History of Clydehurst Christian Ranch

Excerpt from Jerkline to Jeep: A Brief History of the Upper Boulder by Ruth Staunton and Dorothy Keur

1943 – 1982

The West Boulder River canyon dates back geological ages.  Gradually gold, silver, copper, quartz and uranium were deposited in its mountains.  Once the only sounds were the rush of swollen rivers, the rumble of avalanches or rock slides, birds’ songs, animals’ calls and the wind.


The Crow Indians lived in the canyon as early as 1700, their drawings on cave walls document their seasonal migrations as they followed the game animals.  They called the river The Big Beaver.

In 1870 prospectors discovered gold in the valley.  By 1882, a year after the Indians’ last resistance to the white man’s take-over of their hunting lands, 1,450 mineral claims had been filed.

A stampmill was carried up the mountain trails in sections to Independence which had a population of 400 to 500 by 1892.  New sounds echoed from the valley walls – grinding machinery, coarse language, shouts of exhilaration, groans of pain, discomfort and disappointment, honky-tonk pianos and raucous songs.

The Big Beaver was renamed The Boulder.  One of its tributaries was named Froze-to-Death Creek. Chippy Park did not get its name for the quick bright-eyed chipmunks in the area but rather for the several “soiled doves,” the prostitutes who followed mining camps, who set up their business establishments on the more accessible flat land down-canyon, enduring hardship of the seasons in draft and primitive cabins.

Like so many gold rush towns in Montana’s history, Independence’s initial excitement subsided in less than ten years when the minerals petered out.  The valley took on a more genteel atmosphere after most of the prospectors left.  The land was divided and the first homesteaders arrived, built sturdy homes and planted gardens.  Milk cows stood knee-deep in grassy fenced meadows.  Chickens clucked and roosters crowed.  Children played in schoolyards.  An occasional early-day motor car noisily braved the boulder-strewn road, sometimes forced to wait until herds of sheep moved to new pastures.

In 1898 Green and Mary Blakely claimed and developed 283.10 acres up-canyon from Two Mile Bridge on both sides of the river, the present-day site of Clydehurst Christian Ranch.  From 1910 to 1920 a corner cubicle of the Blakely ranch house living room served as the valley’s official post office.

The Blakely’s sold their ranch to Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Kerwin and their son of Miles City in 1920.  For a while the property was called the Kerwin Dude Ranch, but this was changed later to The White Bear, a more exciting name to spark interest of the eastern dudes they hoped to attract.  Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Bowen, one-time owners of Bowen’s Men’s store in the Stapleton Building in Billings, worked with the Kerwins and later bought the ranch themselves, bringing it to a high level of luxury to better suit the tastes of their specially-invited wealthy Eastern guests.


The main lodge was furnished with overstuffed Lawson-style sofa and chairs.  Valuable Indian rugs were on the walls and floor.  A baby grand piano and an extensive library were in one end of the lounge dominated by a massive stone fireplace.  Cabins could accommodate forty guests.  The dining room served excellent meals on dishes bearing the ranch’s brand design, C-Lazy-S.

Charlie Rasnick, an old-time canyon resident says, “I remember the crystal chandeliers in the lodge.  Men guests were required to wear white shirts and ties in the dining room at all times.”

For the guests’ recreation there was a nine-hole golf course, a swimming pool, a tennis court, shuffleboard ad horses to ride.  And fishing.  The ranch’s publicity brochure said, “The stream is stocked from our own rearing ponds.  We can turn ten million fish into the river each year.”

A woman recalls her first sight of the Bowen’s dude ranch in 1934. “My friend and I had rented horses at Old Kaintuck (now Boulder Ranch’s “Dip Town”).  We came riding along the sandy stretch of road at eh far end of the meadow.  I thought I’d suddenly dies and gone to Heaven when I saw white peacocks strutting in the deep grass, the swimming pool, beach umbrellas, a tennis court and the flower beds.  Such luxuries were so unexpected in such a remote spot.”

