About six months ago, Matthew LaRubbio and Meredith Turner were driving through a snowstorm in Oregon when they got word that they'd be the next caretakers of the Moon-Randolph Homestead in Missoula's North Hills. The couple had been eyeing the property for seven years, their minds filling with ideas on how to improve one of the area's most overlooked historic landmarks. "We had always known it peripherally and had always had ideas about, if we lived here, what we'd want to do," Turner says, adding that living full time on the homestead the last month has been "all we could ask for in life right now."
As the duo reminisces, they're interrupted by the bleating of two four-week-old goats that have been dogging their every step for the past hour. Sunlight filters through the freshly pruned branches of an apple orchard that up until last month had gone wild. A pair of pigs nap in the shade of a lean-to. LaRubbio and Turneraided by visiting school childrenhave planted rows of squash, potatoes and other veggies in a garden nearby.
The couple has already scratched quite a few items off their personal to-do list, but in the coming week LaRubbio and Turner will see how the community wants to shape their new home. The North Missoula Community Development Corp. and other stakeholders have scheduled a May 18 public meeting to discuss revisions to the 10-year-old strategic plan that guides management of the property.
"A good bit of what's in here actually has been accomplished now, and I don't see much that's obsolete," says NMCDC Executive Director Bob Oaks of the existing plan. "But this is a good time to come up with a new to-do list."
Oaks says the goal of the May 18 public meeting is to strike-out items that have now been accomplished such as the refurbishment of the old Randolph residence and repairs to the root cellar, and update the document with new priorities. Those may include everything from increased educational programming to establishing an on-site water source. Ultimately, however, Oaks and others hope to let citizens drive the discussion on what the next 10 years will hold for the homestead.
"It's such a huge place, and it does belong to the city," Turner says. "So we should all be contributing to all these awesome ideas."
Public awareness is the first hurdle the homestead will need to overcome this month. The property lies just over the rise of the North Hills, up a large draw east of the city landfill. But in their short time on the property, LaRubbio and Turner have had a number of curious locals wander down from the Waterworks Hill trail and inquire about the collection of hardscrabble old buildings.
"There's so many people that we run into that have never heard of the place," LaRubbio says. "That's one of the biggest issues here is promotion, and that's one of the things I think I personally can help to do is give this place a face and get some advertising out there."
Turner adds that the mystery is "part of the charm" of the homestead, but that the property's future depends on public awareness and input regarding its value to the community.
For Philip Maechling, who recently retired as Missoula's historic preservation officer, the most obvious topic to revisit is fundraising. The homestead used to rely heavily on a core of committed citizens called the Hill and Homestead Preservation Coalition, founded in 1998. But that oversight group has quietly dissolved, leaving grant writing and other administrative tasks to either the caretakers or NMCDC.
"Fundraising is a point we need to get back to more actively," Maechling says. "We haven't been doing it much in the recent past." He adds that the property's addition to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010one of the original goals of the 2003 strategic plancould lend more heft to fundraising efforts.
LaRubbio, a local graphic artist, and Turner, a swing-shift nurse at St. Patrick Hospital, are the latest in a long line of caretakers at the 470-acre Randolph family homestead, which the city purchased in 1996. Jennifer Barrett and Chris Kailing were hired to the position last year, but left this spring when Barrett got a job in Saskatchewan. The caretakers aren't paid, and money for even small improvement projects is tight.
"We're not even on a shoestring budget here," LaRubbio says. "We don't have laces."
The new caretakers have been able to get started on their own short-term goals. They've discussed creating a farm-to-table program in partnership with Burns St. Bistro. LaRubbio wants to host more workshops like the tree-grafting one recently held in the orchard, and attract volunteer help for improving some of the animal infrastructure at the homestead. Perhaps the biggest item on LaRubbio's to-do list is to revitalize the Hill and Homestead Preservation Coalition and create "a new generation of people who give a shit about this place."
He's hoping the May 18 meeting will mark the beginning of that movement.