Rural roots run deep |

Rural roots run deep

A happy salegoer selects an antique scythe to purchase from among several available at the Willis Centennial Farm's estate sale in Timnath, Colo., held in May 2019. Properties such as this that remained with one family for 100-plus years contain a wealth of history.
Photo by Marty Metzger

Today is tomorrow’s yesterday; and most folks are historians. Whether with silky locks from baby’s first haircut, ticket stubs from the big game, or a faded photo of great-grandpa atop his brand-new 1937 tractor, everyone records history in their own unique way. Some even write it down.

Even before homo sapiens erectly entered the scene, history was being made. Likely, however, dinosaurs, crashing asteroids or grinding ice ages didn’t record such monumental events. Or, did they?

We can now look back into the distant past via bone fragments, DNA, and layers of rock/soil to read what the planet and extended universe recorded. But what about less lofty, closer-to-home research?

When it comes to deciphering a rural property’s history, or preserving that being made today, help can be found in a plethora of places. Owners of some Colorado farms and ranches have already gone through the detective process to qualify their land as a Centennial Farm, a designation for working properties owned by the same family for 100 years or more.

Liz (nee Bee) Harrison of Bee Family Centennial Farm Museum — north of Fort Collins near Wellington — advised that four generations of the Bee family have lived on the farm, which received its Centennial title in 1994.

Thousands of items saved by family members over time became the museum’s contents. The process of preserving and displaying pieces officially began in 1998. When sorting through old documents and photos, the Bees hit the jackpot.

“We were fortunate that many of the old photos were labeled, so we didn’t have to do much research to identify people or dates,” Harrison said. “Others that were not labeled were easy to tell which generation they belonged to. There are just a few of the older portraits that are not identified.”

Harrison further noted that most of the family’s ag items were equally easy to identify.

“Since we grew up on the farm, many were things that had been used or were around when we were young,” she said. And she recommended sources to help ID unfamiliar ones.

“There’s a book called ‘The Revised Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging’ that was very helpful. We also used a reproduction 1897 Sears, Roebuck Catalog that was fun to go through,” Harrison said.

Of course, not every farm/ranch has that much known background. Some have changed hands multiple times. So, what if your property’s history now needs to be confirmed? Or, you found a trunk full of amazing but anonymous antique clothing or photos in the attic. Is there a property line dispute? What were the original owners’ names or boundaries of your lovely ranch?

In former centuries many items — and currently due to social media’s maiming/murder of spelling and grammar — are misspelled, likewise marriage records and ages on important documents altered. Immigration often changed surnames. Follow every clue. For example…


Since photography’s earliest days, technology has been on the march. Old photos can be dated by type.

Tintype images were popular from 1860-1870. From 1842-1856, daguerreotypes were all the rage, chronologically merging with ambrotypes (1855-1861); around 1884, when George Eastman invented the first real film, a dry gel on paper.

Aerial photos that ultimately included farm/ranch properties, commenced in 1858 when a French photographer and hot air balloonist succeeded in his lofty discovery. Gaspar Felix Tournachon (aka “Nadar”) had patented his idea in 1855 to use aerial photos in mapmaking and surveying.

Study everything in a picture to identify eras: vehicles, farm implements, furniture, signage, clothing and hairstyles. Are electric/phone lines visible in the background?

Take information written on the backs of photos with a grain of salt. A shoebox-stored image’s backside might read: “Jones Farm, 1903,” when it was actually John’s Farm, owned by John Smith, your great-grandfather.

Professionally taken photos usually include the photographer’s name or imprint, which thereby divulge the location (you might need to use old city directories).


When recording information on photos, write everything on its back: date photo taken; property address and name of farm/ranch; every subject’s full name and age at time of photo; type of event. For example: “John B. Smith, age 18, at his high school graduation party at Smith Farm on Smith Road, Greeley, Colo., June 2, 2019. Left to right, John Smith, his mother Mary Smith, his father John A. Smith, and his grandfather Joseph Smith.”

Seems like a lot of wasted ink when everyone who’ll receive a photo’s copies (not just via Facebook, email or other web pages) knows everyone in the picture. Ah, but will that apply to someone in 2088 who needs to ID the farm? Maybe it was sold and a subdivision replaced it 10 years after the photo was taken. Maybe this is the only known surviving photo of what the area looked like in the “good old days of 2019.”


Never underestimate where a photo, journal/diary entry, letter might end up. Take, for example, a farm inventory dispersal auction. Progress changes the face of the land, and new people will be interested in its past.

The Swetsville Zoo in Timnath, Colo., has long been a local landmark. But encroaching subdivisions will soon relinquish its rural past to fading memories. Will progress completely obscure its history? Perhaps not…

Known as Swetsville Zoo, the 36-acre property at 4801 E. Harmony Road (across from the Timnath Walmart and beside Cosco) is a hybrid Jurassic Park meets John Deere phenom. The skilled hands of Bill Swets have been crafting dinosaurs, giant tricycles, mega-moths, scrollwork trellises and much more since August 1985. Parts of old farm machinery became amazing sculptures, which Swets placed in delightful vignettes around outbuildings, seven residences, and along the adjacent Poudre River. Swets’ parents, John and Gertrude, bought the original 120-acre property in 1938. Son Bill, just 10-months-old at the time, grew up farming and ranching the land. He recalled that, as recently as the 1950s, his family mounted horses and pushed their cattle westward along an informal dirt path now known as Harmony Road.

Time and progress likewise pushed on, shrinking the farm’s size when John Swets sold off a substantial number of acres to Connell Gravel and to land speculators, who eventually sold their 20 acres to Cosco.

The remaining property ultimately passed down to Bill Swets and wife Sandy, who died in 2010. Custom haying income helped support the 12-member extended family who lived in several homes on the acreage.

On July 24-25, 2015, area residents and nationwide online bidders had the opportunity to purchase a part of history. Although none of his whimsical art was included, Swets brought in Polk Auction Company of New Paris, Ind., to conduct a two-day sale of much of his decades-long inventory. Given the one-of-a-kind nature of some pieces and rarity of others, it would have been tragic had scrap dealers rather than Swets collected the vintage items so long ago.

In 2019, 78-year-old Bill Swets made the bittersweet decision to sell off the remaining acreage and his dinosaurs and other remaining creations.

The above, previously published excerpt assures a written history with photos of one historic Colorado farm/ranch property for future generations to appreciate and marvel at.

Also in Timnath, Willis Farm merited a Centennial designation in 1976. Sadly, the property was sold in 2019, thus ending the same family’s tenure on the land. However, previous Willis history was brilliantly recorded and preserved.

For example, Chuck Willis had tacked up calendars on the milk barn’s cabinet. Momentous and trivial events were penciled on and kept. Including that on Feb. 1, 1951, it was -41 degrees at 5 AM!; 1963 —“dryer than hell!”; and a sheepish event on July 1, 1984, when a particular Willis ewe produced her first set of twin girls; “Harmony the father, no cigars.”

Chuck’s grandfather, John, had kept diaries of the day beginning in 1896; the family retained 11 years worth of these, all in amazingly pristine condition. Imagine the otherwise lost data they contain. ❖

— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at

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