Tony Vagneur: Our forefathers’ ranching life became way to farm out future dreams

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

We’ve been reading volumes about the “hot” real estate market in the Aspen area, and whether good or bad, depends on one’s vision. Having been a rancher around here for a number of years, it brings pause for reflection.

The old-time ranchers who I’ve known had a different take on the ownership of land, different than what appears to be in vogue today. It wasn’t property itself that made one a rancher; that was important, of course, but it was how one lived on the land that made a person’s significance. If a ranch owner was out in the fields, carrying an irrigation shovel, riding a squirrelly horse on a cattle drive, or running a tractor all day long, then he was as good as the help he hired.

He wasn’t the man in charge only because he owned the land; he was leader of the pack for the vision he lived, that of farmer and rancher — at least in this part of the country. His hired hand, the one who could ride and tame the unruly horses, or the one who could ride after cows until darkness fell and still get his evening chores done, that man was as important to the operation as was the owner. However, fair or not, the owner always had the last say.

It’s this type of thinking that takes us back to those mythical years of late 1960s and ’70s in Aspen. “Everyone was treated the same – we all were on an equal basis.” Beliefs like that reflect on those saying such things; people doing the saying may have felt equal, but some of us saw an opposite side of the coin. Long-time ranchers and farmers were being marginalized by the growth of skiing’s popularity and real estate prices. Remember, it’s always been Aspen, not Nirvana, and your reflections are totally yours.

Nor was the land a cause for pride of ownership in the same sense as it is for many today; it was a way of life, where you made your living, raised your children and found respite from the outside world. Ranches were owned for generations by the same families, simply because that’s what people did — they ranched. And farmed.

Clear in my memory is the day my grandfather and I were on a mission to our northern mesas, land he homesteaded in the early 1900s, preparing to round up the wild horses on the mountain behind our ranch. We stopped at the edge of the first mesa, the one where Gramps had built his homestead cabin, and looked at the spreading pastoral ranchland down below, the houses, the corrals, the hayfields and pastures, a silver sliver of Woody Creek running the length of it.

“Look at the good irrigating job,” Grandpa said, part of his job of inculcating in me the responsibilities of how a good ranch operates. After I had admired his green touch with an irrigating shovel, and with a broad sweep of his hand, he further said, “Someday this will all be yours.” I wasn’t in awe; I just accepted it as reality and over the years the thought crossed my mind that someday I might be sitting on that same promontory, horseback, saying the same thing to my oldest grandson.

We trusted that we lived in our own world, an off-the-track, sparsely populated valley, safe from outsiders, but it was quickly getting frayed around the edges. The above scene happened in 1955 or ’56; Gramps died in ’58, and Aspen and the surrounding area was rapidly changing. The first instance anyone seriously thought about the inflated dollar value of our ranch land was when it was time to tally up the inheritance tax.

The thing with ranching is, if a man wants to retire, how is it done? You can’t just quit, but you want to keep it in the family, so like my great-uncle Louis Vagneur, he sold his ranching interests (the Sunnyside Ranch) to his two sons. He then moved to town, buying the house that now contains the White House Tavern.

Another great-uncle, Dellore Vagneur, childless, sold his ranch on McLain Flats to a nephew and moved to Glenwood. They were keeping it in the family, selling it to family, and retiring. My granddad, Ben, and his younger brother Sullivan, both spent their entire lives on their Woody Creek ranches and passed them down to their offspring.

But it can’t last forever unless you have enough land to sell or bequeath to each of your children a ranch of their own, as my grandfather’s father did. The smell of money brings familial discontent, and those not involved in ranching as a way of life see selling the place as a means to realize other dreams.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at