Ranching the Horn family way on Conger Mesa

Tom Ross
Rose Horn, whose extended family ranches in the far southeastern corner of Routt County, shared stories of the early days on Conger Mesa with an audience Friday at the Tread of Pioneers Museum.
Tom Ross

— The Horn family of far South Routt County is living the ranch life in a way that few families do in the 21st century: with five extended families spread a mile apart from one another on a collection of historic homesteads on the high desert of Conger Mesa.

The ranch is located about a mile north of the Eagle County line and the sleepy town of McCoy, population 35 (if you count every baby).

Rose Horn, 81 and the matriarch of the clan, delighted a room full of history buffs in the Utterback Annex of the Tread of Pioneers Museum on Friday during the first Brown Bag Lecture Series lunch of the summer. Rose gave a recounting of the pioneers who filed their homestead claims and fought to elevate the water of Rock Creek onto the mesa so they could grow hay and barley and nourish their cattle.

“In the early years, they grew lots of potatoes,” Rose said. “They tended to have large families back then because there was lots of sagebrush to grub.”

Today, the Horn family lifestyle is one where four adult brothers (and a grandson) gather daily for lunch at their mother’s home. They and their families share the chores on a 2,200-acre cattle ranch and take care of 450 cow/calf pairs. Although they play different roles, and some work off the ranch as a homebuilder and a mechanic, they are bound together by the ranch where each of the four brothers has 80 acres of his own.

Gary Horn and his twin brother, Dale, run the ranch, and Rose remains active as do two other brothers, Carl and Glen.

Rose told her audience that when she and her late husband, Ray, purchased the ranch from Ed and Charley Ray in 1964, it was because the city was encroaching on their ranch outside Golden.

“Now, we’ve got some building up around us,” Rose said.

However, it’s difficult to imagine a more secluded cattle kingdom in Routt County than Conger Mesa. To get there, one would drive 49 miles to mile marker 69 on Colorado Highway 131, leaving Routt County altogether, if only for a mile. In the little town of McCoy it’s a left turn onto Routt County Road 4 to the Raymond Horn Ranch three miles up the road.

“It’s like a little hideaway, Rose’s daughter-in-law Brita told the Brown Bag audience. “We’re really blessed to have all of the houses and the different homesteads and the 2,200 acres that reach east on Copper Spur into Grand County.”

What is now the Horn Ranch originally was homesteaded by Joe and Eva Kayser on April 4, 1903, Rose said. Kayser and his neighbors formed the Kayser Mutual Ditch Co. in 1905 to claim 25 acre-feet of water coming out of Rock Creek.

It was one thing to claim the water that came off Gore Pass but another thing to get it onto the arable land on the mesa. The creek is separated from Conger Mesa by a steep cliff that drops hundreds of feet. The early pioneers had to become self-taught engineers in order to divert the water from high up in the basin, sometimes using wooden flumes to carry it across gullies and channel it onto their hay fields.

“It’s incredible to hike up there and realize they didn’t have the equipment we have today,” Angie Horn, another of Rose’s daughters-in-laws, said. “They had to dig those ditches by hand.”

In Rose’s time, all of the irrigation ditches had to be tended every two hours.

“We irrigated with shovels and irrigation boots,” she said.

Today, the Horn Ranch has three center pivot irrigation systems to help them through the drought.

“It’s a very efficient way to irrigate, so we’re better off than most,” Gary Horn said. “But it’s still no picnic.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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