A fixture in the Sheep Rock area since the early 1900s, the Cant Ranch house is undergoing a revision as a window into the past. According to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument superintendent Jim Hammett, it's a change that brings new life to the old house.
"The park was established in 1974, so between 1974 and 2004 we (Fossil Beds) operated out of this building. So all of our exhibits, all of our interpretive operations, all of our administration, were out of this building," says Hammett. "One of the problems that we had was that visitors would come to this house and they would want to know who lived here, what went on here, what was the ranch all about; and we'd be trying to interpret paleontology. And it was distracting. It was distracting for the interpreters and I think to a certain degree it was distracting to the public. This park was established to promote understanding of investigations of paleontology."
Hammett, a 30-year veteran in the Park Service, has been superintendent for 10 years.
During the planning stages for the new Paleontology Center in the Thomas Condon Visitor Center just up the hill, plans were made to answer the questions from visitors. The Park Service nominated the Cant Ranch for the National Historic Register.
According to Hammett, "We also were planning to make the conversion here, to where all of the first floor would be dedicated to interpreting early 20th-century ranching theme." The Park Service worked with the High Desert Museum, near Bend, to develop the themes that would be explored in the new exhibits.
These themes include early military operations in the John Day valley, Native Americans living here, the early trappers and explorers and finally the wool and sheep operations.
"I think a lot of visitors, when they get here, want to know, 'How did this guy make enough money to build this house?'" says Hammett. "And what people are surprised to learn is just how much money there really was in wool and sheep in 1910-1930. A lot of it has to do with military uniforms and that they had no synthetics. World War I was in effect and there was just a great need for wool, for blankets and other things. So wool was selling at a comparatively exorbitant price, and you could get rich raising sheep. The Cants did very well in the early days when they were here. So we want to tell that story."
The ranch house started being built in 1914 and construction was finished in 1918. The house was renovated when the Park Service purchased the ranch and again after the paleontology exhibits were moved up the hill.
At this time, only a couple rooms are being used to display the exhibits, although not all of the exhibits are complete. Included is a room displaying furniture used by the Cants. According to Lia Vella, park ranger and site historian for the Park Service, the Cant family has loaned the furniture for exhibit on a long-term basis.
Intermediate-term plans include setting up displays in the barns nearby, but work will need to be done to ensure that access will meet ADA standards. Displays will show the operations of the sheep farm, including the 12 sheep-shearing stalls and the collection of lambing jugs, all in excellent condition.
There are no plans to add a footpath between the Paleontology Center and the Cant Ranch, due to the hazards in crossing State Highway 19 on foot. The State of Oregon is unwilling to lower the speed limit near the house, so the Park Service chose not to build a path.
The Cant Ranch exhibits are now open to the public, and visitors are again welcome to visit the ranch. Hours of operation are from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily through Labor Day; hours during the fall and winter months are yet to be determined. There is no charge to visit either the Cant Ranch or the Thomas Condon Visitor Center. Facilities at the ranch include a picnic area and early 20th-century farm equipment displays, and a path down to the John Day River, although Hammett warns visitors to keep watch for rattlesnakes along the path.
The Thomas Condon Visitor Center is also open, with the paleontology displays moved from the Cant Ranch now in place. New exhibits are planned, although they will not be done until next May. Hammett says they will be top-notch. "They'll knock your socks off!"