Tom Ross: Cattlemen and sheep ranchers tangled

Tree carvings recall the turn of the century in North Routt


On an August evening in 1934, in an aspen glade not far from Iron Mountain, a lonely sheepherder named Willie Lujan opened a stout pocketknife and carved his girlfriend's name in the soft bark of a tree trunk. "Chrlotte" was the woman's name.

Not more than 12 feet away, on another aspen trunk, someone - perhaps it was Willie - carefully carved a profile of a horse's neck and head. At the base of the animal's neck, the artist carved a woman's breast. Obviously, he was an admirer of Pablo Picasso. Or something like that.

We came across the tree carvings the other weekend while skiing through the deep snow on a trail that takes off from the historic guest cabins in Columbine. The snow in the woods of North Routt was 4 feet deep (it's safe to assume that it's deeper today), and we had to encourage Buck the Wonder Dog to dig the snow away from the tree trunk to fully reveal the carving.

I should confess that I've taken a little liberty with this anecdote - I have no idea if the "arboreal art" or arborglyphs as some people call aspen carvings, were made in the evening or in the morning.

For the record, I don't know if Mr. Lujan used a folding pocketknife or a straight hunting knife to leave a record of his days in the upper Elk River Valley.

However, I'm reasonably certain of how old the carvings are. Unless the artist (who may or may not have been lonely) was a big fibber, the carving in the unusually large aspen trunk will reach its 73rd anniversary late this summer.

I also know that if he were a contestant on Wheel of Fortune, Lujan would need to purchase a vowel from Vanna.

And maybe that's not really a woman's breast on the horse's neck; perhaps it's a bull's eye. Then again, if you saw some of the other ribald carvings on aspens in the vicinity of Columbine, I think you'd be persuaded that I'm not the only one with an active imagination.

Lonely sheepherders have been tending flocks in North Routt County since the late 19th century. Lujan may have had the misfortune of living his adult life during the Great Depression, but at least he missed the Northwest Colorado sheep wars.

The great cattle herds came first. George Baggs trailed a herd of longhorns into Browns Park in 1871. Absentee owners sent thousands of cattle to Northwest Colorad o for the lush grass beginning in about 1880.

Large herds of sheep weren't far behind. And from the beginning, there was tension between cattlemen and the woolgrowers who began to move into Northwest Colorado from Utah and Wyoming.

The cattlemen vigorously resisted the new competition for rangeland and organized rides to turn the herds of sheep around.

When a sheep outfit from Wyoming attempted to move into the valley of the Little Snake River north of Columbine in 1899, cowboys killed several hundred head of sheep. And when the Cow Creek Sheep Co. pushed into Whiskey Park in Routt County, cattlemen stampeded several thousand head, causing many to die from exhaustion.

The tension began to gradually subside after 1903, when the National Forest was established. Sheep outfits were granted permits to graze on the higher Alpine meadows where cattle rarely ventured.

It's difficult for me to imagine what it must have been like to be a sheepherder in North Routt County back in the days before satellite radio. Willie Lujan probably went for weeks without human contact. Carving pictures and names in aspen trunks was probably one of his few forms of entertainment. Of course today, it would be bad form to disfigure a tree. But it's hard to deny the value of Lujan's historical record.

The aspens where Lujan set up his camp are widely spaced - it's almost a meadow. The tree trunks are as big around as a person's waist.

The herder may have had one of the little wagons with a domed shape roof where he could cook his meals out of the weather and the mosquitoes.

There was plenty of sweet water and ample grass for one or two horses. I picture Lujan sitting with his back to an aspen trunk, a Spanish guitar cradled in his lap.

Wistfully, he croons a love song to Charlotte.

Their love will live on - at least until the aspen tree blows down in a summer thunderstorm.


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