Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore | AspenTimes.com

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

It wasn’t that long ago, a couple of winters maybe, that the big City Market trucks from Denver couldn’t deliver produce to the Roaring Fork Valley because the road was closed. No one panicked, it didn’t seem, but the rising tide of such could be felt in almost every conversation.

If nothing else, it pointed out that we know very little about our food and had we truly been snowbound for long, things would have gotten ugly. Guido’s winter elk herd would have rapidly disappeared and while they lasted, scrawny deer would have made a dinner here and there for a few. Once the last frozen pea had rolled off someone’s plate, we’d have been looking at each other with a different kind of gleam in our eyes.

It’s not our fault, really. Big supermarkets and corner stores have spoiled us to the point that very few of us can afford, or have the knowledge of, self-sufficiency. However, it’s clearly something we should be thinking about.

Back in the middle-to-late-1800s, it must have been difficult, nay impossible, for settlers to grasp the concept that it took millions of acres of land to support Colorado’s nomad Ute Indian population, estimated to be approximately 15,000. These newcomers from the east were used to pastoral farms of 60 to 80 acres each, small acreages which managed to feed the U.S. population.

The number of Ute Indians in the Roaring Fork Valley at any one time likely never numbered more than a couple of hundred, so it’s easy to see how the arrival of the Ute City silver miners in 1879 would soon put a strain on the resources of the valley.

Smart ranchers and farmers, like my maternal great-grandfather Timothy Stapleton, knew that a mining camp required large amounts of food and by 1880, Timothy had filed his original homestead where Sardy Field is now, and was clearing more land in Owl Creek. My paternal family Vagneur was close behind, out in Woody Creek.

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By 1881, the Utes were gone, forcibly banished to far-flung reservations over some alleged indiscretions committed on Milk Creek, near Meeker. So too were the elk and the deer; the streams were seriously depleted of fish and the farmers and ranchers were kept busy providing the busy mining town of Aspen.

In addition to the people, there were large numbers of ore-hauling burros and horses that had to be fed, year-round. It required all available ranchland in the valley just to keep the bustling town going with food. There were no “quaint” subdivisions named Starwood or Little Woody or Cemetery Lane. Hill and dale was all hay, potato and grain fields interspersed with huge garden plots, the majority of it being hay to feed the livestock. In 1885, a ton of hay cost $160, about the same as today.

Now we’re down to it. The ranches and farms, for all basic purposes, are almost gone and we’re getting our food at City Market or Clark’s, anyway. But, we’re starting to rebel. There is grass-fed beef available from several local sources; Sustainable Settings in Carbondale offers classes and educational workshops in sustainable agriculture and land stewardship. It provides creative solutions to preserve the valley’s ecological, scenic and agricultural qualities.

Go down to the versatile Rock Bottom Ranch and let Ali, with a lustrous smile and gravelly voice that would break the heart of any man, make you a slab of delicious mozzarella goat cheese, while you watch. She or one of her charming assistants will let you turn the handle on the butter churn or tell you how to start a garden plot there or let you take a quiet, soul-soothing walk through part of the working ranch or wander alone within an unspoiled landscape.

Talk to Jerome Osentowski, Michael Thompson or others too numerous to mention who are working to make our food choices more informed and local. Maybe we’ll get it right. Eventually.