Film captures Roaring Fork Valley ranch life, past and present |

Film captures Roaring Fork Valley ranch life, past and present

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
The Nieslanik family, with local writer Anita McCune Witt (right), is featured in "The Last of the Cowboys," adapted from Witt's "I Remember One Horse." The film has its broadcast debut Sunday, Jan. 20, on Rocky Mountain PBS. (Contributed photo)

“If you know your history, then you will know where you are coming from.” That observation, from Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier,” ranks as one of the wisest in pop music.

The reggae king, still revered as a mystic a quarter century after his death, knew that, in order to move forward, you had to have a solid grasp on where you had been, where you came from. And Marley wasn’t speaking only from the perspective of the individual, but from the community. If humanity wanted to progress, it needed to know its past, its ancestry, what had happened previously on the ground where it stood.

The town of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley can seem dangerously uninterested in its history. Historic homes and buildings are scraped for something bigger, shinier and more profitable, without much thought of the sense of the past that is being scraped with it.

Solutions to Aspen’s various problems are overwhelmingly proposed with eyes toward the future, and a general disregard for the past. History gets replaced rather quickly here, and, as in most places, the past can seem more like a form of entertainment than of education. History describes who they were, not who we are.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, change can be radically swift and sudden. One winter, Aspen Highlands is a funky, falling-down ski area; the next, it’s the clumsy, hulking, uninviting (and inappropriately named) Aspen Highlands Village. Highway 82 was once a two-lane road with one stoplight between the edge of Aspen and Glenwood Springs; within a few years, every few yards of pavement, it seemed, was screaming for a traffic light of its own.

The paradox is that our history is right behind us. This isn’t Europe, where ghosts from nearly a millennium ago still haunt the streets, nor is it New England, where the past is measured in centuries. Aspen’s history, or at least its human history, is just over our shoulder. It can even stand right beside us, and disappear from view as we’re watching it.

When Chip Comins began filming the video “The Last of the Cowboys ” in the Roaring Fork Valley,” in 2004, three of his dozen or so subjects were Adolph Diemoz, Bob Perry and Frank Starbuck. All had been ranchers in the valley dating back before the middle of the 20th century. Now, with Comins’ video ” adapted from the book “I Remember One Horse,” by Missouri Heights cowgirl Anita McCune Witt ” about to get a regional airing, Diemoz, Perry and Starbuck are all dead. Their passing is a microcosm of the point of the film (which was co-directed and edited by Krysia Carter-Giez, and produced by Comins, Witt and Jolie Ramo, under the auspices of the Mount Sopris Historical Society).

“It really is the last of the cowboys,” said Comins. “It’s a story of a time bygone, that will never be again. Of living on the ranch and going to school in one-room schoolhouses. They lived a tough life but a happy life, a simple life. It’s the story of Aspen, Carbondale, and down to Silt.”

That story will have its broadcast debut on Rocky Mountain PBS (Channel 6 in Aspen) on Sunday, Jan. 20, at 1 p.m. (The one-hour video was screened last fall at Aspen Filmfest. It is also available at the UPS store in Carbondale, or through

Probably more striking than the fact that three of the main subjects have died in the last few years is that there are still a few handfuls of men ” Cerises, Nieslaniks, Crowleys and the holdouts from a few other families ” still standing, tying us to a time when potatoes and railroads were more important to the local economy than snow and chairlifts. The valley’s past is not quite past; in fact, not only are some of the old ranchers still talking about the days of cattle drives through Carbondale, but a small few are still living it. Comins, who lives on a Missouri Heights ranch and makes horse-riding a daily activity, notes that there are still perhaps a dozen working ranches left in the valley.

Mining may be the first occupation that comes to mind when the idea of Aspen’s history is brought up. But, as Comins notes, Aspen’s mining days were short-lived. Virtually as soon as the U.S. went off the silver standard, with the 1893 repeal of the Sherman Silver Act, mining went into steep decline. Ranching and farming lasted for some six decades as the foundation of the local economy.

With a trove of vintage photographs, and Anita Witt conducting numerous contemporary interviews, “The Last of the Cowboys” documents the heyday of ranching culture. Many of the families came from the town of Aosta, in the Italian Alps, that bore a strong geographical resemblance to the Roaring Fork Valley. (Several of the newcomers took the Cerise name because they heard others give ” and spell ” that name for immigration officials.) Getting into the valley in the first quarter of the 20th century could be an ordeal that makes spending a night at DIA look blissful. One rancher tells of coming over Taylor Pass, and having to take his wagon apart and lower it down, piece by piece, into the town of Ashcroft. The process took two weeks.

It was a strenuous way of life once they got here. Diemoz talks of running a thousand head of cattle by himself on Mount Sopris in the ’40s. There are the obligatory tales of walking ” actually, many of them rode horses, or even sledded ” many miles to a cold, tiny schoolhouse. Kids were expected to join their parents in the work; one rancher remembers being absent from school for weeks when it was harvest time. Few of them, however, expressed a desire to escape; most followed their parents onto the ranch. World War II gave the second generation a chance to see the world, but many of them returned to the valley, married their high-school sweethearts, and got back to tending cattle and sheep, and raising potatoes.

The way of life, which could be solitary ” the ranches tended to be in secluded places like the Brush Creek Valley ” led to strong communal values. One rancher in the film recalls hauling crops a few miles to other families whose harvest hadn’t turned out so well. He shrugs it off with a “That’s just what people did” sentiment. At the times when families did gather ” for harvests, ceremonies, bringing crops to the station ” they made the most of the opportunity to bond. Rodeos were the biggest part of their social lives, and “The Last of the Cowboys” dedicates a sizable chunk to the horsemen showing off their skills.

Comins marvels at the sense of community that people forged, even though separated by miles. “The values that these people had, the code of the West, that honor system ” that’s what amazes me,” he said. “They’d help each other gather the hay come harvest, round up the cattle come fall. And that’s a way that will never be again.”

Most of Comins’ projects have focused on environmental issues. He is the founder of Aspen’s ARE Day ” for American Renewable Energy ” and his one-minute promotional film, “Native Wind Powering America,” was screened at Telluride’s Mountainfilm in 2006. He plans on expanding that short into an hour-long piece about a group of American Indian tribes developing a massive wind-energy project in the country’s central plains.

Comins isn’t sure that “The Last of the Cowboys” is much off the trail of those other projects. If the life of the rancher was anything, it was sustainable, and done with a superior consciousness of the land and the environment. A later segment of the film is devoted to the economic pressure being applied to the remaining local ranchers and a lament that the days are numbered, even for those few.

“We talk about sustainability, and these ranchers and farmers lived that,” he said. “They were self-sufficient. They were careful about how they worked their land and the water. They were great stewards of the land. This is what sustainability looks like to me ” not just turbines and solar panels, but communities coming together to make a life, and live in balance on the Earth.

“It’s funny ” I make films about cowboys and Indians. But I think it’s a really important effort to show how we can more effectively live in balance. We can learn a lot from our elders.”

“The Last of the Cowboys ” in the Roaring Fork Valley,” adapted from Anita McCune Witt’s “I Remember One Horse,” and co-directed by Chip Comins and Krysia Carter-Giez, will air Sunday, Jan. 20, at 1 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS (Channel 6 in Aspen).

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