Community Agriculture Alliance: Mad Creek Barn symbolizes new era in Routt County history
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When you hike to the Mad Creek Barn this fall, try to imagine what life might have been like for James “Harry” Ratliff and Mary Blackburn, homesteaders of the Mad Creek Valley 118 years ago. The barn is all that remains of their homestead and is a tangible symbol of the Park Range Forest Reserve. It helps tell the story of the transition from the open range days of the “Wild West” to organized land management by the U.S. Forest Service.
Newlyweds Harry and Mary Ratliff homesteaded the Mad Creek Valley in 1903. In addition to their cabin and outhouse, they built several outbuildings, corral and a barn for their horses using timber they harvested on the ridge east of their home. They raised 75 to 100 cattle along the creek.
Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., Congress established the Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture in 1905. The agency’s mission was simple: to “provide quality water and timber for the Nation’s benefit.” Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, summarized its purpose another way: “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”
That same year, President Theodore Roosevelt established what is now the Routt National Forest by proclamation, bringing 757,116 acres into the Park Range Forest Reserve. In 1907, the reserve was significantly enlarged and included the Mad Creek area.
In a letter he wrote to Gifford Pinchot in 1941, Harry Ratliff recalled the day he read the proclamation, studied a map and found that his land was an inholding within the expanded Forest Reserve. Ratliff, like many local stockmen, was skeptical of the Park Range Forest Reserve. He was used to the open range tradition, when cattle ranching was unregulated and ranchers grazed large herds with little thought to resource sharing, overgrazing and all the other elements of land stewardship ranchers consider today.
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Imagine Ratliff’s surprise when he learned he was volunteered by his neighbors and fellow stockmen to be the forest guard of Park Range Forest Reserve. After receiving encouragement from folks who expected Ratliff to be sympathetic to their interests, he took the job.
Ratliff served as forest guard from 1908 to 1914. Reflecting on his time, he said, “I entered the Forest Service ignorant of its purpose and opposed to its policy.”
But after gaining experience on the job, he came to understand the purpose of the agency and respect the resource conservation mission. This would have been a difficult job. He left Mary to manage the ranch on Mad Creek, while he rode the forest preserve to meet stakeholders to help them understand and comply with the new regulations. He described having “about 24 arguments a day and losing half of them.”
Harry Ratliff was effective in his role as forest guard. During his tenure, he gained the trust of many cattle ranchers. He implemented a permitting system to prevent overgrazing and regulated the amount of timber harvested to conserve the resource. He also helped smooth conflicts between ranchers and sheep herders in the context of Colorado’s “Range Wars.”
Ratliff faced legal challenges and frequent conflict associated with his job. In 1914, he resigned his job and sold the homestead and livestock to pay his legal expenses. He and Mary moved to Vernal, Utah, where he had some success in business.
The Ratliff property was privately owned until 1979, when the Forest Service purchased the inholding. In 2000, Historic Routt County and the Forest Service partnered to rehabilitate the barn. It remains a portal into this fascinating story.
Emily Katzman is executive director of Historic Routt County.
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