Tom Ross: Routt County's earliest ranchers were drawn to Twentymile Park

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— From the earliest days of farming and ranching in Routt County, it’s been understood that there was a big difference between trying to run cattle in West Routt and East Routt. But in those days, the Routt County line was on the border with Utah.

Today is officially Agriculture Day in the United States and it arrives at a time when farmers from the cornfields of Illinois to the hay meadows of Colorado’s Western Slope are worried about moisture.

Here in Routt County, the good news is that most years we receive ample snowfall to fill the streams and rivers to grow a bumper crop of grass hay. The challenging news is that the longer and deeper the winter, the more hay cows must consume to survive.

Writing in his indispensable 1962 book “Where the Old West Stayed Young,” John Rolfe Burroughs observed that the amount of hay a “cow critter” ate in the course of a winter varied with its severity. Burroughs quoted a real deal Northwest Colorado cowboy, Reuben Squire, who wrote about the early winter of 1908.

“In the fall of 1908 it snowed us under on the sixteenth day of October and the snow did not go off until the following May,” Squire recalled. “The first storm left 29 inches on the level at Steamboat Springs.”

In those days, before the state Legislature split it in two, Routt County spanned a large geographic area, 150 miles in width, from the Continental Divide on the east to the Utah border on the west. The earliest and largest cattle outfits to come into the old Routt County had the luxury of allowing their livestock to forage on grasses amidst the sagebrush and juniper year-round in what is now western Moffat County.

It was a different story, and a different scale of ranching, for the earliest ranchers to make their place in eastern Routt County. It was necessary to irrigate the meadows and put up hay for the winters.

Twentymile Park, which is defined by a triangle linking the towns of Yampa, Hayden and Steamboat Springs, figured prominently for some of the first cattlemen to come to what is modern-day Routt County, according to Burroughs.

Burroughs reports that in 1884, at age 17, Charley Temple pushed a herd of 1,500 steers from his father’s ranch near Wagon Mound, N.M., to Northwest Colorado, where they wintered on open range near Maybell and spent their summers in Twentymile Park. Temple and his crew drove them to market in Denver that autumn.

Temple decided to remain in Routt County and purchased the Sam Reid Ranch on Hayden’s west side before selling it to the Cary brothers in 1912. That’s when he purchased the Dry Creek Ranch southeast of Hayden.

Another rancher from New Mexico, Si Dawson, originally came to Routt County with a sizeable bankroll. Burroughs wrote that Dawson sold large land holdings near Maxwell, N.M., and arrived in the Hayden area with several hundred thousand dollars.

He invested in a cattle ranch on the south side of the Yampa River five to six miles east of Hayden.

As we observe Agriculture Week and honor the people who toil to put food on our tables, it’s interesting to contemplate how old Si Dawson and J.C. Temple would have reacted to extreme drought and the potential for a second season of poor pasture and low hay yields in Northwest Colorado.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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