Buffalo Peaks Ranch is one of the oldest ranches in South Park, with roots in Adolphe and Marie Guiraud’s 1862 homestead along the Middle Fork of the South Platte River between Hartsel and Fairplay. Over the next eighty years, three generations of the Guiraud family gradually expanded the ranch before selling it to the McDowell family in 1943. In 1985 the city of Aurora acquired the ranch for its water rights and fishing access, and in 2013 Aurora leased the ranch’s historic buildings and some land to the Rocky Mountain Land Library, which plans to open a residential library on the property.
Adolphe (sometimes spelled Adolph) and Marie Guiraud were pioneers in South Park ranching. Originally from France—Adolphe was born there in 1823, Marie in 1830—they came to the United States in 1850 and made their way to Denver in 1860, soon after the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. Adolphe opened a store in the town of Hamilton, which was just north of Como in Park County.
The Guirauds quickly saw South Park’s agricultural potential. The park lay at a high elevation and received little precipitation, but it was relatively level and had lots of water running through the Platte and Tarryall drainages, making it suitable for growing hay and raising livestock. In 1861, while still in Hamilton, Adolphe claimed South Park’s first permanent ditch rights for agriculture, and in March 1862 the Guirauds homesteaded 160 acres along the Middle Fork of the South Platte River in the west-central part of the park. Because they had one of the earliest ranches, they also acquired some of the most valuable water rights in South Park.
Over the next few years, Adolphe continued to work as a merchant. In 1864 he had a meat market in Denver, and in 1865 he ran a store in Fairplay. By the winter of 1865, however, the Guiraud family started to focus on developing and expanding its South Park ranch. By 1868 the family had more than forty acres planted in wheat, oats, rye, potatoes, and other vegetables, and expanded the ranch by purchasing adjacent homesteads. By the time of Adolphe’s death in 1875, the ranch had grown to 640 acres.
Marie Guiraud and her ten children proved to be excellent ranch managers after South Park recovered from the locusts and grasshoppers that swept through the area in 1874 and 1876, respectively. The Guirauds were helped by the arrival of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad, which in 1879 built a line that passed about fifty feet west of the ranch house. Marie platted a town called Garo—an Anglicized version of Guiraud—across the river from the ranch, and the railroad established a station there. Garo grew in importance when a spur line was built from the station to Fairplay and Alma in the early 1880s. At its height, the town boasted about eighty people, a post office, and a store.
Meanwhile, the Guirauds were expanding their ranch and getting into the beef business. One of the Guiraud children, Louis, started a slaughterhouse in 1880, allowing him to ship beef to the lucrative Leadville market. That year the ranch had 600 cattle and 2,000 acres of grazing land, making it one of the most valuable ranches in Park County. By the early 1900s, the Guirauds had enlarged their ranch to about 5,000 acres.
In 1906 the original ranch house burned down, but Marie Guiraud immediately replaced it with a new one-story frame house featuring horizontal siding and a high-hipped roof. When Marie died in 1909, her son Ernest took over the ranch. He later passed it to his daughter, Mildred, and her husband, Harry Johns, who managed the ranch and served in the state legislature.
After Mildred Johns died in 1942, Harry Johns sold the ranch to James T. McDowell, Sr. A contractor by trade, McDowell used his construction experience to improve and modernize the ranch, especially after his son, James T. McDowell, Jr., returned from World War II to help run the ranch. They enlarged the main house with two additions and built new garages, barns, granaries, and shops, as well as a cookhouse, bunkhouse, and scale house. The buildings were arranged north and east of the main ranch house east of Highway 9.
McDowell, Jr., had studied animal husbandry at Colorado State University, and he helped expand the family’s Hereford cattle operations on its extensive South Park ranch lands. He served as president of the Central Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and was a member of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.
Aurora and the Rocky Mountain Land Library
In 1976 the McDowell family sold their holdings, which then passed through the hands of several investors over the next nine years. Meanwhile, in 1981 the city of Aurora completed Spinney Mountain Reservoir east of Hartsel, flooding several miles of fishing waters along the Middle Fork of the South Platte River. As mitigation, Aurora agreed to make six miles of previously private fishing waters open to the public for ninety-nine years. To get valuable water rights and help fulfill its fishing mitigation requirement, in 1985 Aurora bought 1,840 acres of the former Guiraud-McDowell Ranch—by that time known as Buffalo Peaks Ranch—from the Swiss corporation Oecofintra AG. In 1987 the city opened part of the Middle Fork of the South Platte River through the ranch to public fishing.
As with other acquisitions by thirsty Front Range cities, Aurora’s purchase of Buffalo Peaks Ranch left it with a large historic property for which it had no clear use. Starting in 2005, Aurora entered discussions with Park County to consider how the land and its historic ranch buildings might be used. A variety of ideas were floated—including a mushroom farm, a wind farm, a shooting ranch, and a brewery—but Park County ultimately wanted to find an educational use focused on the ranch’s history and landscape.
Aurora and Park County found a suitable tenant when they met Jeff Lee and Ann Martin. Long-time employees of the Tattered Cover book store in Denver, Lee and Martin had amassed tens of thousands of books about natural history and the West, and they had established an organization, the Rocky Mountain Land Library, to promote greater understanding of the relationship between humans and nature. They were searching for a place where they could house all their books and host visiting writers and scholars, and they said they “saw their home” when they visited Buffalo Peaks Ranch.
It took years to work out the details, but in September 2013 Lee and Martin signed a ninety-five-year lease for the ranch buildings and sixty acres of land. With help from grants, crowdfunding campaigns, and volunteers, they plan to renovate the remaining historic buildings (including the 1906 ranch house) into a residential library where writers, artists, researchers, and others can stay from a few days to a few months to consult the 30,000 volumes that will be kept there. As of April 2017, Lee and Martin had raised more than $130,000 for the project. The library’s collection devoted to ranching will be named the Marie Guiraud Ranching Library in honor of the ranch’s longtime owner.