Established in 1887 by Ernest Wilber, Rock Ledge Ranch is a historic ranch four miles west of Buena Vista in the Upper Arkansas Valley (17975 Co Rd 338, Buena Vista, CO 81211). Since 1908 the ranch has been owned and operated by multiple generations of the Franzel family, which immigrated to the United States from Germany in the late nineteenth century. Still run by the Franzel family, in 2015 the ranch was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an important example of the Upper Arkansas Valley’s long agricultural tradition.
On September 15, 1887, Ernest Wilber founded Rock Ledge Ranch. Originally from Michigan, Wilber had come to Colorado in 1880 as a conductor for the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad. He was based in Buena Vista, where he married Belle Orr in 1882 and became active in local affairs. In 1883 he left his job with the railroad and entered the election for county clerk and recorder. He won the position and acquired a ranch near Buena Vista, but in 1885 he lost his bid for re-election because some thought he cared more about his ranch than his clerkship.
Wilber clearly paid attention to his ranch work, for he quickly gained a reputation as a successful cattleman and vegetable grower. In the late 1880s he acquired Rock Ledge Ranch a few miles west of Buena Vista along Cottonwood Creek. He settled the land in September 1887, and his family followed in January 1888. That year the family built a log house on the land, and by 1890 they also had a barn, a cellar, and an irrigation ditch. They were raising horses, cattle, and hogs, and had 160 acres planted in peas, potatoes, and hay.
In 1891 Wilber tried to win the county clerk and recorder position again but was defeated. At the ranch, he shifted his focus from cattle and vegetables to dairy cows and started to deliver milk in the area using a canvas-covered wagon. As the business grew, he switched his herd to Jersey cows, which were regarded as the best milk cows at the time. He also built an ice house and started selling ice.
Ernest’s wife, Belle Wilber, spent her summers on the ranch but lived in Buena Vista during the winters. She also became politically active in the 1890s and was involved in the successful campaign for women’s suffrage in Colorado in 1893.
In 1908 the Wilbers sold the ranch to Gustav Adolph “Gus” Franzel, a miner in Granite who had decided that he could make a better living selling food to miners. A German immigrant who came to the United States in 1890, Franzel had married fellow German immigrant Marie Baier in Leadville in 1894. The couple had three children—Carl, Herman, and Erna—in the 1890s, and became naturalized citizens in 1903.
After Franzel acquired Rock Ledge Ranch, the rest of his young family moved there from Granite on January 1, 1909. The Franzel family grew garden peas, lettuce, and potatoes, selling much of their produce in Leadville. They also raised hogs, using them to make German sausages such as liverwurst. Franzel became a leading local rancher, and in 1916 he helped organize the Chaffee County Cattle and Horse Growers Association.
The Franzels gradually added new buildings to the ranch. In the 1920s Franzel brought an old brooder house from Leadville to have a heated building for raising chicks. He also moved another building from Leadville and used it to expand the original log ranch house.
The Next Generations
As Gus Franzel got older, his son Carl took on more responsibility at the ranch, eventually becoming its owner after his father died in 1950. His duties shifted with the seasons: winter was for maintaining buildings, spring for herding cattle, summer for harvesting hay, and fall for rounding up cattle. After he acquired the ranch’s first tractor in 1940, other mechanized tools and appliances began to ease certain farm tasks. Carl and his wife, Lois, had three children—Lucia, Kenneth, and Jan—who helped with chores around the ranch in the 1940s and 1950s.
After Carl died in 1980, his son, Kenneth, retired from the Air Force and returned to the ranch with his wife, Grace. They helped Lois Franzel until her death in 1984, when they inherited the property. In 1987 they remodeled and expanded the ranch house, whose core still dates to the Wilber family’s original 1888 log house. They continue to raise cattle, keep a vegetable garden, and maintain the ranch’s buildings, fences, and fields.