Doctor McGill and the 320 Ranch

October 21, 2012 Updated: March 21, 2013

Sam Wilson homesteaded 160 acres in 1898, along Buffalo Horn Creek on the Gallatin River. The spread is about 12 miles south of what is today Big Sky, Montana. Sam’s father Clinton took up an adjoining 160 acre parcel two years later. The men pooled their land and called the place the Buffalo Horn Resort.

This part of Montana gets too cold to keep livestock over winter so Sam sought business from railroad contractors who were cutting ties a little further south in the forest along the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin. Tie cutters worked for their board and built cabins on the place. When the Cooper Tie Company went out of business in 1906, the post office that served the railroad men on Taylor’s Fork was moved onto the ranch and Mrs. Wilson was postmistress until it closed in 1938.

Dude ranching was a fledgling enterprise. Sam Wilson rented out his cabins but tried to supplement his income raising horses. Sam bought 1,500 mares and colts figuring they could fend for themselves in Meadow Creek. In the cold of winter 65 froze to death ending Sam’s horse venture. He fared no better when he tried goats next. Five hundred died, huddled together for protection from the cold.

It wasn’t until a spunky little woman bought the place that the 320 Ranch came into its own. Dr. Caroline McGill was not over five feet tall and weighed 118 pounds. She was born in 1879 in Ohio, moved with her parents and four brothers and sisters to a farm in the Ozarks. She had a brilliant mind, taught school, spent her wages on courses over summer breaks and was given a teaching assistanceship in zoology.

Dr. McGill excelled in her studies. She earned a BA and a Master’s then went on to earn a PhD in anatomy. She traveled and taught in Europe. Traveled to Montana in 1910, and was offered a job at the Murray Hospital in Butte.

Dr. McGill took to life in Montana. She rode horses, hunted and fished, ventured down the Gallatin to the area around Buffalo Horn Creek. She returned to Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1913, graduated at the top of her class one year later because of her advanced studies, then returned to Butte. That Caroline McGill became the first female doctor and the first female pathologist in Montana at a time when it was wild and woolly proved her determination and grit.

Dr. McGill  came back to the Buffalo Horn to ride, hunt and fish. She would take a horse and ride alone up into the mountains. A favorite spot was secluded Ramshorn Lake, about a 4 hour ride from the ranch, where Dr. McGill would fish. She bought the 320 Ranch in 1936, ten years after the Wilsons’ left and a succession of owners couldn’t make a go of it.

Her idea was to use the ranch as a place where her patients in town could come and recover their strength in tranquil surrounding of streams and mountains. It was Dr. McGill’s retreat as well. As she was able to get away from her busy medical practice, she spent time riding alone in the mountains.

Her passion was to collect junk from sales. Many of the pieces Dr. McGill bought were antiques. In Montana’s early days a lot of people sold out and moved on. Wilson’s two 160 acre joined parcels was now dubbed the 320 Ranch. The place became a storage depot for McGill’s energetic collecting. She’d store the stuff any place she could. “When she ran out of space inside buildings, she’d put her collections inside old cars she had on the place,” Pat Sage, 320’s current ranch manager, said.

When space ran out Dr. McGill was given Quonset huts on the campus of what is now Montana State University in Bozeman. Her collection of “junk” formed the basis for the Museum of the Rockies on campus. Many of Dr. McGill’s antiques were also donated to the preserved mining town of Nevada City.

Dr. McGill retired to 320 Ranch in 1956. She died three years later in her sleep at the age of 79, in the Christmas cabin the help built and furnished for her as a present. That night, knowing she would not live to see morning, Dr. McGill took out the cards and notes her friends used to label her gifts of furniture, curtains and housewares when they gave them to her for Christmas years before. Each present had been lovingly retagged when the help found her dead the next morning.

“Dr. McGill left it in her will that the Goodriches would have first option buy the place. They came out to the 320 in 1949, to run the outfitting business for Park and Susie Taylor who managed the ranch for Dr. McGill. When Jim Goodrich died of cancer, his wife Patty sold it to the present owner,” Pat Sage said.

It was 1987, when David Brask bought the ranch from Patty. He built many more cabins and modernized the facilities to create a resort. The character of the place is retained and preserved in some of the original structures.

The 320 now runs 65 horses. “You could only get twenty people on this ranch until Dave built more cabins. Now we’ve got 369 pillows. That’s how many people we can accommodate,” Pat laughed. Coming from housekeeping, knowing how many pillows there are is pretty important. To figure occupancy just divide 369 by the ranch’s 60 cabins.

In addition to taking guests and transients riding on adjacent Forest Service  trails, there is still the magic all day ride Dr. McGill loved up to Ramshorn Lake. The lake is nestled between 10,296 foot high Ramshorn Peak and 9,771 foot high Fortress Mountain. The panorama of cliffs and jagged pinnacles, pock marked with caves, frames the lake. The Forest Service has built corrals nearby and camping is permitted. Ramshorn lake is renown for trout.

One of the first ranger cabins in the area is built on a sloping meadow toward Teepee Creek. The spot is picturesque and a good game spotting area. The trail is accessed on the way to or from Ramshorn Lake or round about riding up Wilson’s Draw just south of the ranch.

Across Highway 191, wranglers turn out the horses evenings. It is a good Ride up a way onto forest service land through a peaceful aspen grove. Elk and deer graze sweet grass here in warmer months. The trail leads up to a high ridge at about 8,000 feet. From Marble Point the views of  Taylor Creek snaking below and Albino Lake off in the distance are spectacular.

Beside modern accommodations there is fine food at the 320. Fishermen often ask to have their catch prepared and served with starters that include goat cheese that is roasted in the oven then baked with cloves of garlic, presented with toasted parmesan bread. For those who practice catch and release, the restaurant offers smoked trout as a starter.

Entrees feature wild game specialties like meat loaf made with elk, bison and beef as well as Big Sky pheasant wrapped with bacon and served with merlot honey butter. Steak and seafood are also featured on the menu. The log construction restaurant is built onto the original homesteader’s cabin that serves as a place to play pool, enjoy a wood fire in the hearth or take a drink at the bar.

Sitting on the restaurant patio at sunset, built out over a gurgling stream, watching the herd of horses being run down a dusty ranch road to be turned out  at day’s end, is surely the tranquil scene Dr. Caroline McGill would have prescribed for her patients. A place to savor the soul of the West along Montana’s Gallatin River.

For general information please contact: Big Sky Chamber of Commerce toll-free at 1-800-943-4111 or visit their web site at www.bigskychamber.com. TO CONTACT 320 RANCH: call toll-free 1-800-243-0320 or visit their web site at www.320ranch.com.

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Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and are not necessarily representative of Epoch Times.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Christopher Fine investigated government activities around the world while attached to the U.S. State Department’s Inspector General’s Office. He served in many posts including Special Counsel to U.S. Senate Investigating Committee and Senior Assistant District Attorney in New York County.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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