Barns of Western Colorado
November 6, 2006
Huge reaches of grass located in beautiful valleys that stretched from mountain range to mountain range is what originally attracted the early-day ranchers to Colorado’s Western Slope in the first place. This and the stability of land ownership that was being offered through the various homestead acts. By the late 1800s, many of the isolated, rugged, and often times mountain-locked counties had begun their transformation into cattle country and sometimes sheep country, too. Ranches were springing up in valleys everywhere and although not usually of huge acreage, they could easily be supported by the almost unlimited use of free grass in the nearby hills.
Private ranches – the home ranches – were usually located along river drainages. Here native grasses were in good supply, and, with diligent irrigation to bring water where it had not been before, abundant hay crops were soon realized. The clearing of sage and willows and the digging of sizable irrigation ditches – backbreaking jobs –
enlarged the early hay meadows. Severe long winters and a 70-day growing season at higher elevations made ranching more difficult than at lower elevations, but even so, cattle ranching would begin to prosper. The right breeds of beef could not only survive bitterly cold winters, but thrive and grow hardy and vigorous.
Having recognized the great potential of high altitude rangeland and lower elevation farm and ranch lands and having adapted practices to fit them, the early-day cattlemen settled in and soon began building substantial homes and barns to add to or replace their first very primitive structures.
Many of these old-time barns still stand like sentinels throughout Colorado’s Western Slope. In every pretty valley they stand – square and strong, wise and old – weathering on through the good and bad years of local ranching and farming industries. These old barns embody the pioneer homesteading spirit as much as anything.
The big barns, appearing right along with the pioneer homes, sometimes outshone the home itself. The barns were landmarks to catch the eye when approaching a ranch or farm – a sign of prosperity – the bigger and fancier the barn, the more successful its owner. Or it least it spoke of those kinds of intentions.
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The pioneer barns were first built for the all-important horse. The horse was the single mode of transportation and the muscle power for what primitive equipment the early ranch possessed. Every ranch owned saddle horses and a number of teams of draft horses. They were saddled and harnessed and often housed in barns. Nearly all of the early barns were made of logs, often taken from nearby hills. Later a few frame barns were built – usually painted red – maybe to remind a transplanted owner of the barns of the more civilized East. They had huge haylofts, stanchions for milk cows, pegs for harness, and smelled the earthy smell of animals, hay and leather. Cats were often occupants, usually shy and wild, bolder when milking time came around. A good and comforting smell came from a barn, a faint aroma that would remain long after a barn was deserted, leaving a lingering sense of the past.
In the days of horse-powered machinery, many men were required for harvesting hay, and almost as many teams of horses. Huge draft horses, including Belgians, Percherons, Clydesdale and mixed breeds, were trained to pull when young – their breeding making them want to work. One can picture these 1200 to 1800-pound horses straining through deep snow, laboring with steamy breath, giving forth a live and powerful image. So did the men who handled the teams, masters of an art that is now almost extinct. These individuals could quickly harness the horses and keep them under control with gentle commands of “whoa” or “move-up.”
Sometimes barns served a dual purpose, as did an old barn located east of Gunnison, Colo., on Highway 50. The family that owns it considered tearing it down, but never have, because it serves as the final resting place for a baby. A pioneer ranch family, back in the early 1900s, buried a child here in the winter when the barn was the only place where the ground was not frozen. The little pioneer’s grave lies in a corner and the protective old log walls of this barn still serve as its shelter.
Another Gunnison County barn serving a dual purpose was that of my grandfather, Clyde Buffington. His old log barn, located in the upper region of the Ohio Creek Valley, had an unremarkable history except for the once grizzly use of its barn door. The pioneer family who owned the ranch at the turn of the century experienced many tragedies, including the death of the mother of the six children in 1904, and the death of a son two years later. In 1909, the ranch exacted its final price from this family when the father died under a mowing machine in the upper meadow after a team of horses backed over him. One can imagine the shock and grief of the young children who now realized they were both motherless and fatherless. Together they solved their first challenge, transporting their father’s body back to the house. To accomplish this, they removed the barn door and used it as a stretcher.
Barns were often built by a team of neighbors and helped establish community bonds. They were places of work and places of shelter and places of substance that said of the homesteader, “I’m here to stay.” The Western Slope’s many “turn-of-the-century” barns are scattered throughout the area – some in stages of decay but many in remarkably good shape and still in use. The memories that old barns inspire bring back thoughts of earlier times to those of us who have a hankering for the old sturdy, weathered, and “real” things of the past – those old glory days when our mountains and valleys were true “cattle country” and beautiful big barns at ranches in every valley announced that you had arrived there.