Deane family looks back on 80 years at Aspen’s T-Lazy-7 Ranch
for The Aspen Times Weekly
To keep the T-Lazy-7 Ranch going for over eight decades, its stewards have been anything but inert in their capacities to conserve the land, maintain the operation and protect the legacy.
As the Deane family celebrates the ranch’s 80th anniversary next month, they reflect on the rich history their ancestors established in the Maroon Creek Valley and in Aspen, and the countless shenanigans that come with cowboys and mountain life.
But more importantly, whether it was a guest awestruck by the majestic beauty of the ranch’s setting, or one of the hundreds of people who have worked there, T-Lazy-7 has changed lives.
That has been largely due to Rick Deane, the patriarch of the T-Lazy-7 family, who has been working and living at his parents’ guest ranch since he was a child.
“I’ve seen many people’s lives turned around because of T-Lazy-7 and the Deanes, including me,” said longtime employee David Richards, who came to the ranch in 1976 at 11 years old.
Living in town with his single mom, T-Lazy-7 soon became a second home to Richards, who would get picked up every day after school by Louise “Lou” Deane, Rick’s mother, and her dog, Howdy.
“I liked it and I just started hanging out there and Rick put me to work,” Richards said, adding that by age 15, he knew how to work every piece of equipment on the ranch. “Rick became a father figure for me and it kept me out of trouble. … They became like a family.”
Rick said T-Lazy-7 became a place for wayward sons over the years, and every once in a while, a kid would get dropped off by a parent hoping they’d have a better life than what they had to offer.
Rick recalled a kid named Keii Johnston who was dropped off with only a brown paper bag containing his few personal belongings and a diaper.
He grew up and worked on the ranch; now he is a stuntman in California, Rick said.
Local judges back in the day gave troubled juveniles a choice to either go to jail or be “remanded to the ranch,” where they would learn how to be responsible, “It actually worked,” Rick said. “Hard work really slows them down.”
As one would expect for a typical Western ranch, its inhabitants could sometimes get unruly. Rick recalled the nearly nightly brawls he would have to break up.
“It was definitely rough-and-tumble,” he said.
While T-Lazy-7 has been home to a tight-knit family over the years among those who have lived and worked there, it’s also attracted transient cowboys who kept the operation going when the guest ranch was in its heyday.
“My dad basically hired any crazy drunken cowboy who would listen to him, tell stories and do all types of work,” Rick said, chuckling about the quality of their workmanship. “Nothing on the ranch is straight.”
He told the story of a wrangler who lived in a one-room cabin on the ranch who had a tendency to get drunk and then hung over, and would always be late for work.
One morning Rick brought his pet mountain lion, Hy Hy, into the wrangler’s cabin. The big cat climbed on top of him while he was passed out. He awoke to the lion’s fangs in his face.
“He was never late again,” Rick said with a smile.
The ranch was bought by Rick’s parents, Had and Lou, in 1938. The young couple quickly transformed their newly acquired land at the base of the picturesque Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells into a guest ranch that has since been visited by tens of thousands of people.
Rick and his two kids, Jesse and Besha, are the current stewards of the ranch.
Now 75, Rick started guiding guests into the backcountry for pack trips when he was around 10 years old. So did his brothers, Tony and Buck.
Had was the grandson of one of Aspen’s founding fathers, Josiah Deane, who is responsible for changing the town’s name from Ute City, and had a hand in the development of Highway 82 over Independence Pass, as well as becoming the first county judge when Aspen was established in 1881. He also helped build the first log house in town.
Born in Nevada, Had returned to Aspen every summer to visit his grandparents.
After attending Northwestern University and playing for the Chicago Bears, Had married Lou and they moved to Aspen in 1936.
Had started inviting his friends and business associates to the ranch to ride horses, hunt and fish.
Lou, a spirited woman who had been a Broadway and silent film actress, quickly decided that their gracious hosting could be a way to make a living, and a life.
Besha recalled that when friends would visit, Had and Lou would move to the barn and let their guests stay in the house.
“He kept bringing more people up here and finally Lou had had enough and said, ‘We could be charging people’ so she went to town and got some rate cards,” Besha said of her grandmother.
And just like that T-Lazy-7 became a bona fide guest ranch, offering sleigh rides, chuck wagon dinners, summer cook-outs, horseback riding, fly fishing, pack trips and children’s summer camps.
Guests ranged from neighbors, family, friends, city dwellers, Aspen folks and celebrities from Lou’s Hollywood days.
And throughout the past 50 years, T-Lazy-7 has attracted much of the same types of guests.
