Rediscovered film portrays another era in Routt County agriculture | SteamboatToday.com

Rediscovered film portrays another era in Routt County agriculture

When horsepower implied horses

Filmmaker Modesto Compestine, addressing an audience at the Tread of Pioneers Museum, describes a device he used to splice film he shot in the early 1960s to document ranching with draft horses in Strawberry Park. Museum Executive Director Candice Bannister looks on.

— The audience that packed the Utterback Annex of the Tread of Pioneers Museum Sept. 2 enjoyed a rare glimpse of horse-powered agriculture in the Yampa Valley as the late Strawberry Park rancher Frank Harrison practiced it into the 1960s.

Thanks in part to a long-gone mare named Bay, Steamboat Springs filmmaker and still photographer Modesto "Comp" Compestine was persuaded by Harrison to document a full calendar year of his work on the ranch. Portions of that 8mm color film, “Four Seasons,” shot in the early 1960s, was shown and narrated by Compestine at the museum this month.

"Bay was brought here on a hunting trip with friends of mine from Kansas," Compestine said. "They filled their licenses, and there was no room for one horse," in the trailer, for the return trip to Kansas. "They gave me Bay, and I boarded her with Frank Harrison."

Harrison, who died in 1983, came to the Yampa Valley from Missouri as an infant in 1897. He ranched two parcels according to Strawberry Park historian John Whittum. One was in Soda Creek Bottom just outside Steamboat Springs, and the second was the Strawberry Park ranch now owned by Terry Huffington and her husband, Ralph Dittman.

It's apparent that Harrison grasped that his way of life was fading away.

The audience at the museum witnessed Harrison mowing, wind-rowing and stacking loose hay behind a team of draft horses. They saw him gentling an unbroken horse "the Indian way," branding calves in the sage brush and cutting a new winter feeding lane through the deep snow of Strawberry Park.

Recommended Stories For You

Devoted to Strawberry Park

John Whittum's 2016 collection of non-fiction essays about Strawberry Park and other Routt County locations in the 1960s, “Reflections from Northwest Colorado,” can be found at Off the Beaten Path bookstore and coffee shop, 68 Ninth St. in Steamboat Springs.

Compestine said Harrison seemed to have a special relationship with the draft horses.

"He would always talk very friendly with his horses, telling them exactly what he wanted them to do," he said.

At that point in the film, Harrison was on foot in the hay yard, holding the reins attached to a team of four giant horses who were dragging a large timber frame into place around a pile of loosely stacked hay.

Making Harrison's devotion to draft horses all the more remarkable is that he did not have full use of his right arm. And yet, most of the time, he worked alone. Annie Meyer, who worked with the horses, was his top hand.

Although the film exists because of the foresight of Harrison and Compestine, it might not be available for public viewing had it not been for the efforts of Whittum, the former Whiteman School headmaster.

"I sometimes helped Frank when he moved hay to feed his cows in the ’60s and ’70s,” Whittum said. “And I had several times showed his films, with Frank narrating them, to the Whiteman School’s student body. A few years ago, I tried to discover the film's whereabouts. No one here in Steamboat Springs seemed to know."

Finally, Whittum contacted Harrison's daughter Marty Totman in Durango. The family was cautious about extending rights to the footage, but ultimately, Tread of Pioneers curator Katie Adams, through discussions with Harrison's grandson Schuyler Totman, gained permission to show the film only at the museum. There are no DVD copies for sale, Adams said.

"I have to think this is what Frank would have wanted," Adams said. "To see it in motion, makes you really appreciate how hard (working on the ranch) was."

Perhaps the piece of the film that will have the broadest interest shows Harrison gentling a horse over a course of many days. He is seen reaching out his sweat-stained hat so the tethered horse can get used to his scent. He rubs the horse and swats it gently with a saddle blanket. Eventually, he backs the horse into a corner where he sets a saddle on its back, removes it and repeats the same motion over and over.

Compestine recalled the day when Harrison finally summoned him to shoot footage while he rode the horse for the first time.

"I thought I was going to get a really good show," he remembered with a chuckle. "I thought he might get bucked off, but he just rode off into the pasture."

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

How can I see the Modesto Compestine film?

Modesto Compestine’s film about rancher Frank Harrison, who relied on draft horses to harvest hay, can only be viewed at the Tread of Pioneers Museum, preferably by appointment. The public is welcome to call 970-879-2214 and ask for Katie Adams.

Devoted to Strawberry Park

John Whittum’s 2016 collection of non-fiction essays about Strawberry Park and other Routt County locations in the 1960s, “Reflections from Northwest Colorado,” can be found at Off the Beaten Path bookstore and coffee shop, 68 Ninth St. in Steamboat Springs.

Go back to article