Wisherd descendants protect Blackfoot Valley property

Bonnie Jean Brewer pictured with her horse, Blue, on the family property in the Blackfoot Valley in 1941. (Photo courtesy of Five Valleys Land Trust)

By Martin Kidston

Thirty minutes after signing a conservation easement on her Blackfoot Valley property, Grace Brewer reflected upon her youth: how she’d spent summers on the farm where her grandfather grew blue-ribbon rutabagas and her mother worked a fabled raspberry patch.

Her grandparents, Arthur and Grace Wisherd, arrived from Illinois to homestead the slice of property in the early 1900s. In those early days, they lived without electricity or running water – cold in the deep shadows of the Blackfoot Canyon.

“Even when my mother was growing up, there was no electricity or running water,” said Brewer. “They were truly subsistence farmers. My family has been down in that field, with the exception of the last seven years, every day of almost 100 years.”

On Friday afternoon, Brewer fulfilled her mother’s wish, joining members of the Five Valleys Land Trust in signing a conservation easement that protects the Wisherd-Blackfoot Canyon Conservation Easement in perpetuity. It proved to be an emotional moment, one that brought memories of the past flooding in.

Her mother, Bonnie Jean Brewer, would be proud.

“I feel there’s a multi-generational legacy there,” said Brewer. “What I’ve been taught at a very young age about the land is that it worked very well as a single-family farm, and it wasn’t meant to be subdivided. Our family’s intention was to continue to honor the legacy of this property.”

Brewer’s grandparents settled the farm on the banks of the Blackfoot River and persisted through challenging times. When they needed extra money, they’d sell a hog or a cow. Arthur Wisherd raised horses to aid in the region’s logging operations before they became mechanized.

Arthur and Grace Wisherd

When the horses fell out of favor, he switched to cash crops.

“When the Depression hit, people from Missoula would come out and work on the farm,” said Brewer. “They would come out and work a day in exchange for meals. My grandfather was known as the rutabaga king.”

Brewer’s mother was born in 1923 and spent her early days on the farm. She joined the Marine Corps during World War II before earning her college education and going to work in San Francisco as a mechanical engineer.

She took ownership of the family farm when her parents passed away. Her plan was never in doubt; she would work the land just as her father did.

“Her goal was to become an organic farmer and revamp that same field that her father worked all those years,” said Brewer. “She had a fond memory of them raising berries growing up, so she raised raspberries and sold them to the dude ranches up the Blackfoot. She also had ‘you-pick’ at Bonnie’s Berry Farm.”

The sign indicating the you-pick operation has all but faded, though the memories of those days linger in Brewer’s thoughts. Her mother worked the fields into her mid-80s. She passed away last November, placing Friday’s signing near the first anniversary of her death.

“I was emotional signing the papers,” said Brewer. “My family went down to the field and put their hands in the dirt for almost 100 years. It made me feel very honored to be part of this family and to be carrying on this legacy.”

At a celebration ceremony after the signing, Vickie Edwards passed Brewer a framed photo of her mother working the farm’s raspberry patch. It was a small token of appreciation for what Edwards sees as a thoughtful decision to place the property into protection.

“It’s not just the scenic views from Highway 200, it’s along the Blackfoot River as well,” said Edwards, a conservation project manager with Five Valleys Land Trust. “When you’re floating down that stretch of the river and you see that open space and those rocky cliffs, those views are going to be conserved in perpetuity. It’s a great conservation project.”

Over the past few years, Five Valleys Land Trust has worked with Brewer and the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, as well as others, to put the $135,000 easement together.map

The property, which includes nearly 2,500 feet of Blackfoot River frontage, adjoins U.S. Forest Service land and a portion of the Clearwater-Blackfoot Project. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation holds property across the river.

Edwards sees the easement as a big step in preserving key wildlife habitat. It’s home to bears and turkeys, as well as the Bonner bighorn sheep herd. The rocky crags provide prized lambing habitat, while the river runs cold and clear.

“It provides that localized habitat, but also, when you look at forest carnivores and omnivores, it adds to the large landscapes they need to survive and for healthy populations,” said Edwards. “This provides an integral component of that broad landscape, filling that niche, and ensuring minimal development happens here.”

Before her passing last year, Bonnie Jean Brewer often worried about the property’s future – what would happen after she was gone? Those concerns sent Brewer on something of a quest to find out more about easements and her conservation options.

Doing anything less, she said, was never a question.

“It made me feel very honored to be part of this family and to be carrying on this legacy,” she said.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com