in tourist dollars and providing programming for the community.
Fleming said she has sent emails to a number of community entities and leaders requesting a letter of support for the project and the grant. Individuals may write a letter to ArtPlace America via the Bighorn Canyon NRA visitor center or post a comment on Bighorn Canyon’s Facebook page.
Comments will be collected and presented during the July 15 site visit. Fleming would like to receive all comments and letters of support by July 11. Emails may be sent to Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org with comments or questions.
“I want to prove the community wants this, and I don’t think I’m reaching,” Fleming said. “A lot of people have asked when it will be rebuilt. Over 30,000 people have been reached by the original fire post (on Facebook) and the later project post. We’ve received comments on both. We’ll print them off and put them in the folder for the site visit.
According to Bighorn Canyon Natural Resources Program Manager Bill Pickett, the ranch house project would construct a new ranch house building on the same footprint as the house that burned on Dec. 9, but some four feet taller with a loft for additional classroom space and research area. The building would also house a small lab. The facility could be used by artists, researchers and students working in the park.
Pickett, retired archaeologist Chris Finley and park resources crew members Ted Preator, Ryan Felkins and Rick Lasko started planning the project not long after the fire shocked the community and park staff. Lasko prepared drawings of the new building.
“We started talking about funding avenues,” Pickett said, noting that traditional National Park Service project funding could take years to acquire, possibly as long as four to six years.
“We got together with National Parks fundraising groups, and Christy found the ArtPlace America grant,” Pickett said. “We started researching that and found they’ve never funded a project in Montana or Wyoming before. I think they were kind of excited to see there was an initial application for a project in Montana/Wyoming.”
Finley said the new building would be extremely energy efficient using structurally insulated panels with log siding, giving the building a historic look but made to keep rodents out – a problem in the older house.
Pickett said rodents twice chewed wire harnesses in the span of a week not long ago and were an increasing problem. The new building won’t have an attic, and the foundation will be repaired to be tighter, with no access from the outside. The interior will have no place for rodents to hide.
Finley added that the building will again have solar and wind power, with a backup generator and will be constructed with modern techniques while retaining the historic nature of the original structure, including the porch to the east and a deck to the south.
Pickett noted that many park visitors remarked on social media how they loved the porch that ran alongside the house, telling of posing for photos with their family on the porch. Visiting artists in residence also used the porch for classes and demonstrations.
“That’s a must, to have that back on there,” Pickett said.
Pickett and Finley said the new building would have a gabled roof, which would provide more space than the former building’s hip roof.
Pickett said the park staff has already completed a footbridge on the ranch site between the barn and the schoolhouse, as well as a new walking path on the property. New interpretive signs will be installed by fall, and the road into the ranch will be improved.
He said he would love to have the assistance of volunteers from the community during the construction of the new building, if the grant funding is awarded.
The history of the Ewing-Snell Ranch goes back to the turn of the 20th century when, in 1896, Erastus T. Ewing came to the Dryhead country to prospect for gold, along with others. He didn’t find gold but liked the country and turned to ranching, and he and his family settled on Layout Creek.
Over the years the ranch changed hands a few times, to Clint Hough in 1910-11, Philip Snell in 1920, E.E. Hansen in 1955 and Clarence Mangus and Newell Sorenson in 1964 before the ranch was sold to the U.S. Reclamation Service for inclusion in the newly formed Bighorn Canyon NRA.
The National Park Service used the ranch house for housing including rangers, resource crews and maintenance crews, and as a ranger station, but the old building was falling into disrepair. In 1999, then Chief of Resources Rick Lasko started a project to renovate the ranch house, and the first stage was repairing the foundation. Funding was secured in 2000, and in 2002 the house was lifted off its foundation and secured on blocks while the foundation was repaired, then gently lowered back to the foundation.
Later, the logs were repaired and re-chinked and the interior was restored with the intention of making the house into a science center. The ranch was “taken off the grid,” Fleming said, powered by solar, wind and propane, with a backup diesel generator if needed following several cloudy days.
Since then the house has been used by artists in residence and scientists and researchers studying mountain lions, bats, bighorn sheep, peregrine falcons and more. The Greater Yellowstone Inventory and Monitoring Network has used the house, as has the archaeological field school. Many Park Service employee meetings and gatherings have been held at the house.
By David Peck