Before it became the Madison Meadows golf course and Valley Garden Golf Village, Valley Garden Ranch was a stretch of ranchland with a diverse history, from polo horses to cattle. Toni Bowen, who lives in the golf course development now, decided to research the story earlier this year. Dan Leadbetter and his wife, Deb, took over the Valley Garden Ranch from Deb’s parents in 1971. Dan would later donate 80 acres of the property to the project that would become the Madison Meadows golf course. (Jill Connolly)Dan Leadbetter (right), owner of the Valley Garden Ranch and one of the minds behind the Madison Meadows golf course and Valley Garden Golf Village, surveys his domain with a friend, their horses and Leadbetter’s trusty dogs. (photos courtesy of Jill Connolly)

Uncovering history

Toni Bowen couldn’t find the story she wanted to read, so she wrote it herself

ENNIS—Earlier this year, Toni Bowen tried to look up the history of the Madison Meadows Golf Course, and by extension, the ranch that had been there for decades before the golf course came to be. She was simply interested out of curiosity, but quickly became shocked to find that there was nothing, anywhere, about the history of the golf course, the development it houses or the ranch it had once been.

“I’ve lived here for 25 years, and there’s nothing about the history of how the golf course came about, or how it was involved in Valley Garden Ranch,” says Bowen. “I was just flabbergasted when I couldn’t find anything on this.”

Bowen lives in the very first house that was built on the golf course, having bought and remodeled it last year. She also knows Dan Leadbetter, one of the men responsible for the project in the first place. 

She began by consulting the Madison Valley History Association, which keeps meticulous records, relics, photographs and stories of the history of Madison County and its communities. They didn’t have anything on the area she was interested in. 

So, she went farther back, consulting Madison County’s archives, old land purchase deeds and even the Montana Pioneer Book, a directory and anthology of the families who settled the Last Best Place, well back into the 1800s. Curiosity drove her to every source she could think of.

Soon, she set about writing the story she couldn’t find anywhere else. 


“Madison Meadows and Valley Garden Golf Village—A History”

By Toni Bowen

According to James Spray in “Early Days in the Madison Valley,” a gentleman by the name of Wetmore Hodges purchased the famous Valley Garden Ranch, which included the Oliver Ranch and the Sawtell Place, in 1929.  The transaction also included property which Hodges purchased from Ernest Vetter, which he named the Jumping Horse Ranch and where he raised polo-type horses.  In 1948, Hodges sold Valley Garden Ranch to Mr. L. W. Fitzgerald. 

Valley Garden Ranch was purchased by Win-Del Ranches Inc. of Colorado Springs in May 1951.  Win-Del was named for Deb Leadbetter’s parents, Winnie and Del Holbrook. Deb and her husband Dan Leadbetter moved onto the ranch from Colorado in 1957 and took over after Deb inherited the property from her parents.

In the late 1970s, Dan Leadbetter and several of his golf buddies tired of playing the golf courses around the Bozeman area and decided they needed one closer to home. Bob Rice, owner of the Rice Ranches in Harrison, was a friend and fellow golfer of Dan Leadbetter and owned some adjoining ranchland. 

The two decided to donate parts of their respective properties for community use as the golf course they wanted to build. Leadbetter donated 80 acres of hay ground near the Ennis Rodeo grounds and Rice donated 20 acres to the west, making up what is now the 102 acres of golf course property. 

During that time, there was a government program funding public projects by which the government would match land pledged by local communities. The acreage donated by Leadbetter and Rice, plus fifty shares of water rights in the Madison Canal, were enough to get the project approved, and the land was deeded to Madison County. That program later folded, says Leadbetter, now 84 and living in Bozeman, and he doesn’t remember what it was called.

A group of friends and neighbors—Leadbetter and Rice, plus Peter Combs, Elmer Hotvedt, Andy Kelly, Dan Segota, Bob Brand, Clancy Stalcup, Bob Storey and Gene Hanni, among others—hired a golf course architect from Colorado to design the course. The par-36, nine-hole, links-style course opened for play in 1982.  Additions like the clubhouse, tennis courts and maintenance shed were added later with the provided government funds and course revenue.

 The Leadbetters, along with Deb’s mother Winnie, later planned the residential development surrounding the golf course. The subdivision, laid out by Christian Spring Engineering, included a community water system, as the Leadbetters believed the lots would be more valuable if water was included.  The original project took approximately 6 months.  

In 1982, the first phase lots were put on the market for sale in the golf course development.  However, Montana’s economy during the 1980s was in a years-long slump, and while the development had been named Valley Garden Golf Village, there was a write-in vote for “Fool’s Folly” due to lack of interest in the lots.

“It was my first and last subdivision. They didn’t sell,” laughs Leadbetter. “My timing couldn’t have been any worse.”

But he and his board believed the golf course was good for the community and continued to add value by expanding and further developing the course and the subdivision. Over the years it became one of the most populated residential areas in Ennis, with new homes being built every year. 

Madison Meadows continues as a very popular hometown golf course, known around the state for being both fun and challenging. Dan Leadbetter, Bob Rice and their families still have standing lifetime memberships. And what started as a wild idea has become one of Ennis’s most successful community projects.


What’s next?

Now that she’s found the answers to most of her questions—having consulted everything from topographical maps to town ordinances to obituaries—Toni Bowen hopes to record the story of Madison Meadows and the Valley Garden Ranch somewhere it can be read and remembered.

“There used to be a photo and a story of the golf course hanging on the wall in the clubhouse, and one day it disappeared,” she says. “Maybe we can get another story hung up there so people can read it.”

She also plans to donate some of her materials and research to the Madison Valley History Museum, where visitors and researchers like herself can find them. In the meantime, she’s learned the history about the very home she lives in, and the land it sits upon.

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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