Tradition Rides Strong at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch

Monday, July 15 2013 23:20 Mark Bedor   Dude Ranches
It's 5:30 in the morning. The Rawhide theme song is blasting out of a pickup truck. Rollin', rollin', rollin'! Time to get rollin'! And what a day it's going to be! I'm about to saddle up on the annual Nine Quarter Circle Dude Ranch horse drive.

Today we will drive the better part of 100 horses more than 30 miles, across some of the prettiest country in the West. Here on this 2,800 acres of rolling and green Montana grassland known as the Kelsey Valley (KV) Ranch, is where the Kelsey family, which owns the Nine Quarter Circle, winters their Appaloosa horse herd.

ramonakelseypics143The Kelseys breed and raise all their horses and spring has brought some new arrivals. The newborn foals are quite a sight, and make for quite a picture, but they're not ready for a 30-mile day trip at a fast trot. They'll get chauffeured to the ranch in a trailer. Fact is, you could trailer the entire herd from this winter pasture to the main ranch. But what fun would that be?

"Mainly now its just kinda tradition," said Kameron Kelsey of the horse drive. He's the second oldest of the three children of ranch owners Kim and Kelly Kelsey, and home for the summer from college just in time for the drive. Nineteen-year-old Kameron, older brother Konnor and their younger sister Kyleen represent the third generation of Kelseys at the Nine Quarter Circle.

Rich in Western History

The ranch's brand is one of the oldest in Montana. The first owners of the secluded Taylor Fork Valley where the ranch lies was the Northern Pacific Railroad, granted the property by Congress in 1864 as an incentive to lay the tracks that ran well north of here. The Northern Pacific cut trees here for railroad ties and horse thieves later used this valley as a hideout, before it became a cattle ranch and the ranch started hosting "dudes" in 1912. A Chicago family bought the ranch in the 1920s, and built the rustic and beautiful main lodge, which features impressive twin fireplaces, each built by hand from 100 tons of stone, but family quarrels left the property sitting vacant from the late 1930s through the end of World War II.

John Deere sales rep Howard Kelsey had known about the ranch since his college days in Bozeman, and after surviving World War II, a friend he'd met in the service introduced him to the owners. By 1946, the Nine Quarter Circle was his.

It took some work to get it up and running, but Howard soon had a thriving dude ranch business. In those early years, many of the guests flew in, landing their own planes on the grass landing strip that's still used today. Guest Guy Knolle first touched down here in 1967, and has been coming back ever since. "I will never forget coming down the Gallatin River at 10,000 feet, topping the ridges, and seeing the ranch sprawling out below along the Taylor Fork," he wrote. "It was an easy landing, and a big thrill to taxi up and receive a warm welcome from everyone."

Knolle usually left the airplane parked for most of the week, as he and his wife Sue spent the days fishing in the pristine Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River, which runs right through the ranch. They also loved to ride and the horses were always Appaloosas.

The Appaloosa Tradition

Howard Kelsey started the Appaloosa tradition, following in the footsteps of the Nez Perce Indians, credited with originating the breed. Known for their beautiful spotted coloring, endurance, tough hoofs and many other excellent attributes, the Appaloosas kept Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce a step ahead of the U.S. Army during most of the tribe's desperate attempt to flee to Canada during their war of 1877. The trail that summer came near the ranch property. "That history is pretty unique," declared Kim Kelsey of the legacy left by the Nez Perce and his father. "And they're damn good mountain horses. They'll take you over and through stuff that you won't believe and they're tougher than a nail."

youngcowboy4079The morning of the drive we were at a fast trot from the moment I swung into the saddle on the back of my new friend, King. I was the first rider King had had since the ranch season ended last fall and that's one of the practical reasons the Nine Quarter puts on this drive. "It takes the edge off ‘em (the horses) a little bit," saod Kim. "If you're gonna have dudes on ‘em that first week, you gotta ride ‘em down a little bit."

The horse drive also helps break in the new crew of wranglers, most of whom will be spending their first season at the ranch. "You find out what your wranglers are made of," said head wrangler Dan Thompson. "You drop ‘em in a herd of horses... it's a whole new environment... it's a new ball game."

