No, I didn’t just get transported from the set of Little House on the Prairie. In fact, this is my costume as part of a living history special event at Boulder’s Walker Ranch for tomorrow, Walker Ranch Heritage Days. While it may seem strange to remember, as you look down on Boulder today, with its 150,000 residents, this area consisted of plains and mountains with virtually no inhabitants 150 years ago. It wasn’t really until around 1860 that people started to flock to Colorado in numbers for Colorado’s Gold Rush of 1859. And it was during the 1870s and 1880s that people started to settle in the foothills and try to make a life through ranching. Walker Ranch was one of those ranches that was settled during that time.
The Homestead Act of 1862 paved the way for pioneers to move out west and try to make a living off the land, providing clear title to 160 acres of land after five years’ residence. Those who were impatient with money, could buy their 160 acres for a mere $1.25/acre after only 6 months. Many families set out on the Oregon Trail and other trails to take advantage of the offer, setting off a boom of westward expansion during the late 1800s.
James Walker actually fled to the Rocky Mountains for health reasons. Having been diagnosed with Yellow Fever in 1869, his doctor recommended he move to Colorado for its dry climate. He regained his health and met a teacher, Phoebe Skinner whom he later married. Initially, the Walker family spent winters in Boulder and summers up at Walker Ranch. He set about building a house, acquiring cattle, and by 1882, the Walkers took up year-round residence on the west side of the Flatirons. James Walker resided at Walker Ranch until his death in 1922.
Ranching still remains a challenging way of life. Ranchers are at the mercy of the weather to produce enough hay, and the whims of the market to produce enough money to sustain themselves. Add in to that, the isolation of living at the end of a winding mountain road, and long, cold winters to endure, and I know it can’t have been easy for James and Phoebe to make a life for themselves. But certainly for the ranching way of life, there are few places that rival the setting and beauty of Walker Ranch.
Fortunately, Walker Ranch, like other ranches was never developed in the 20th century. Boulder County has been fortunate to acquire several historic ranches along the Front Range as part of its Parks and Open Space. Heritage Days is a great time to remember Colorado’s rich ranching history, and be grateful that we get to enjoy the recreation and beauty it has to offer today.