In 1935 after Mr. Bowen was killed in a traffic accident in New York, Mrs. Bowen renamed the ranch Clydehurst-on-the-Boulder to his memory.  She continued to operate the ranch but with difficulty when World War II brought rationing of gas and food supplies.

In the summer of 1943, during the war, Pastor Walter J. Feely, his family and Bill Lohof, Sr. of Billings visited Clydehurst-on-the-Boulder as guests and were impressed with its refreshing atmosphere, beautiful setting and imagined such a place for the Lord’s work.  At that time several church groups in the state were sharing the rather primitive and limited facilities of the Methodist camp located at Luccock Park near Livingston.

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In the year following Mr. Feely expressed these thoughts during his many state-wide radio rallies.  God answered.  Mr. A. F. Toavs, a well-to-do Wolf Point rancher, responded and provided the necessary $17,000 to purchase the ranch.  The Montana Gospel Crusade signed a note to be paid back in full in ten years.  Mr. James E. Tannehill, an officer of the Federal Land Bank at the time, served as the legal agent to consummate the transfer of ownership.

Volunteer labor and a willingness to see the place used for the Lord worked miracles.

Several abandoned CCC buildings were purchased and moved from a mile down-river to be used for added dormitories and shops.  New concrete foundations were poured. Cesspools were dug.  Plumbing was repaired.  Roofs were recovered.  Logs were chinked.  Grounds were landscaped.  Fences were replaced.  While the kitchen was being equipped that first summer Mrs. Nellie Lohof prepared meals on a woodburning cookstove out-of-doors.

Although much more work would be needed, a great many families drove the 35 miles of gravel and bone-rattling boulders from Big Timber to attend the dedication of Clydehurst Bible Conference on September 3, 1945.

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Mr. Feely wrote of that first year of Clydehurst, “The mountains and mountaintops were places of rich experience with our Lord.  Here may be found refreshment of spirit, mind, and body.  Here children and young people may be won for Christ.  Christ led the multitude into the wildwoods, up onto a mountain, down to the shores of lakes and taught them in the wide open spaces in the quiet of the country, how to live victoriously.  Pray for Clydehurst Bible Conference that it may be used for the glory of God, the gathering in of the lost ones, and for the growth in grace of believers.”

At first there was no planned summer camping program but some of the country’s finest Bible expositors and evangelists spoke in the chapel.  Some were: Bill Burcaw, Dr. Lewis Chafer, Dr. Frank Gaebelein, Dr. Harold Garner, Dr. Norman B. Harrison, Dr. H. A. Ironsides, Dr. Jack Mitchell, Elmer and Morris Nelson, Dr. Merv Rosell and Dr. B. B. Sutcliffe.

During the winter months Charlie Rasnick, an early friend of Clydehurst, constructed new log cabins.  His presences and the big gun he carried quickly ended the rash of vandalism and thefts of camp property.

When the $17,000 note came due in 1955 the Montana Gospel Crusade was unable to pay.  After hours of prayer, Mr. Bill Lohof, Sr., Mr. Glen Nolte, Mr. Carrol Dahlstrom, and Mr. Jesse Roybal put up $8,000 among them, borrowed the remaining $9,000 from the bank, and drove to Wolf Point to personally hand-deliver the full amount to Mr. Toavs.  Only then did they learn foreclosure action had already been initiated against the camp property.  God had answered their prayers.

Later that year the Church of the Air purchased Clydehurst Christian Ranch from the Montana Gospel Crusade for $17,000 with the understanding that if and when the church should sell Clydehurst, the Crusade would get one half of anything over that amount.  In 1962 the church did sell 263.617 acres of Clydehurst to Mr. T. James Murphy for $21,000.  (He later traded it to the U.S. Forest Service.)  Half of the $4,000 profit was paid to the Crusade as agreed.

From 1952 to 1970 Camp Directors were: Vince Nelson, Rod Pence, Spen and Dottie Durr and Lee Friesen.

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Each year brought improvements to the camp’s program and facilities.  The Camp Committee, consisting of the Pastor of Billings Bible Church, members of its Board of Elders and Deacons, member-at-large from the church and other churches in the state, worked toward the goal of making Clydehurst one of the Northwest’s finest church camps.

