Renaissance man of Big Sky
Ken Morton is an aviator, sailor, mechanic, ham radio operator and wildlife refuge creator
Not many people can claim they once landed a plane on Highway 191, took out some power lines and narrowly dodged an r.v. – but Ken Morton can. He only slightly missed longtime local Woody the Woodlord before coming to a halt across the road from the 320 Ranch. He did not know until he clamored out of his plane that there was a professional witness – a World War II fighter pilot who told him that was one of the best dead stick landings he had ever seen. So, shortly after the harrowing, heart-pounding experience Morton was asked to be in photos with the WWII veteran and his wife. They posed beside the high performance plane Morton had rebuilt himself – with power lines still wrapped around the wing. A tiny chunk of ice floating in the fuel tank had intermittently plugged the fuel and was the culprit for his brush with death.
He takes particular pleasure in harnessing the wind – whether with aviation or sailing. His respect for the natural world permeates nearly every area of his life.
Morton is not a man of many words, but he has lived in the community for 42 years. His stories of the old outlaw days of Big Sky are as entertaining as they are surprising. He regularly chuckled as he told the tale of a longtime local who would periodically feel spry at the bar now occupied by the Gallatin Riverhouse. His friend would feel like playing pool and instead of lining-up quarters like everyone else, he would take off his cowboy hat, toss it in the middle of the pool table and interrupt a pool game. A “Roadhouse” level fight would erupt – chairs would fly, punches would be thrown. It was lawless chaos – and it was fun.
Morton looks like he walked straight out of a Western novel, but was actually raised on an island off of southern New Jersey called Stone Harbor that is half a mile wide and seven miles long. He worked on celebrity cars and boats at a Sinclair gas station as a kid.
He eventually made his way to working as the equipment supervisor for the City of San Diego before traveling to Montana for a friend’s wedding. That was it for him. He moved to Big Sky as quickly as he could.
That first winter proved a rough introduction to Big Sky.
“My first winter, it was 58 below zero here. I asked Gail Goodrich who used to own the 320 Ranch, ‘Is this normal? What have I done?’ I wouldn’t trade anything for the world. This is the best place I can think of and I’ve been just about anywhere,” he said.
When he first bought the five acres where his auto shop and home now reside, he sometimes had trouble making the payments – because “there was nobody here back in the late 70s and 80s – there was no money.”
A thriving barter system existed in the community because it was hard to make a living.
“The quality of life has gotten better monetarily and I’m slowly adjusting to all the new people,” he said.
A strategic, long-term thinker, his wife says he is brilliant and has a mind like a steel trap. His hobbies reflect that: pilot, sailor, ham radio operator.
It took him years to build the NAPA auto shop, but he did – bit by bit. As time went by, he grew his business from one tow truck to a fleet. He was the first on the scene to accidents in those early days before there were any guardrails or rumble strips in the canyon; before the Big Sky Fire Department grew and Search and Rescue became what it is today. He lost friends. Those days sometimes haunt him.
The life he has built in Big Sky has not been without sacrifice, but the friendships forged with salty characters and people unencumbered by the trappings of city life have allowed a kind of quiet that would be unknown to him anywhere else. Though he still loves to travel and appreciates the freedom his plane affords.
He builds things – painstakingly. His patience and skills allow for him to have costly hobbies for a fraction of the price. He rebuilt a sailboat – now docked in Mexico – worthy of cruising around the world. It took him seven years to build his cabin by the Gallatin River – he found and felled the logs himself – including standing dead trees at Lone Mountain Ranch that were well over 500 years old.
“This piece of property warrants the best I could afford. I couldn’t afford it, so I did it in increments. I’d make a little money at the shop, come back here and work on the house a little bit,” he said.
He noted that it is a oneof-a-kind piece of property with three hundred feet of riverfront.
“To build a stick built home here wouldn’t do the property justice. It needed to be a real Swedish cope hand-drawn knifed log home. Everything is notched and scribed together. It is kind of a lost art,” he said.
Creating this type of home today would be “horribly expensive”. He had the help of a longtime resident named Dougie – well known in town for wearing short shorts which locals deemed “Dougie Dukes” – he is one of Big Sky’s characters and also a draw-knife expert.
“Dave Devlaeminck was building these special homes up here. I wanted something with thick walls, so in the winter it can be 40 below and blowing, you can’t hear it and the house stays warm on the inside. We tipped the crane over putting one of the logs in the roof that goes the full length of the building. Luckily we slid it into place [right when it tipped],” Morton said. “It’s been a long journey.”
It took time, but he has a deep respect for the land and felt that the property deserved a home that honored it.
Coming from metropolitan areas, his hard-won oasis by the river is a refuge, not just for he and his family, but for the animals that live upon it. He formally made the land a wildlife refuge and has a sign displayed: “Do not enter with gun, dog, axe or trap; No fires allowed; All birds, animals and plants are protected in this sanctuary. Your cooperation will be appreciated.