Of course you'd never get hired as a wrangler here if you didn't already have lots of miles horseback and the half dozen cowgirls and cowboys who'd come here from all over the country to ride for this brand for the season found themselves loving the drive. "This is a new experience, smiled Mississippi native Cooper Dixon as we rode along. "But I'm definitely enjoying it! First time I've pushed horses across country like this."

We spent much of the morning on dirt roads that cut through the beautiful ranch country of southwest Montana. After stopping for lunch, we threw our saddles on fresh mounts, then headed off through Ted Turner's Flying D buffalo ranch, around 250,000 acres of spectacular American West. A herd of bison huddled in the distance as we started out that afternoon. A few flakes of snow were in the air, along with the threat of a heavy downpour. And while we could sometimes see sheets of rain ahead of us, and off to the side, we stayed dry. The trail was wet and often muddy. But my second horse, Sam, was a sure footed wonder with two speeds-fast and faster! Man, that was fun!

ranchhouse280"It doesn't get any more real West than this!," grinned fellow rider and Kelsey family friend Jeff Rieger. The horse drive happens the week before the ranch opens, and it's too unpredictable to be opened up to regular guests.

Jeff Rieger became friends with the Kelseys as a guest. The 50-something Californian first started coming to the Nine Quarter with his family as a young boy. His mom would drive the kids to the ranch for vacation, while his busy physician father would join them later, flying his private plane in on the grass landing strip. "It's got a lot of history for me," he shared. "I spent my childhood there-and nothin's changed. Nothin's changed."

"He was just the cutest little kid!," remembered Mary Ellen Fitzgerald who worked at the ranch for Howard Kelsey in the early 1960s, and still helps out occasionally. "When I left and came back 30 years later, it was like walking back into my childhood. And I think that's the way it is for everybody."

Nine Quarter's Appeal

That's a big part of the appeal of the Nine Quarter, a place where cell phones don't work, there's no phone in the room, and no television. "It's exactly the way my dad had it goin' back in the '50s," said Kim. "Nicer beds and nicer quilts and things like that . But the overall concept is still pretty true to form."

The pleasures here are simple. Well kept, rustic cabins with a wood burning stove. Comfort food served family style. An evening softball game in a meadow, where the kids get as many swings it takes to hit the ball. A barbecue steak dinner around the fire. A game of checkers on the deck. Giggling children on a horseback ride.

"Of all the things we've done-and we've done, I think, some nice things with our daughters, England and France and things like that-this is it!," said Clyde Wetzel of Washington state, "This is the best vacation and we're coming back next year."

All of this takes place in one of the most beautiful and wild areas of the West, where the wildlife includes deer and elk and the buffalo still roam free in nearby Yellowstone. I even got a close up look at a baby buffalo at the Turner corrals where our 30-mile horse drive came to an end that day. The highway to Yellowstone is too busy to drive the Appaloosas all the way to the ranch, so they're trucked the last few miles to their summer home.

Those precious young foals were already there when I woke up at the ranch the next morning, trotting close by their mother's side. Great place for a horse to grow up, the Nine Quarter Circle. And perhaps no better place for families to grow together as well.

Nine Quarter Circle Ranch is a member of
The Dude Ranchers' Association which was formed in 1926 to preserve this special way of life and the wonderful environment in which dude ranching takes place. When you vacation at a Dude Ranchers' Association Dude Ranch, you can be sure of a quality vacation. Membership in the Association is a rigorous two-year inspection and approval process, to assure that guests are treated to genuine Western hospitality combined with the lodging industry's highest standards.

The associaiton's dude ranches offer
all-inclusive vacations that are perfect for everyone, from the littlest rancher to grandpa and grandma. Horseback riding, hiking, petting zoos, swimming holes, rodeos, fishing, games, skeet shooting, archery, art classes, cooking classes and more await your discovery on your next dude ranch vacation. Horses, hats, history and hospitality-they're the foundation of every ranch.

For More information about Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, visit or call (866) 399-2339.


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