Tales from the Tread: Tour the historic Brown Ranch in Clark

Mary Walker
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Margaret Brown
Courtesy photo

In fall 1915, Margaret Duncan Brown, my great-great-aunt, and her husband, Thornton “Dick,” came up to Routt County from their home in Cripple Creek to look for a small ranch to purchase. In their mid-30s, my Aunt Madge and Uncle Dick sought a more relaxed and down-to-earth lifestyle away from the hustle and bustle of the mining world where Uncle Dick was an assayer for a bank.

As they looked for a place to take a break from their search and do some fishing, a two-story vernacular log house on the banks of the Elk River near Clark literally caught their eye — much as it still does to this day for many day-trippers, fisher-people, cyclists and Sunday drivers. 

The McPhee family built the picturesque log home in 1909. There are many houses in the area that have tried to emulate its style. But no one, in my opinion, has been able to replicate the pleasing visual effect and perfect proportion of the distinctive three-dormer windows.

Built on the high-side bank only a few feet from the Elk River, the house has never suffered the ill effects of any of the river’s hundred year floods, of which in my approximate 50 years at the ranch, I can recall about four. The house truly is, as Aunt Madge described it, a sturdy fortress. 

Late June is the perfect time to see all of the wildflowers around the ranch — poppies, columbines and dames’ rocket that Aunt Madge planted and the untamed “Yellow Rose of Texas” bush that the family believes Aunt Madge brought with her from her childhood home in Victoria, Texas.

My Aunt Madge would write in her journal of that day that Mrs. McPhee told them that she had dreamed that someone would come to buy the house. In any case, a deal was quickly made on the house and an accompanying 160 acre parcel, and Aunt Madge and Uncle Dick relocated from Cripple Creek a couple of months later. 

Three years later, in 1918, Uncle Dick died at Thanksgiving after contracting the Spanish Flu during a business trip to Colorado Springs. Aunt Madge stayed on the ranch, increasing its size to 700 acres over the years, until she died in 1965. Having not had children, Aunt Madge always thought of my grandmother (Aunt Madge’s niece) as her own. Four generations of my family and hundreds of friends and relations have enjoyed the ranch, its incredible history and beautiful landscape, and Aunt Madge’s most special aura around the place. 

If you go

What: Open house and tours of the Brown Ranch
When: Noon to 2 p.m. Friday, June 28
Cost: Free

Aunt Madge is well-known locally — her copious journals and diaries that were partially compiled after her death for the book, “Shepherdess of Elk River Valley.” People also admire her for her unique decision during the early part of the 20th century to live and ranch alone after her husband’s death. 

More than 100 years later, the Brown Ranch is still in agricultural use although many of the original out-buildings are no longer standing — the huge barn and several work sheds. But one of Aunt Madge’s homestead cabins still stands. It was originally built to increase her holdings and was later moved, log by log, from Round Mountain back down to the homesite and used as her sheep hospital. As does an ice house originally used for storing large blocks of ice from the river encased in saw dust, a two-seater outhouse and a bunkhouse for the seasonal field hands that she hired to assist with the summer work around the ranch. 

The Brown Ranch is a unique and important part of Routt County and Colorado heritage. The Tread of Pioneers Museum and I invite you to stop by at noon to 2 p.m. Friday, June, 28 for a closer look and tour of the house.

The Brown Ranch is located in Clark. Drive 16 miles on Routt County Road 129, turn left past the 16 mile marker and go 1/4 mile down the dirt road across the meadow to the log house. If you reach the Clark Store on C.R. 129, you’ve gone about 1 mile too far, so go back and look for a dirt road (from this direction, it will be on your right) across the meadow to the house.

Mary Walker is a Routt County resident and great-great-niece of Margaret Duncan Brown.

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