Vagneur: Aspen’s trailblazing ranchers |

Vagneur: Aspen’s trailblazing ranchers

It’s hard to say what his mindset might have been, trying to make his way in a new land. He left Ireland in 1860, settled in Connecticut, married the love of his life and then was suddenly widowed at the age of 30 with a newborn son to raise — life was hard. Was that the America he envisioned in his dreams?

Like so many of his time, he looked West for opportunity and headed for Leadville in 1879 — there was good money to be made in those mining towns, or so it was said. Along the way he had married again, a young woman about his age, stepmother to his first born and in December of 1880, they had a baby girl, Mary Francis, the start of what would become a very large, cohesive family.

Was it frustration with mining, the long days underground without much pay, or just dissatisfaction in general, that made him go all in and head for the new mining camp of Aspen, coming over what is now Independence Pass, an arduous journey at best? Mining wasn’t his thing, he’d made clear, and he’d learned enough to know that agriculture would be in high demand — hay, potatoes, livestock, whatever a man could grow or raise on a homestead. It wasn’t without risk, but early in 1881, he put down roots just west of Aspen on what is now land occupied by the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.

The man I’m talking about, Timothy C. Stapleton, was my maternal great-grandfather. He and his second wife, Ellen Kilker Stapleton, went on to raise 10 children on the highly successful ranch, including Timothy’s first-born, whose mother died shortly after giving birth.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I must tell you that although Vagneur is a French surname and that my paternal family did come from northern Italy, my mother is entirely responsible for giving me my Stapleton roots. I say this only to alleviate any confusion or consternation over the fact that both families were early pioneers in the Aspen area, and yes, I am proud to say I am a card-carrying member of both.

Change is a constant, according to many local armchair philosophers, and I often wonder what those early settlers might think if they could see what has happened to the land they once nourished and loved. I doubt Timothy C. Stapleton would give a damn that a big, noisy jet parked on his homestead is considered more important than a good team of horses and a herd of cows or sheep.

It’s all relative, and he probably wasn’t too impressed with skiing, whatever that was in the 1880s, but it should be noted that several of his descendants have made a name for themselves in various aspects of today’s ski world, including the Olympics, the World Cup, Aspen Ski Club, Aspen Skiing Co. and the U.S. National Alpine Ski Team. His original ranch house and log outbuildings still sit on the south side of the airport runway.

Timothy didn’t last too long, cashing in on a trip to Denver in 1903, but he left behind a strong ranching legacy for his family to continue, comprised of land on both sides of Highway 82 (including the Aspen Business Center land), down to the Roaring Fork and west to Shale Bluffs. His first-born, William Emmett, homesteaded more land on the mesa above what is now the airport and had holdings as far as the famous Glendale Stock Farm along Owl Creek Road. The other boys, all five of them, operating as the Stapleton Brothers Ranch, in addition to the initial homestead, bought most of the land that today comprises Buttermilk West, Badger Hollow and the Buttermilk ski area.

The original ranch, where today’s airport is now located, was sold in 1945 to the Biggs and Kurtz families of Grand Junction. They later sold it to Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, who envisioned an airport there.

The next time you hurry through the terminal, or think we need some growth and progress out there, or visit the Aspen Business Center, take a moment to pay homage to a pioneer family who for many years provided a pastoral, bucolic panorama in stark contrast to today’s hectic tableau.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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