Looking Back Over the Years
The Cattle Drive and The Story-Murphy Sheep Partnership (1866 – 1928)
Nelson Story – a self-made titan of the Montana frontier and builder of modern-day Bozeman – made way from the gold fields of Virginia City to Texas and purchased a herd of an estimated 1,000 longhorn cattle branded with an ox yoke on the left rib. He drove them from Texas to the grazing grounds of Montana Territory in 1866, a story which became the premise of the famed Western novel Lonesome Dove. The 2,100-mile cattle drive was the first into Montana. Story wintered the herd in Paradise Valley on grazing lands that would pass through four generations of Storys, including the grounds that would become Mountain Sky Guest Ranch.
Eventually, Nelson’s son T.B., rancher John “Pop” Murphy and his son Charlie Murphy partnered to form a sheep operation in 1919. The Story family knew Big Creek as a handy and beautiful place to winter cattle out of the wind and drifting snow, and the location sprang to mind as T.B. looked to dude ranching to supplement their struggling sheep operation. The partners visited nearby dude ranches to develop a plan and started building the Ox Yoke Ranch, named for the brand marking Nelson Story’s cattle during that historic drive.
The Ox Yoke Ranch (1929 – 1977)
Built from 1929 – 1930, the Ox Yoke was the first dude ranch in the region to provide guests with “modern conveniences” like bathtubs built into guest quarters and buildings electrified by a small hydroelectric plant that ran off the creek. Charlie Murphy and T.B.’s son Malcolm Story ran the ranch together until their partnership dissolved in 1934. Charlie and his wife Peg took over the Ox Yoke with the help of a silent investor until 1941, when Charlie’s death left Peg to keep the ranch afloat. She did so with tenacity and fortitude, managing to stay open even during World War II. Charlie and Peg’s son Jim eventually took over the Ox Yoke along with his wife Gayle. The Ox Yoke remained under Murphy family ownership until 1977, when after three generations, they sold the ranch to outfitter Dennis Fishbaugher. The Murphy family carries the Ox Yoke brand today, where they remain just down the road in Emigrant.
The Rising Sun Ranch (1977 – 1979)
Dennis Fishbaugher renamed the ranch the “Rising Sun” and created the iconic rising sun brand that we still use today, drawing inspiration from the view of the sunrise. “If you sit on the front porch early in the morning and watch the sun rise behind Emigrant Peak and pour down the Big Creek valley, it comes up in that ‘V’. Everyone should sit right there and watch the sun rise.” He sold the ranch after a short time to Dan Brutger, a builder, contractor and developer from St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch (1979 – Present Day)
Dan’s background proved extremely useful as he immediately set about improving the property. Renamed “Mountain Sky,” old cabins were placed on solid foundations, new cabins were added, the road through the property rerouted, and neighboring land was purchased. In 1986, Dan approached his son Alan about taking over management of the ranch, and Alan saw an opportunity to turn the dude ranch into an updated version of Western accommodation, that is, a guest ranch. Catering to young families, the ranch started to look more like it does today with the addition of children’s programming, an increased guest capacity and a genuine approach to customer service fostered by Alan, his wife Mary, and general manager Shirley Arsenault. Renowned horseman Buck Brannaman (aka The Horse Whisperer) provided staff training and helped provide the foundation for the Mountain Sky horse program.
At the end of the 2001 season, the Brutgers sold Mountain Sky to guest Arthur Blank, who wanted to keep it running as a guest ranch, but saw an opportunity to enhance the operation. Under his ownership, Mountain Sky has more to offer than ever – new facilities, expanded activities, unspoiled acreage – but has retained the core experiences that first drew guests to Paradise Valley back when the ranch was the Ox Yoke and the guests were dudes.