The John Allen family of Craig, Colo., keeps history preserved on their Centennial Ranch
April 8, 2013
John and Mary Lou Allen of Craig, Colo., are part of a very special group of farmers and ranchers in Colorado; they own a Centennial ranch, which is defined as "having been owned and operated by the same family for 100 years or more." The third of five generations, they received their official certificate from the State of Colorado this past August, 2012, during a ceremony in Pueblo, Colo. After recording a brief homesteading history, the paper reads (in part), "The current generation of Allens appreciates their heritage and are proud to be caretakers of the land and historic buildings still in use today … the members of the Colorado House of Representatives are proud to honor this ranching family."
It's clear when one pulls up to the tidy, well-maintained property that the couple has continued to preserve it for future generations. "We kind of live in a museum," said Mary Lou. "There was never much need to buy things since our grandparents handed down all their stuff." Growing up just three miles down the road on the Butler ranch (which used to be a dairy) she literally married the boy next door, joining two families: they celebrated their 50th anniversary last December 9. "John's mother, Leona, was my mother's close friend," she explained over coffee and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. "They'd put their babies together while they visited." As children, John and Mary Lou attended the same one-room school house and began dating in high school. When asked what their secret was to such a long and prosperous marriage, he joked, "You have to give and take … mostly give. And I've always kept her guessing. She never knows what to expect!"
"It almost didn't happen," she added teasingly. "I had a goat back then, and John didn't want it. He made me choose. There have been times when I wondered if I'd made the right decision!"
"I didn't want it climbing all over my truck," John shrugged, grinning.
“We still run things on good old fashioned customer service. A lot of the reason why we can compete with bigger feed stores is because we treat people how they want to be treated, and they come back because of that.”
~ Danielle Nater, daughter of Dennis Nater, owner and operator of Northern Colorado Feeder’s Supply
Neither can imagine doing anything else with their lives, and they officially purchased the ranch in 1975 to adjoin the chunk of land they had already bought for themselves. John, who had partnered with his father as a teen to raise wheat and barley, "worked outside for many years to keep this place alive." An electronic technician, he was also employed by the power company as a meter reader and at the local radio station as an engineer. Mary Lou, meantime, kept busy gardening, canning, sewing and running their two boys, Wayde and Lynn, back and forth to school, where she worked in the lunch program to help pay for gas. Additionally, she was employed at the Hayden airport and later, became a veterinary assistant, which she especially enjoyed. It was a nice fit considering all the childhood years that had been spent feeding and cleaning up after cows as well as breaking calves to the bucket … not to mention caring for the Allen ranch's own livestock during the years John was away in town. There was plenty of help, however, since her parents were so close and his own lived right there on the property.
"My ancestors were originally from Nebraska," John began. "They came to Colorado in the early 1900s after hearing the promise of free land due to the Homestead Act." Denver Post publisher Frederick G. Bonfils had, at that time, appointed editor named Volney T. Hoggatt to come up with a campaign to invite small farmers to Colorado (in order to compete with big range cattle operations) and "a newspaperman named Horace Greeley had drawn up a flowery report promoting the area." John's grandparents, George and Olive Boughton, homesteaded 320 acres in 1911 with their 18-month-old son, Arthur. Olive's entire family, the Seicks, moved out from Nebraska as well, settling in what was then known as Big Gulch. (Over time, some opted to sell out and move to different parts and land was lost during the Depression, as well.) Tragically, in 1914 George died from the complications of Bright's disease after a fall, and Olive and Arthur stayed with her parents for a while before returning to the homestead to "prove up" on it.
It was during a trip to Grand Valley, which is about 25 miles below Rifle on the Colorado River, that she met her second husband, Tom Allen. "Whenever fruit was in season, they'd (her uncles and neighbors) load up their wagons with jars and canning equipment, travel 125 miles, and spent a week picking." The group stayed in an empty bunk house on the Morisana Ranch, where Tom worked. Later, he came to Craig and homesteaded close to the Seick Ranch, marrying Olive on October 17, 1917 when Arthur was 7 years and 7 months old. His own 320 acres were merged with hers and the following June he legally adopted Arthur as well. "Things were hard, and with pelts worth between $20 and $25 apiece Olive even skinned coyotes to keep going … she was extremely frugal. It's because of her that we're here." Eventually, the couple was even able to buy back the land that they'd lost during the Depression, plus they picked up more from other homesteaders who wanted to move off.
The couple raised cattle, hogs, chickens, wheat, and potatoes plus they sent cream to town. "My grandmother watered a huge garden with buckets that she hauled from a windmill," John reminisced. "She canned so much that when Mary Lou and I cleaned out the cellar (to make room for his shop) we found stuff that had been there for a long, long time. It was plum full! In addition to the beef, they had a lot of venison, plus there were ALWAYS fresh potatoes to eat." John remembers riding his horse over to their house as a child, and "when I wasn't able to climb back up Grandfather told me that if I couldn't get on the horse then I didn't need to ride. He DID help me that first time, though."
Olive and Tom's only child, Arthur, married Leona Marksberry in 1934, and besides John they had four daughters; the first one arrived on December 29, 1935 and cost her father $5.00 for the midwife — along with a trip in snow, which was about a foot deep. He ran a threshing machine, milked cows, sold cream and moved buildings to help support his growing family. John used to hoe sweet corn (as well as dig for potatoes) with his sisters and he especially "loved mowing and putting up hay. We didn't have a baler until I was in high school, and we still used workhorses to plow the garden. A 1929 Allis Chalmers was used to buck hay, and we raked with an old John Deere with and stacked with an overshot stacker." Once John and Mary Lou had added their own land purchases to what the Allen clan had already accumulated, the total acreage topped out at nearly 3,000. And as one generation rolled into another, it was obvious that there were special advantages to always having one's parents so close by … even when 1/4 mile might separate the houses. (Mary Lou's mother continued to live three miles away on her own place until she was 91.) After their sons came along, the living situation was "great" according to Mary Lou and "fantastic" according to John. "My dad actually used to encourage us to go somewhere," Mary Lou said, "so that he could keep the grandkids!" and they certainly feel the same way about their own. James, who at 19 and stands 6-foot-4, often comes out and works with them, and "he can play a mean fiddle." Jenna, his sister, is a harpist, and during our interview a recording of her music could be heard in the background.
Since music is important to the Allen's, after a basement to the house had been dug John installed a studio in order to record local bands. (He also sets up sound systems, and playing acoustic guitar and synthesizer has been performing in northwest Colorado for over 50 years.) Along with friend Wayne Davis on the fiddle, he has compiled what they tongue-in-cheek refer to as the "John Wayne" CD, a collection of original, easy-listening, Western-style music that would have fit in perfectly at a barn dance a century ago.
Driving away from the ranch, with its vast and almost endless views of open acreage, gently rolling hills, and wood-sided buildings — with several horses and some cattle herds thrown in — it actually SEEMS like the time has stood still. And although these days, most of the Allen Ranch land is being leased by another rancher, it will continue to stay in the family. ❖