Searching for recreational property in the 'last best place' -- as Montana used to be called by some of its old timers -- has sure been an eye opener.
Today Montana folks have become so downright democratic they've got rules for nearly every situation. If you're gonna live amongst them then you'd better become civilized or don't plan on attending the ball.
Some of my ancestors arrived in the woods of Montana just over a hundred years ago. Back then the government would give them a 160 acre homestead as long as they 'proved up' -- built a home and move in -- within five years. All they really needed was a good team of horses, a sharp axe, and a Winchester.
The average pioneer cabin back then was a 14' by 20' wood framed structure with a loft, and it was plenty of room for a family of seven. My grandfathers obtained the lumber as they cleared the land for a garden. They hunted deer and elk, and picked huckleberries all of which were canned and kept in a root cellar. Once they had a garden and a few fruit trees they were pretty much self sufficient.
I have memories of visiting family members in Montana and Idaho that were living without electricity or indoor plumbing as late as the 1950s. Those old timers pretty much started and ended their day with the sunrise and sunset. Heating and cooking was done on a cast iron wood stove, lighting was kerosine lamps, and the outhouse was a hundred feet beyond the back door. Water wells were common enough, and a hand pump was generally located at the kitchen sink.
My dream has been to find a little piece of land where I can experience some of that pioneer lifestyle by living off the land -- at least part time -- I wanted to find a place where I could keep horses, build a modest 14' by 20' cabin, and go hunting and fishing.
But, modern Montanans don't want folks like me. They don't want horses and the flies that accompany them. They don't want cabins less than 600 square feet. And, they don't want me shooting anything decorates their forests.
Montana land developers -- most I suspect originated in Texas or California -- have discovered covenants. Covenants are a democratic tool that makes all folks equal -- that is folks with money. With covenants you can keep out all those annoying horses, motorhomes, pioneer sized cabins, and noisy workshops. With covenants you can protect your property value by guaranteeing no dwelling will be smaller than 2000 square feet. No metal roofs, metal out buildings or bright colors will be allowed.
The internet is a wonderful tool for the land hunter. In a matter of hours you can learn about hundreds of pieces of land for sale. You can search by price, size, and area. You can actually specify an area by city and county. But, the internet is also a dangerous place because a land seller can make a sow's ear look like a silk purse -- some less scrupulous sellers use the same photos of an elk herd grazing, wooded river front, and piney woods for every parcel they have listed.
A property listing may suggest you can bring your horses, build your cabin, and walk across the road to hunt and fish. But, the reality is that you need one acre per horse (if the covenants allow them), the minimum cabin size is 1500 square feet, and the nearest National Forest where hunting is allowed is a 30 minute drive.
I found two pieces of land that appealed to me… One near Missoula was 9.9 acres, but you can't build on it because the covenants require a minimum of 10 acres per dwelling. The other, in Idaho, was perfect. It has a creek, timber, and horses are allowed, but the county building code requires a minimum 1000 square foot dwelling (no metal roofs).
There is plenty of land out there and some of it is priced in my range, so I plan on continuing my online search through the winter.
Next spring I'll pack my canoe and fishing pole and see what some of it looks like.