With the backdrop of Pyramid Peak, the ranch’s meadow has been the location of many Hollywood movies and commercials, including for Marlboro, Budweiser and McDonald’s.
Today, guests come for the snowmobiling tours that Rick started over 50 years ago. Private outfitting companies provide fly fishing on the property’s many ponds and horseback rides that meander through national forest and designated wilderness areas.
Besha, 34, has taken over the event-planning side of the business, which includes weddings, small performances, special dinners, corporate retreats and other gatherings at the main lodge or other locales on the sprawling property.
Jesse, 28, handles the snowmobiling operation and is preparing to take the ranch into the next era.
“I’m happy to take on the legacy,” he said. “A lot of ranches don’t make it because they don’t change with the times and a guest ranch never just has one activity.”
Besha agreed, saying it’s a serious commitment to keep the operation in the family and evolve with the times.
“We want to continue the opportunity to be the stewards of this valley and keep the property run the original way,” she said.
Besha and Jesse grew up on the ranch. They learned the ropes at a young age, just like their father.
Rick recalled a harrowing experience as a 12-year-old boy who had taken a group of guests to Snowmass Lake, where T-Lazy-7 had a camp, along with ones at Willow Lake and East Maroon.
Wearing a only a T-shirt and jeans and riding bareback, Rick left the group and headed over Buckskin Pass with their horses when a storm rolled in and lightning bolts lit up the ground.
His horse, Lady, got hit by a bolt of lightning and fell to the ground as the rest of the horses took off. Rick managed to get out from underneath her and she began hobbling down the hillside only to be met with some unknown predator that was coming up. Rick said he never ended up locking eyes with whatever lurked below, but it scared him.
“It was a very long night,” he said, adding that area of wilderness has a “weird but good energy.”
“Strange and interesting things go on in Willow Creek. Anytime you go into Willow Creek your hair stands up on your neck.”
Jesse had a similar experience at 15, when he went in solo with his horse during hunting season. A storm rolled in and he took cover with the only supplies he had: a sleeping bag and small tarp.
“I was sitting there and I looked up and all I could see were 12 predator eyes watching me and pacing,” he said. “I tried to read my book and ignore it.”
He radioed to his dad about the trouble he found himself in and was met with Rick’s typical fatherly advice.
“I warned you not to go in there,” Rick laughed as he, Jesse and Besha reminisced in the kitchen of Rick’s house, with the ranch’s large meadow and Pyramid Peak in full view.
Besha had to hold her own, too. Too proud to ask the cowboys for help, she recalled how as a little girl she would put grain on the ground so her horse would bend down. That way, she could bridle it and jump on its neck and slide down to its back.
“I couldn’t get on any other way,” she laughed.
She and her dad would wrangle around 100 horses from the lower field to the upper ranch at dawn so they could be saddled and ready for guests at 7 a.m.
Over the years, various people, including Tony Vagneur, who grew up in Woody Creek in a five-generation local family, ran the horseback riding operation.
After college in the 1970s, he worked at T-Lazy-7 running the horse stables. His dad had sold the family ranch in Woody Creek and Vagneur was working at a gravel pit.
“I wasn’t very happy, so going up there saved my life,” he said, adding that he met his wife at T-Lazy-7.
He’ll be at the 80th anniversary party to be held on June 7-8. Friday night is set aside for all those who worked and lived on the ranch. Saturday is a big celebration that will be attended by hundreds of invited community members, regular visitors and others who have ties to the ranch.
“We want to pay homage to all of the people who lived here … I feel like the ranch has been a second home for them,” Besha said. “T-Lazy-7 wouldn’t be here without all of the people along the way.”
“Dagwood” was hired at the ranch in 1995 as a maid. Within a few months, he was a snowmobile guide and now is the ranch manager. He met his wife at the ranch in 1998. They have a son and live on the property.
“I wanted to be in the mountains,” the Indiana native said. “It’s perfect.”
Richards, who arrived in 1976 as that young boy, said the ranch has changed a lot since he first got there when it was a single-bay garage with a cash register and a few snowmobiles that people rented and went out on their own, to the large-scale, professional operation that it is today.
He said he never takes a single day for granted at the ranch, especially when he grooms the snowmobile trails and finds himself at foot of the majestic Maroon Bells alone at 6 a.m.
“It’s that tranquility,” he said. “Those are perks of the job.”
Rick said he’s looking forward to seeing all of the faces that have come and gone at the ranch over the course of his life at the anniversary party.
“I’m tired of seeing memorials,” he said. “I want to see people alive.”