Ranching through history: Routt County ranches take center stage, celebrating 100 years
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Two Routt County ranches were recently honored at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. They add to a growing list of century-old ranches that also call Routt County home, each with a story of its own.
“I thank Historic Routt Country and Arianthé Stettner for their help. It’s a little bit of a shout to them,” said Mary Walker, whose great aunt and uncle purchased the Brown Ranch in 1915. “Nobody would care about 100-year-old ranches if it weren’t for the organizations that highlight this stuff.”
The Brown Ranch, located near Clark, and the Perry Ranch near Toponas joined 10 other Routt County ranches on the list of Centennial Ranches and Farms in Colorado. Others include the Summer Ranch, Soasch Ranch, Mountain View Ranch, Stanko Ranch, Hogue Ranch in the Steamboat Springs area; the Crags Ranch (Green family) and Zehner Ranch in the Hayden area; the Hitchen’s Overlook Ranch in Milner, the Redmond Ranch in Yampa and the Sullivan Ranch that is spread across Routt, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties.
Brown Ranch’s endearing place in North Routt
Today, Walker and her husband live in the old farmhouse, which was built a few years before Thornton and Margaret “Madge” Brown purchased the property on the Brown Ranch in North Routt.
Madge and Thornton came to the county in search of what they had hoped would be a simpler life away from the hustle of the mining boom that had gripped Cripple Creek. Sadly, just three years after making the move, Thornton fell victim to the Spanish flu epidemic that disseminated in Routt County. He died in 1918, and Madge was left alone on the ranch.
But the Routt County widow showed her true pioneer spirit and, after her husband’s death, quickly realized she needed a different approach if she wanted to stay on her property.
“When my great-great uncle was alive, they had a small herd of cattle, but (my great-great aunt) realized after he died that, if she was going to stay, running sheep was going to be more conducive to being a women alone on the ranch,” Walker said. “So, she switched over to sheep immediately and started homesteading to get the chunks of parcels she needed to run sheep.”
Madge was able to find success in the green pastures north of Steamboat Springs and, through it all, recorded her experiences in journals, diaries and through first-person accounts about her life as a woman running a sheep ranch in northern Colorado.
One of her short stories, “A Little Bunch of Sheep,” won Reader’s Digest’s prestigious First Person Award. She used the prize money to pay off her ranch’s debts.
She ran the ranch operations until her death in 1965 and left the 713 acres to several family members who still look after it today.
“I’m immensely proud,” Walker said. “I have always honored Aunt Madge’s legacy. I have always felt like the women’s roles are not often associated with physical structures or things within the community.
“Women were not the managers of the banks, they didn’t start the ski area and they didn’t develop the electrical grid in our communities, but they were doing things that resonate with people, still.”
Madge’s life is chronicled in her memoir, “Shepherdess of Elk River Valley,” which is based on her first-person accounts and was published posthumously in 1967. Today, most of the ranch’s acreage is leased to the nearby Fetcher Ranch. Walker understands the legacy her great aunt left behind and the importance of agriculture to the mountain valley, but she admits she is not a rancher.
“It’s recognition of the challenge of long-lasting family ownership,” Walker said of the award. “Maintaining anything in a family for 100 years is a pretty remarkable thing. There are many ways that families honor their ancestors. This is one of those ways, and I’m really pleased.”
Madge’s story was just one of 22 that showcased Colorado’s rich ranching heritage Aug. 23 during the 2019 Centennial Farms and Ranches Ceremony at this year’s State Fair. The ceremony is organized each year by History Colorado and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which have teamed up to run the program. Since 1986, the program has recognized more than 600 centennial ranches and farms.
Perry Ranch holds long-lasting legacy
“The family appreciates all the sacrifices and hard work of our forefathers,” said Chuck Perry, who grew up working the Perry Ranch alongside his brother, Bill, their father and grandfather. “The agriculture and ranching industry is unique in that few other industries have decades of training from childhood on with institutional knowledge passed down from generation to generation.”
Today Perry still works the land that was homesteaded by Winfield Scott Perry near Toponas in the spring of 1911 and has been passed through five generations, including Winfield Scott’s son Ora (Ote) Scott Perry, Junior Perry and Charles Franklin Perry.
The ranch grew spinach and lettuce in the early days before transitioning to oats and a mix of Timothy and red clover hay. English Herefords were the family’s choice of cattle, and they purchased bulls from a Canadian rancher. The remaining part of the original ranch now raises hay and has a grazing lease.
The ranch was also home to Ball Diamond Hill, where the town would play baseball, and there was also a community-roping arena. Ote Perry also helped establish and build the Toponas Community Hall.
Mary Jean Perry, Junior’s wife, helped create the South Routt Library District by building her own little hillside library on the family’s ranch headquarters in 1978, for which she had received a grant from the state. She also volunteered for multiple organizations including serving for more than 40 years with the Yampa Valley Electric Association. Chuck also served on the board.
Marissa Perry, Chuck’s daughter, describes her experience growing up on the ranch as a scene straight from the 1970s TV show, “Little House on the Prairie.”
“We had this idyllic childhood where we had a playhouse that was formerly a bunkhouse for the ranch hands that came to work the lettuce fields, and our backyard was 2,950 acres bordering national forest,” Marissa said. “Running around barefoot and wild, we didn’t realize until we grew up just how unique and special it was in this day and age.”
Marissa said she came across the application for the Centennial award while researching water resource grants from the state earlier this spring.
“I’ve been a fan and connected with the good folks at History Colorado since the early days of the Crossan’s Market renovation in Yampa,” Marissa said. “It’s a heart-swelling experience to receive this recognition. We are so connected to this community and love this land so much.”
As early pioneers in Egeria Park and Steamboat, Marissa said the family is proud of its heritage and honor the land that has served as a pathway west from Ute migratory trails and summer camps on the upper bluffs that became the ball field to the wagon trails of early settlers in the area.
“We are dedicated to the preservation of Colorado’s unique rural western heritage,” she said.
Both the Brown and Perry ranches also received the Historic Structures award that recognizes the owners’ work to preserve and maintain historic buildings on their property.
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