John William “Pat” McDonald, Jr. was born on February 27, 1927, to John William “Big Mac” McDonald and Sarah “Agnes” (Maehl) McDonald at the family ranch in Philipsburg in the same room where his father was born in 1895. 

He resided his entire life on the ranch, attending the local grade school and graduating from Granite High School in 1945. His early years on the ranch were spent helping with haying, cutting post and poles, taking care of the cows, breaking horses, fishing, and hunting. He was active in 4-H and Boy Scouts, becoming a First Class Scout in 1940 and earned badges in Cooking, Public Health, Horsemanship and Civics. His high school years were busy with being a proud member of the high school basketball team that brought home the Clarks Fork Independent Basketball Championship in 1950.

Pat was fascinated by aviation and at the age of 20 learned to fly, practicing his take-offs and landings in nearby hayfields. He would fly to Missoula for parts for machinery and especially liked flying over the Sapphire Mountain range, taking pictures of mountain lakes and eventually to impress a young lady from the “Root.” In 1951, Pat met Esther Johnson at the Top Cut Bull Sale in Missoula where he was selling registered Hereford bulls. This started a two-year courtship that involved multiple fly overs of Esther’s ranch in the West Fork of the Bitterroot River and a letter writing campaign that provided a rich history of Pat’s early years. Many of these letters were saved by Esther. One such letter, simply addressed to Esther Johnson, Darby Montana with a Triangle as the return address (the Ranch brand) read “In case you are wondering what I was doing over Darby the other day I went to Missoula after some parts so took a slight detour on the way to see how things were going up in the “Root.” Sure, had a rough ride home as it was kind of rough flying, (July 23, 1953). Another letter dated June 8, 1953, stated “If I am going to have three women wave at me every time I come to the Root I guess that I will have to make a trip over there every night. I knew that this flying was getting better all the time. You may not know it, but you are talking to the gent who taught Issac Walton the art of fishing. The gear that I use isn’t exactly smiled upon by the Fish and Game Department, but it is mighty effective”. Pat and Esther (2023 MCHF Inductee) were married on November 28, 1953, in Hamilton. They spent nearly 65 years together, running the ranch and raising their eight children.

In August of 1953, Pat shipped a single train load of feeder steers to Montgomery, Illinois, twenty-three box cars, delivered early because of their weight. He also managed the ranch’s seasonal hired hands. Coming from all walks of life, as many as 15-20 men were needed to put up the hay. On one occasion, Pat wrote about the crew in a letter to his future wife, Esther, “If it don’t rain in the next ten days we should be through haying, that is if I can bully the crew into staying on the job. We have got a couple of winos and if they don’t have their bottle handy, they are not worth a dam. There are a couple of old Butte miners, and they look to me like they are dead and forgot to lay down.” In addition to ranching, Pat ventured into numerous enterprises and adventures throughout his life. He was stricken with gold fever at an early age and was a partner in several mining properties. He owned and operated a sawmill, raised and sold hay from a ranch in Washington, dabbled in politics, and owned a flying service that included his favorite plane, an open cockpit Stearman. Pat and his friends, Jess Evans and Cleve Metcalf, were pioneering snowmobilers. They hooked their small Ski-Doo Elan snowmobiles together, giving them the extra power needed to access remote areas of the Frog Pond Basin south of Philipsburg. On more than one occasion they found themselves spending the night in the backcountry, because the day got away from them, but they were always well prepared because they had customized the snowmobiles to carry supplies. 

Pat possessed a wealth of knowledge on water issues in Montana. He was a staunch defender of the ranch’s water rights and became very involved in the adjudication process for water rights in the Flint Creek Valley. He and his wife, Esther, were defendants in a case that went before the Montana Supreme Court in 1986 (McDonald v. State). The case dealt with pre-1973 water rights not historically expressed in terms of volume or acre-feet but expressed as a flow rate. The outcome of their case ultimately recognized that under certain conditions such as dry years, porous soils, etc. and the amount of water required to meet historical beneficial use could exceed the volume fixed in a final decree.

In his later years, he enjoyed hunting gophers, spraying weeds, gathering firewood, snowmobiling, riding his four-wheeler, and hosting the annual Memorial Day gathering of family and friends at the ranch.

Pat had a lifelong interest in the history of the Flint Creek Valley and Montana in general, until his passing on November 15, 2017. He loved to reminisce and share stories about the early days on the ranch. He was a sports fan and spent many hours watching his children and grandchildren. He enjoyed coffee with his friends, hosting hunters on the ranch and taking photos with the camera that was always in his shirt pocket. Pat was generous to family, friend, and stranger alike. He supported the Granite County Museum, 4-H programs, and the agriculture industry, which all promotes and preserves our Western heritage.

His greatest pride was the family ranch, which was homesteaded in 1868, by his grandfather’s great aunt Henrietta Schnepel and remains in the family 156 years later. 


  • McDonald Family Records
  • Missoulian (Missoula, MT) August 16, 1953, page 12