Recalling the legacy of Routt County’s own ‘Doc’ Utterback as historic ranch gets gifted to university
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In the process of packing her possessions this month, and preparing to leave the historic West Routt family homestead ranch she has known for much of her life behind, Karin Utterback-Normann was in a philosophical mood.
“This is something special about the ranch,” she said. “You have to listen. It will tell you what it needs and when — you can’t speed it up.”
Her husband Ron Normann, an agronomist by profession, whose expertise essentially involves pairing the right soil with the right crops, agreed.
“You can’t go faster than Mother Nature’s pace,” Ron said.
Karin’s father, John “Doc” Utterback, like his pioneer father before him, strove mightily to raise cattle on the ruggedly beautiful landscape near Tow Creek. The 2,160-acre ranch is 13 miles west of Steamboat Springs and just a couple of miles beyond Milner.
But the 21st century stewards of the ranch agreed years ago that the small creeks that twist down the mountains have never provided sufficient water to sustain cows. Grazing sheep has been a much more suitable choice on the ranch, Karin said.
However, as the ranching couple prepares to move to Grand Junction, a new future is on the horizon. At present, there are neither cattle nor sheep grazing on the steep hills of the ranch. Instead, it’s become the kingdom of a large herd of elk, which has become the mainstay on the ranch
Hunters, some of them represented by a third generation coming to the ranch in mid-October, have replaced cowboys and sheepherders. And Karin expects her hunters to respect the animals as well as other groups of hunters. Fail to do so, and they are banned.
This year, Karin reached an agreement to gift her family’s ranch to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where many decades ago, Doc Utterback earned a degree in veterinary science.
Routt County pioneers
Tow Creek Ranch is about 13 miles west of downtown Steamboat, just north of U.S. Highway. Karin’s grandparents and their children left behind comfortable lives in Washington, D.C., in 1908 to become homesteaders, so their father could ease his tuberculosis. One of the children, John “Doc,” just an infant at the time, would become Karin’s father.
In a 1980 interview with students and faculty of Steamboat Springs High School for their publication, Three Wire Winter, Doc exclaimed, “I came to Steamboat, a babe in arms, on a four-horse stage.”
After a long train ride from Washington D.C. and through the Moffat Tunnel in the Rocky Mountains, the Utterback family faced two more days of bone-rattling travel from Walcott to Steamboat in a stagecoach pulled by a team of horses. Doc was just a baby wrapped in a blanket, according to Three Wire Winter.
The family lived in a rented house in Steamboat at first.
Three Wire Winter also confirms something that Karin said this month: her family enlarged its ranch buy buying up their government homesteads when they lost the will to make them a success.
Most of the homesteaders were from the East: Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“Of course, a lot of them gave up because of the weather and the land. We always worked hard and bought out their homesteads. That’s how we got our land built up,” Doc told the publication in 1980.
His daughter hasn’t forgotten.
Colorado State Forester in this region, John Twitchell, has supported the Normanns with technical advice about fostering healthy stands of aspen tress on the ranch but gives the landowners the credit for the transformation of the ranch.
“We’d like to think we’re part of the success — we’ve done some forestry work on the ranch, but by then, a lot of amazing things had already happened,” he said.
“Karin was very progressive in terms of land management and interested in forestry. It was professionally satisfying for us,” Twitchell said. “Ron was an agronomist, and they had a passion and brought that ranch back.”
As soon as Karin and Ron first made the decision to live on the ranch ,shortly after her father Doc Utterback died in 1996, they knew there was work to do.
Karin’s father was both a cowboy and a highly educated veterinarian but not necessarily a farmer or rancher.
The bottom line, when Karin and Ron arrived at the ranch, it had been heavily grazed without any monitoring.
“Husbandry on the land, it’s a great message, and she poured their hearts and soul into it, with Ron and a lot of money,” Twitchell said.
Aspen trees on agricultural properties are a case in point.
People, “want to have old growth of everything, but the problem in Routt and other areas is that nobody really manages aspen, and the clones are old,” Twitchell said.
A small stand of say, 20 aspen tress can represent one organism.
“Karin and Ron were interested in getting diversity (of age classes among the stands of aspens on their ranch) and did a demonstration project of about 60 acres. It did sprout really well, and it was a big benefit to wildlife,” Twitchell said.
“My grandmother used to sell coal to neighbors,” Karin said. “After (Doc) finished high school, he raised pigs and helped his brother with a potato crop. Dad hired a truck driver to take the picks to Fort Collins to sell. This was all happening during the Great Depression.”
“In this family, there was always this push. My grandfather started acquiring little homesteads that couldn’t prove-up,” Karin said.
However, Doc’s political ambitions sometimes interfered with the ranch work. He was a Routt County Commissioner and a busy large animal veterinarian, who put himself through the veterinary program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Doc and his brother may also have had a stubborn streak when it came to cattle. The hills were steep, and the irrigated grass hay that flourishes elsewhere along the river bottoms in Routt County faired poorly on the Utterback ranch. Over time, the vegetation was beaten down along the small streams that persisted on the ranch, stripping the un-irrigated hay of the already scarce moisture.
There were even attempts to mine coal on the ranch — the spoil piles were not removed and remained when Karin inherited the ranch.
Strong ranch woman prevails
Karin had her own dreams of inheriting the Utterback ranch, but her father told her straight up she wasn’t going to get it. That was for one of her two brothers.
However, when Doc died of a heart attack in May 1996, fixing fences on the ranch on Tow Creek, without a will, it was Karin who had the resources to revive the ranch. Still, she would face years of struggles with the IRS.
Karin knew she wanted to transform the ranch, and that would take some help. She pursued her husband Ron, not only because he was a university trained agronomist who knew all about soil and the plants that are suited to grow in them, she said with a smile, but also because he was big and strong enough to spend two to three weeks every spring to fix fences on the ranch.
Now, the time has come when Karin’s cranky hip won’t allow her to roam the ranch as she used to, and the couple has made a difficult decision to spend less time no the ranch and gift it with a new fate.
With a certain amount of regret, Karin has decided to gift the ranch to Colorado State University, so that it can play a new role in the Yampa Valley.
Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in 2018 after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.
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