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Vagneur: You have to live ranch culture to understand it

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore
Tony Vagneur
Courtesy photo

How fortuitous it seemed to be invited by the Aspen Historical Society to speak free-form on the history of ranching in the Roaring Fork Valley. It was a Silver Circle event (You have to contact the society for more information on that) designed to showcase exhibits at the Holden/Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum.

Historically speaking, ranching many times gets treated as the red-headed step-child when talking about its importance to Aspen history. Unlike many slothful scribes have attested, ranching was/is more than a holding pattern squashed between mining and skiing. Many people don’t understand what ranching is all about, and perhaps that is the reason it oftentimes is talked about without much meaning. 

Ranching and farming hit the Roaring Fork Valley in 1880, shortly after miners began haunting the hills, looking for that one silver strike that would really set them up.



My maternal great-grandfather, Timothy C. Stapleton, put roots down in 1880 where the airport is now located and was given title to the land in 1881 by the U.S. government.

People needed to be fed, as well as the hundreds — then thousands — of burros, mules, draft, carriage and riding horses. Someone had to raise the hay; beef cows were also needed to provide meat, especially after professional hunters and hungry miners extirpated the elk and most of the deer herds.




My other maternal great-grandfather, John W. Sloss and his brother Stirling, started a dairy in 1881 in Ashcroft. Nothing like fresh milk and cheese after a long day in the mine, I reckon.

Vagneurs hit Woody Creek in the 1880s, about the time those with English-sounding names decided it was too far from town and moved on. Charles Hallam filed a homestead claim on the original Aspen townsite in 1879, no doubt with a certain vision in mind, until B. Clark Wheeler and his marauders ran roughshod over him. I guess that’s how you get a street named after you.

One finds graves here and there on old ranches. Others, unmarked, are lost to history. There are at least two unmarked graves on our homestead ranch.

Ranches in the valley are relatively small, as the Homestead Act, based on Eastern thinking, didn’t take into account that working ranches require large acreages to be successful.

Fortunately, Aspen and the valley remain surrounded by government land, which legally allowed a small ranch of say 250-1,500 acres to have access to 30,000 or more out the back door.

Plus the railroads, left intact after the demonetization of silver, proved to be of tremendous benefit to local ranchers.

Just as folks look at real estate as a commodity today — farmers have leaned that direction for hundreds of years — the rancher is more likely, especially in today’s diminishing ranching operations, to look at the ranch as the repository of past memories and experience, a place of social significance, a storehouse of the individual and generational values that make the ranching ethos distinct.

To paraphrase my mother, if you don’t grow up in the ranching culture, as an adult, it is generally not something that can be significantly learned or inculcated.  

Unlike many ranches in Texas or Wyoming that were financed by bank drafts from England or Scotland, most of the ranchers in the Roaring Fork Valley started out poor, building up their places through thrift, hard work and good fortune.

There is a closeness in such a way of life that draws kindred souls together, each helping the others when times are tough, eventually looking back with satisfaction on a union with the land and animals that was a life’s work, one that was successful.

There are still some working ranches in the valley today, not to be confused with “large tracts of land” that some armchair historians think are ranches. Like the essence of humanity, it is the soul of the place that makes a ranch legitimate, a feeling that envelopes one upon arrival, or drive-by, of such a spread.

As rancher Bill Fender and I discussed in this column years ago, there ain’t much money in ranching, at least not until the place is sold; and, almost before the check clears the bank, the soul disappears up the chimney like smoke from a decades or centuries old fire.   

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments atajv@sopris.net.

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