Rock fences unveil family stories in Bitterroot

In 'Montana Moment' we explore the Rock Fences of the Bitterroot. All over the west side rock walls mark property lines, separate livestock and act as "fences that last forever." These beautiful walls symbolize the hard work and ingenuity of their builders.

After the last glacial ice age 12 to 13,000 years ago granite rocks flowed in massive streams from the Bitterroot Mountains onto the valley floor.

More than 100 years ago those rocks were put to good use by farm families on the west side.

Wade Barnett's great-grandparents bought a farm off Ricketts Road in 1938.

It was rocky country.

But without the rocks it grew vegetables and berries.

It produced a great deal of corn for the animals.

It nurtured dairy cows for years.

To create their dairy farm Yugoslavian immigrant Mitch Lepetich and his wife Mary knew what to do with the rocks.

One thing their great-grandson Wade learned is that rock fences " last forever."

Mitch built rock fences to clear the land for farming and to separate livestock.

"The rock wall goes from one end of 58 acres to another," said Barnett. "The farm's completely surrounded by rock walls."

Rock walls stretch across the landscape all over the west side of the Bitterroot.

Kerrie Holmes showed NBC Montana the rock wall on the small farm she grew up on.

Standing on the massive old fence Holmes said, "this is just one section of the wall that surrounds a whole 18 acres."

We met Kerrie's mother Pat Holmes who stood by the plow of the original owner.

"He farmed strawberries and corn," said Pat. " And he took it in his wagons all the way to Butte."

Butte was a major market for Bitterroot produce farmers.

They needed to clear as much land as possible to make as much money as they could.

The old-time farmers built rock fences for practical purposes.

"It was much easier to stack the walls and use them as a fence than it was to haul them off back in the day," said Barnett, " because we didn't have heavy equipment."

Today, Kerrie lives on her own place on the west side.

It has its own rock wall that stretches a long way from west to east.

The rocks were just piled here.

It's beautiful but it wasn't built for decoration.

"This one is all natural," said Holmes, " and the stuff that's on top of it is from the weather."

You can see from all the lichen these rocks have been here a long time.

Embedded in the wall are old pots and tin cans that have probably been there more than a century.

The wall provides good hunting habitat for Holmes' cat.

She caught a mouse while we were there.

Wade Barnett's dog Bear loves exploring his wall for small animals.

Since he was a boy Barnett has been fascinated with the wildlife and how they interact with each other in and around the rock fences.

"From the hawks to the coyotes to the foxes," he said. Everything is connected, he said. The farm animals and Bear, the farmers who work the land and Blodgett Canyon to the west.

Pointing to the canyon he said, "everything we're standing on was part of the mountains at one point."

As a kid Wade learned there might be one kind of animal on one side of the fence and "something completely different on the other side."

Picking up a rock, he said, "everyone of these rocks has a little micro-environment where the lichens are living."

He calls such discoveries "priceless."

Barnett takes us to another wall farther east on the farm.

It's more wore down than the other walls and is shaded in trees and brush.

"It's one of the older rock walls," he said, "and you can see how nature has tried to reclaim itself."

Farther north there's the beginnings of a wall that was never completed.

There are just a few rocks here, said Wade, because it's at a higher elevation and there's more topsoil.

Picking up a small rock here he said, "it's what was left of many years of collecting but there weren't enough rocks to make a large rock wall."

Wade and other family members have added new rocks to the fences over the years.

Wade's mother Chelly Bates recounts a family story of her mother Mildred.

Chelly said when her mom wanted to learn how to drive Mitch told her to go out in the pasture and practice driving, but to make sure she brought back a load of rocks.

"It's part of our family heritage," said Wade. "The rocks symbolize that."

He said his great-grandfather invested his life into making the farm productive until he died.

" He passed away at the end of the driveway," said Wade. " Working on a fence. That's what made him happy."

Mitch Lepetich left his legacy of hard work in the rock walls of the Bitterroot."

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