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Ranch History

If this land could talk, the Sweet Grass and neighboring Otter Creek Ranch properties would have many tales to tell…

Van Cleves before the automobile age

Otter Creek Ranch

In 1880, the Van Cleve family first homesteaded the area around Mellville, Montana, setting aside land for cattle operations and establishing the area as an integral part of the dude ranching industry. Paul Van Cleve II (known to his grandchildren as Scrumper) ran the cattle ranching operation at Otter Creek Ranch as the family’s main enterprise for many years.

Portions of the land that would become Sweet Grass Ranch were already owned by the Van Cleves, and in the early 1950s, the family purchased land and buildings from the Brannins for summer grazing of their cattle. In 1965, they sold the Sweet Grass Ranch to their granddaughter Shelly Carroccia and her husband Bill, who ran it as a summer kids’ camp and then as a guest ranch. In 1972, when the Van Cleves decided to retire from ranching, they sold the cattle operation at Otter Creek Ranch to the Carroccia family as well, and Shelly and Bill built their house at Otter Creek themselves, moved the kids to the school at Melville, and began cattle ranching full time.

Sweet Grass Ranch

Starting in 1889, the Brannin family made their way from New Mexico with 13 children, an army of horses, and a herd of goats, settling on the land adjoining the Van Cleve lands. The Brannin brothers, Staunton and Sid, ranched here, as self-sufficient as their neighbors. They built the homestead house, which slept 17 people, and later added an “L” shaped addition, which ran back to a water spigot and then north to the den for a “pet” bear they kept.

Across the creek on the flat, for a few years, the Brannins held rodeos on Sundays during the summer for all the local cowboys. They had some pretty wild shows before the more formal Melville Rodeo got its start, run by Paul Van Cleve. The brothers raised their Angora goats, cut hay across the creek on the benches, and built the main house as a family home in the early 1920s. In the 1930’s, they decided to diversify into the guest ranching business, building nine cabins and a shower house.

Paul Van Cleve II purchased the ranch from the Brannins in the early 1950s and sold it to his granddaughter Shelly Carroccia and her husband Bill in 1965. They named the combined mountain lands Sweet Grass Ranch.

Bill, Shelly, J, Page and Rocco, on great old horses: Poetry, Comet, Gidget and Fox

Shelly and Bill, along with their four children, took in kids only for the summers for more than 12 years. While the kids also helped around the ranch, those early days were full of games: snipe hunts, treasure and scavenger hunts, pack trips, kick-the-can, baseball, field hockey, and trips to Yellowstone National Park. As times changed, Bill and Shelly began taking adults and families in the mid-1970s in addition to the teenagers. Some of those first families are still with us today.

Two Ranches in One

When the Carroccias purchased the neighboring Otter Creek Ranch in 1972, they opened their doors to allow guests to take part in the experiences of a working ranch. With Otter Creek Ranch serving as an established cattle operation, and Sweet Grass as a guest ranch, the two ranches complement one another. The cattle graze on the Sweet Grass Ranch lands in the summers, and Sweet Grass guests take part in the everyday cattle operations and cattle drives.

Over the years, our family has taken care to preserve and maintain the ranch’s historic buildings and untarnished landscape, and the fromer Brannin Ranch, now known as Sweet Grass Ranch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We’ve been fortunate to live here and share our history and place with wonderful guests, many returning year after year and new guests welcomed each year to experience Sweet Grass. We hope they all feel like part of our family. Our family has made life long friends with our guests, and we’ve thrived on being able to share a piece of Montana history and experiences with them.


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"You can see what man made from the seat of an automobile, but the best way to see what God made is from the back of a horse."

- Charles M. Russell



From Trip Advisor: (Linda S., San Mateo, CA) “BEST VACATION DESTINATION EVER-FEELS LIKE GOING HOME EACH YEAR” My father first brought me along with him Sweet Grass Ranch in 1986, after he had been there the two years prior. We have not missed a year returning to this place... more


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460 Rein Lane
Big Timber, MT 59011
Office: (406) 537-4477
Cell: (406) 930-5441