Preserving the ranching legacy in film
September 8, 2006
Missouri Heights resident Anita Witt invested six years in a project to preserve the legacy of ranchers and cowboys in the Roaring Fork Valley forever.She figures that’s a pretty good trade, despite her hard work on a book and, now, a film. Preserving the valley’s ranching legacy is priceless to Witt.”It was history that was being lost, and nobody was doing anything about it,” she said.So six years ago Witt conducted interviews with 26 old-timers whose families were intertwined with ranching in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys, sometimes for multiple generations.The resulting book, “I Remember One Horse … Last of the Cowboys in the Roaring Fork Valley & Beyond,” came out in 2002. Photographer Lois Abel Harlamert captured some classic images of tough old birds such as Bob Perry, Bill Fender, Jim Crowley and Walt Wieben.Twelve of the 26 men have died since Witt interviewed them, emphasizing the timeliness of her project. While working on the book, Witt realized she was onto something special. It inspired her to film the interviews with the surviving ranchers.
In an interview with The Aspen Times last summer, Witt explained that it was essential to go beyond the book and get the interviews on film so that descendants of the old ranchers and cowboys would have a real feel for their ancestors.”Their great-grandchildren will be able to see what he looked like, what he spoke like, see his weathered face,” Witt said.After three years of work, the one-hour documentary is complete. Witt worked with editor and co-director Krysia Carter-Giez; co-director and producer Chip Comins and producer Jolie Ramo, both of American Spirit Productions; and James Brundige, who mixed the sound. The Mount Sopris Historical Society also aided the effort.Their film is called, “The Last of the Cowboys in the Roaring Fork Valley.”There will be two free showings at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale, at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Witt advised arriving early. A reception at Mi Casita, across from the theater, will follow the second screening.The documentary tells where the ranching families came from and how they established roots in the valley. The men talked about growing up on ranches and attending one-room schoolhouses where they pulled pranks on their teachers that seem so innocent by today’s standards, according to Witt.
It shows how they worked hard on their families’ ranches while growing up and how many dropped out of school young because they were needed to work.And it tells the stories of how ranching didn’t remain viable for many of the families. The land was much more valuable to sell to developers than to use to grow crops and raise cattle, Witt said.Because so much ranchland has been lost in the valley, the film shows why it’s so important to hold onto the remaining spreads, Carter-Giez said. Preserving the ranches is important not only because the pastures and hayfields are aesthetically pleasing, but also because they provide the vital link to local food production, she said.Living in the Carbondale area, the last bastion of the valley’s ranching, Carter-Giez said she felt a special connection to the topic. She said she tried to show the role that ranching still plays in the valley, however diminished. So, in addition to mixing in old family photographs with the interviews, Carter-Giez captured images of the ongoing role of ranching in the valley.She filmed John Nieslanik out in the pastures while his cows were calving during a spring snowstorm. She tagged along while several ranching families combined efforts for branding cattle in Old Snowmass, then sat down together for a common meal. She “shadowed” rancher Bill Fales during his various chores, and she grabbed her camera when a rancher burned ditches on his land next to her house.”It shows that ranching is still alive,” Carter-Giez said.
Witt wants the documentary to stay alive after the screening, as well. Copies will be sent to the valley’s schools and libraries, and they will be available for purchase.Witt said she was most impressed during the interviews by “how humble the cowboys and their families are.””They were raised to act dignified. They were raised with honesty and integrity. They didn’t have to sign a contract. They shook hands,” she said.As rewarding as the project was, Witt admitted it has been a struggle over the past six years. She doesn’t have her next project in mind yet.”I’m going to rest for a while,” she said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.