RIDGWAY – Have you ever wondered what the land was like along the Uncompahgre River and old Highway 550 before the road was rerouted, the ranches foreclosed on, and the Ridgway Dam was built?
Log Hill residents Barbara and Jack Rairden have wondered, and they’ve begun a book project to uncover as much of the drowned history as they can. The Rairdens, who retired (Jack calls it “paid vacation”) to Log Hill in 1991, have two previous local histories to their credit: Log Hill Mesa Families, from 2009, and Log Hill Mesa Past and Present, 2011. They are hoping they can entice, as they say in their formal announcement, “information from members of the public who may have documents or photos or other memorabilia pertaining to those ranches and nearby properties and their owners through the years.” They’ve already received substantial help from “Maria Jones and Glenda Moore at the Ouray County History Museum, Rhonda Palmer at the Ridgway State Park, Joan Chismire at the Ouray County Ranching History Museum and Marilyn Cox in Montrose. We also have received important information from Barbara Morss, Brent Berkey, Louie and Sue Schlosser and John Coffman.” But they need a lot more.
When I spoke with Jack Rairden this week, he was thrilled to learn that I had actually driven the old road. (Construction on the dam started in 1980, water storage began in May 1987, and the reservoir was topped off in 1990.) In October 1979, while we were still living in Telluride, my second child was on the way – fast. Ellen’s labor had progressed rapidly, I was driving the VW bus as fast as I dared toward Montrose Memorial Hospital, and as we passed the Cookie Tree Ranch, near what is now the Dallas Creek boat ramp, we briefly considered pulling over and delivering the baby in the back of the van.
The Cookie Tree was one of about a dozen farms and ranches, Rairden estimates, that occupied the roughly 5,000 acres to be flooded and developed as a state park. “There were a half dozen major ones,” Rairden said, “maybe two dozen properties total that touch the park in some way.”
Thanks to the two-volumes of the Ranching History of Ouray County, the Rairdens know about “the Berkey Place, the Lee family up on Cow Creek, and the Morris’s Quail Place, right there where the dam is now.” Thanks to Peggy Kiniston (an Uncompahgre Valley native and long-time advertising sales person for The Watch) they know about Pete Hess and the little store he ran not far from the Cookie Tree. “I used to go down there for candies,” Kiniston recalled.
At the Ouray County Historical Museum, the Rairdens discovered “the mother lode,” the official, 600-page volume commissioned in the 1970s to study everything about the lands to be inundated. The Old Dallas Historical Archeological Program “is quite a lengthy study,” Jack Rairden told me. It has been so important to their project, they bought a copy for themselves and had it re-bound, since the original binding was falling apart. “We’re trying to sort through all that, make it simple,” he said.
Rairden is on the board of the Ouray County Ranching History Museum housed in the Old Colona Schoolhouse. “When it reopens again this summer, we hope to go through their photo archives for more” on the underwater ranches.
“Right now we don’t have much,” he said. “We’re really looking for photos. And anyone who will talk to us.” Call the Rairdens at 249-0464 or email at email@example.com.
In the Ranching History Vol. 1, Martha Morris Nolen describes her childhood on the Quail Place and the wheat they sold to “the grain and feed company in Montrose, potatoes to the Potato Growers, hay, cream to the creamery.
“We must remember that the farms and ranches were here because of the people that came to virgin land – homesteaded and built them from scratch. May God bless each and every one. I honestly wonder what they think of it now.”