Located about ten miles south of Leadville in the Upper Arkansas Valley, Hayden Ranch was one of the most important early agricultural operations in Lake County. Owned by the Hayden family from 1872 to 1933, the ranch raised hay and cattle for sale in Leadville, Denver, and other markets throughout the state. In 1998 the city of Aurora bought the ranch for its water rights and sold the historic homestead to the nonprofit Colorado Preservation Inc., which then worked with Colorado Mountain College’s Leadville campus to stabilize the ranch buildings and develop a plan for an experiential education center at the site.
Hayden Ranch started as one of the earliest agricultural operations in Lake County. The ranch already existed in 1860, the year miners streamed into the Upper Arkansas Valley to pan for gold at California Gulch. Known as Elkhorn Ranch and owned by Benson and Company, the property lay on the west side of the Arkansas River in the shadow of Mt. Elbert. The ranch had a short growing season because of its high elevation—about 9,200 feet—but it had plenty of water and could be used to grow hay to feed the horses and mules that the area’s mining operations required.
One of the new settlers who arrived in Lake County in the early 1860s was John L. Dyer, a Methodist Episcopal preacher and mail carrier who became famous for delivering letters and sermons to mining camps throughout Colorado’s central mountains. Dyer also tried his hand at prospecting and ranching, and in May 1864 he acquired Elkhorn Ranch, which soon became known as the Dyer and Harrington Hay Ranch. In the late 1860s, Dyer operated the ranch along with his son Elias, a county probate judge who was later assassinated during a conflict between rival ranching factions in 1875.
Long before ranching violence erupted in Lake County, Dyer sold his ranch to Charles Mater in 1871. A German immigrant and early settler at California Gulch, Mater had opened his first store in Granite in 1870. His mercantile empire soon grew to six stores, and he became a mining investor and founding member of the Leadville Chamber of Commerce.
Mater owned the ranch for only a year before selling it in 1872 to Francis and Olive Hayden. From then on, the property was known as Hayden Ranch. For two decades the family focused on producing hay and gradually expanded the ranch to about 3,500 acres. After a silver boom started at Leadville in 1877–78, the ranch’s hay and cattle helped sustain the people and animals who worked in the area’s bustling mines. In 1880 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad built a siding at Hayden Ranch on its way up the Arkansas Valley to Leadville, providing the ranch with easier access to markets. At its height, the ranch yielded 3,000 tons of hay per year, with some of it supposedly being hand-sorted for quality and shipped to the Royal Stables in England.
Unfortunately, the mines that fed the demand for Hayden Ranch’s agricultural produce also undermined it. Hayden Ranch was downstream from Leadville, so the water it used to irrigate its hay and other crops contained pollution from Leadville’s toxic mine tailings. By the early 1890s, the pollution was so bad that it affected both the quantity and quality of hay grown at the ranch. The ranch’s fortunes declined even further after 1893, when a major economic panic and the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act caused many of Leadville’s mines to close and ended much of the local demand for Hayden Ranch’s produce.
In 1918 management of the struggling ranch passed to Francis Hayden’s son-in-law, John Weir. Weir expanded the ranch’s operations beyond hay so it could survive, as hay-fueled horses and mules were displaced by cars, trucks, and other fossil-fuel machines. Weir immediately installed a waterwheel in a new wing that he built over a creek that ran east of the main hay barn. The waterwheel powered a sawmill, which Weir used to cut lumber for new ranch buildings, and a hay baler, which prepared hay for shipment from the ranch’s rail siding to markets across the state. Weir also moved the ranch into the livestock business. Each spring he bought a group of two-year-old steers that grazed at the ranch through the summer before being sent to Denver for sale in the fall.
After the Haydens
In 1933 the Hayden family sold the ranch to the Callahan Construction Company, which used the property as a Hereford cattle operation supporting about 500 head of cattle per year. In 1936 the company hired a graduate of the Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University) School of Forestry to manage the ranch. The new manager started seasonal breeding so that all the calves would be the same age and size, and he also implemented new grazing patterns to avoid overgrazing.
In 1939 the ranch took part in the US Army Remount Service, a program designed to breed top cavalry horses for the army. An army stallion was posted at the ranch’s horse barn, and the ranch got unlimited use of the stallion for breeding on the condition that the army received first choice of the offspring. The program proved to be a bust, however, because most of the stallion’s offspring soon died from a degenerative bone disease that was probably caused by the toxic mining waste that laced the Arkansas River. At the same time, the onset of World War II quickly showed that horses were obsolete in a new era of highly mechanized warfare.
World War II also hurt the ranch in other ways. Labor was scarce during the war, and production decreased. In 1947 Callahan sold the ranch, which started to be used for seasonal cattle grazing. Most of the ranch buildings were no longer needed and began to deteriorate.
As skiing took off in the 1960s, an optimistic group of investors bought thousands of acres of ranchland in Lake County with the dream of building a ski area on the slopes of Mt. Elbert. The only part of the plan that ever took shape was the Pan Ark Lodge (now the Moosehaven Condominiums) just north of the Hayden Ranch headquarters. In 1997 the investment group officially gave up and sold its 7,000 acres of land, including Hayden Ranch.
In 1998 the city of Aurora bought Hayden Ranch’s roughly 1,800 acres to secure valuable water rights. The city soon approached Lake County to determine how best to use the land itself, which was still home to a cattle-grazing operation. The county quickly formed the Lake County Open Space Initiative (LCOSI)—a consortium of more than two dozen governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, and citizens’ groups—to help guide and implement its decisions. The major goals for the land were to provide outdoor recreation opportunities while also preserving the ranch’s history and open spaces. To accomplish these goals, Aurora gave sixty acres of the property to Lake County and sold more than 1,400 acres to the Bureau of Land Management and 360 acres to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. In the early 2000s, Lake County received more than $350,000 from Great Outdoors Colorado to develop the Hayden Meadows Recreation Area with a pond, fishing docks, restrooms, and picnic tables.
It proved more difficult to determine what to do with the historic buildings that made up the Hayden Ranch headquarters—including a large ranch house, several barns, and a variety of other ranch facilities—which needed significant stabilization and restoration work before they could be adapted for new uses. In 2003 the thirty-six-acre Hayden Ranch headquarters was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two years later, Aurora sold the headquarters to the nonprofit Colorado Preservation, Inc., which started working with the Colorado Mountain College (CMC) campus in Leadville to stabilize the ranch’s historic structures and figure out preservation options at the site. In 2006 students in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado–Denver developed designs for new and renovated spaces to house CMC classrooms and offices as well as the Rocky Mountain Land Library, which briefly considered moving to Hayden Ranch before ultimately leasing Buffalo Peaks Ranch.
In 2007–8 Colorado Preservation secured grants from the State Historical Fund and several other agencies and foundations for the restoration of the ranch’s waterwheel and the stabilization of several ranch buildings. With that work complete, Colorado Preservation placed a conservation easement on the property and sold the site to CMC. Further stabilization work took place in stages over the next three years. In 2011 CMC completed a master plan for the Hayden Ranch headquarters and received a State Historical Fund grant for restoration work at the site, which it plans to turn into an experiential education center for students in fields such as historic preservation, resource management, outdoor recreation, and sustainability.