Early camping seasons brought 200 campers but with each succeeding year that number grew.  As attendance increased so did the need for repairs, purchasing, improvising and financing.  The women’s missionaids furnished needed curtains for the cabins.  Professional men donated labor and materials to prepare camp facilities and equipment for each season’s opening.

One crew boy recalls, “One year I was the first one on the grounds to open up for the season.  I stayed in the single cabin opposite the lodge.  Early in the morning I heard a noise, stepped outside and saw a bull moose standing near the flagpole.”

Mrs. Joyce Johnson, a camper, shot and killed another moose during her stay at camp.  Moose meat was on the menu from time to time for the next two years.  There were bear burgers after a bear was shot as it rummaged in the camp’s garbage dump.

In 1969 the Kenneth L. Hancock estate donated 10 horses, 2 mules and all riding and packing equipment.  Mr. Phil Fortin donated funds for new bunk and bed mattresses.

After early spring’s high water receded, men and crewboys pulled steel-rimmed spoked flatbed wagons across the river to form a bridge so the camp truck could drive to the tepees in the meadow.  One year the tepees were set up at Chippy Park and rafts were made of steel drums pulled across the river by rope cables.

“It was pretty risky stuff but we made it.”

One season Camp Nurse was “Aunt Cora” who prescribed mercurochrome for most scrapes and bruises.  Cinnamon redhots healed upset stomachs and homesickness.  Another Camp Nurse, “Becky”, began campers’ days with a vigorous rendition of reveille on her trumpet.

A crewboy claims he memorized every rock in the road after driving into Big Timber for supplies “at least thirty-nine times.”

In 1970 Wayne and Judy Brownson were invited to be Camp Directors with the assurance it was “more or less overseeing things that needed to be done.”  They agreed to try it.

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Wayne was twenty-three, a graduate of Eastern Montana College with a Bachelor’s Degree in music, teaching school in Greybull, Wyoming.  He had never been a camper himself but had helped as bus driver or chaperone during youth camps.

The Brownsons learned quickly that Camp Directors’ days begin at 5:30 a.m. and go until midnight.

“In our twelve years as Camp Directors,” Wayne says, “We have seen some memorable firsts: first Program Director, Mark Halland; first new washing machine and commercial size dryer; the birth of our first child, Jane; first new Ford van; and in 1981 seeing the season’s attendance top 1,100 for the first time.”

Wayne and Judy earned the love and respect of those who worked with them. Wayne continued his full-time job as school teacher in the Billings school system, but working, too, during that time contacting staff members, special speakers, and buying supplies.  After school was out, he and his family spent ten weeks at Clydehurst.

There have been many changes in the years from 1943 to the present.  Each year brought new challenges, problems and solutions.  Cardinal Nest No. 1 and No. 2 have enlarged storage and craft space.  A new septic tank and water system has been installed.  More projects are “on the books.”

The Brownsons and the Camp Committee have seen the trend of Clydehurst Christian Ranch move away from being a “sister” outreach of the Billings Bible Church– rather an entity of its own with nearly two-thirds of registered campers coming form outside the parent church with groups and families coming from out-of-state.  In 1976 the Big Sky Youth for Christ started coming for one week.  In 1982 their 501 campers came for three weeks.

In 1952 a grade school camper’s week cost $10; an adult’s, $20.  In 1981 grade school campers’ rates were $62 to $67.  Family Camp for couples was $174.

Though trends, numbers and prices have changed since 1945, the original precepts have been adhered to, those reflected in the Editor’s Column of the 1961 Clydehurst Chronicle when Helen Kramer wrote:

“Hi, all campers!  I hope you will remember the inspiring classes where you learned the Word of God, the hikes, the campfires where we met to sing, give testimonies and hear men of God speak.  Remember the classes in swimming, photography, volleyball, riflery and horsemanship.  I hope you enjoyed your stay at camp and that you’ll want to come again.  May God’s richest blessing and His wonderful love become more real to you with each passing day and may you be the living testimony Christ wants all of us to be.”


All material copyrighted 1975.  Used with permission.