Routt County history is like a giant jigsaw puzzle scattered throughout the Yampa Valley and surrounding areas -- you never know when or where you're going to find the next piece.
Few know this better than Angie KenCairn, heritage specialist and archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
Just last week, KenCairn stumbled across an old logging camp that dates back to the early 20th century. And while homemade shovels, old glass bottles and antique tobacco tins may not represent "the sexiest archaeology," Routt County certainly has its own, "very special brand of archaeology," KenCairn told a packed room of history buffs at the Tread of Pioneers Museum on Friday.
KenCairn's discussion, "In situ: An archeological history of the Yampa Valley," was the latest meeting of the museum's Brown Bag Lecture Series. As is typical with the series, a crowd of several dozen turned out for the one-hour discussion.
Tread of Pioneers curator Kelly Bastone said the popularity of the lecture series has grown steadily over the years.
"They've been getting really big," Bastone said. "This summer it has started to bubble over."
So much so that some of the discussions have moved across the street to the Lowell Whiteman Primary School, which has a bigger facility capable of accommodating the larger crowds.
Friday's crowed spilled out of the large room in the rear of the museum, where KenCairn engaged the audience with historic photographs and archaeological evidence of early Routt County inhabitants and settlements.
Some of the stone and petrified wood tools discovered in the area date as far back as 11,000 years, KenCairn said. The tools, homesites and camps discovered throughout the area often provide a detailed history of how people settled across the region and how they used nature's resources in their daily lives.
As an example KenCairn discussed the Scandinavians who logged in the area. Many worked throughout the harsh northwest Colorado winters making railroad ties. The workers often built dams on area creeks before the onset of winter, only to break the dams apart in the spring, sending downstream a current of water capable of moving the railroad ties.
She also shared old photographs and stories of the historic mining district near Hahn's Peak, where gold was discovered in the early-to-mid-1800s.
"You wouldn't know it today how much was really going on up there," KenCairn said
Other significant historical sites include the Windy Ridge Quarry, whose rock was used for tool making by inhabitants who lived in the valley as far back as 11,000 years ago, KenCairn said.
To date, more than 1,000 archaeologically significant sites have been identified in the Routt National Forest, KenCairn said. And while stumbling across historic artifacts can be exciting, she encourages people to leave artifacts as they were found. Remembering the location of a site and informing a Forest Service employee can help the effort to document and preserve historic areas, she said. "These are non-renewable resources," Ken-Cairn said. "They're one of a kind, and once we lose them, we lose them forever."
Routt County archaeological history is unique in that it's often not visible, instead tucked away in remote areas of the national forest. KenCairn sees her role in historic preservation as one of an interpreter bringing the past to present and future generations.
"We can't forget about all the layers of history that came before us," she said.
The archaeological discussion, like others in the Brown Bag Lecture Series, provides a unique and important service for the community, Bastone said.
"We want it to be a platform for longtime residents of the valley to offer commentary on what Steamboat and the surrounding areas were like way back when," she said. "It's nice to have people who are experts on one aspect or another of the area's history."
This summer's series began July 2 with Dr. Bill Baldwin, who shared his stories about growing up on a Routt County ranch. A week later, musician and cowboy poet Steve Jones told historic tales about the Yampa Valley and sang original songs he wrote.
Remaining lectures include one this week by Paul Bonnifield, a former rodeo rider and ranch hand who will discuss the trials and tribulations of breaking wild horses. On Aug. 13, Elaine Gay of the Green Creek Ranch will appear at the series to coincide with the opening of a museum exhibit featuring her family.
On Aug. 20 Jan Kaminski will discuss local architectural styles, and the series wraps up Aug. 27 when Bastone discusses Navajo weaving.
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