A family connection to homesteading led me to do some research about it. Both my maternal grandfather and grandmother filed and proved up on homestead claims in Montana.
I found homestead cabins that you can rent by the night at the little town of Virgelle, Montana and knew I had to book a visit. But first, here’s some history of how homesteading came to be in the United States.
There were two homestead acts that intrigued people to come to Montana for “free land”. The Homestead Act of 1862 was the first and it was enacted during the Civil War. A person could acquire 160 acres of surveyed government land if they built a dwelling on the acreage and cultivated the land. Most of the homestead claims from the 1862 act were west of the Mississippi.
In 1909, the Enlarged Homestead Act passed and it doubled the amount of acreage to 320 acres, although the land was more marginal and not nearly as fertile. Most people who filed claims during this time ended up doing dryland farming and many will tell you that this led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Times were tough then and a lot of homesteaders gave up and walked away from their claim.
There were other homestead acts that applied to specific US locations but let’s get to my overnight stay in a Montana homestead cabin.
The little town known as Virgelle, Montana is often referred to as a restored homestead-era town. It used to be a railroad stop and the Virgelle Mercantile was built where the train stopped. The Mercantile now has B&B rooms upstairs, over the main floor antique store. The owners then found original homestead cabins, purchased them and moved them to Virgelle to complement the B&B rooms. I’m sure there was a major amount of work to be done on those cabins – weatherizing, tiny windows to repair and roofing materials to replace.
The cabins aren’t large although two of them have two beds and a much larger one has three beds. Building materials were scarce on the prairie and I’m sure equipment for most homesteaders was just a hammer and saw.
After multiple visits, my favorite cabin is called the Little Mosier. It’s a one bed cabin with a wood stove and a kerosene lantern, and it sits up high with a wonderful view of the valley. I tuck a flashlight in my overnight bag in case my lantern-lighting skills fail me. In each cabin you’ll find a framed copy of the original homestead claim so you know who built the dwelling and cultivated the land. That was referred to as “proving up” or basically proving that you met the qualifications of the Homestead Act.
The five homestead cabins are spread apart and all look toward the sandstone Missouri River bluffs. My tip – be ready for sunset because when that sun sets over those bluffs, its a photo just waiting to happen.
Let’s get to the part about the ah, plumbing. In case you didn’t know, homesteaders didn’t have running water and many had to walk a good distance for any kind of water. If you are in search of something that flushes (like a toilet) and someplace for a shower, do not worry. The owners have built two modern baths and the building they are in looks like it “belongs” to the era of the cabins. It is a weathered wood structure and the door handles to each bathroom look like old ice house doors.
The Virgelle Mercantile is near the homestead cabins so you can shop for antiques, buy ice cream and candy, and basically stroll down memory lane. The area surrounding the river here was designated the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in 1991, a favorite for folks who like to canoe and kayak. Average current on the river is only about 3.5 miles an hour so it’s easily navigable.
To keep the historic theme going, you are less than a mile from an old-time river ferry crossing – which is the only way to get your vehicle to the other side of the river here. I usually put my car on the ferry (it will take two cars at a time), ride across the Missouri, turn my car around and ride back. The ferry operator humors me and I’m sure I’m not the only one who does that.
In the other direction, about a mile from Virgelle, you’ll find a campground managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees this stretch of the river.
When I was at Virgelle the other day I sat on the deck of “my cabin” and listened to the birds. There were quite a few bluebirds and I took a lot of photos of them flitting around. At least I thought I did. None of my photos had birds in them – those birds are fast!
It’s amazingly quiet in Virgelle. Every now and then a vehicle goes down the gravel road but sometimes I just enjoy the “sounds of silence”.
In the homestead era I suppose many people wished for more human contact but, in today’s world, it feels good to get away from the day-to-day hustle, away from crowds and from those reminders of daily chores.
I’ve found my happy place and when I need to get away and restore that sense of calm, a stay in a homestead cabin sure works for me.