Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

A historic ranch is restored and preserved under a conservation easement.

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Tony and Charlie are three-quarter Belgian brothers born within a week of each other. Duane Beamer keeps them busy whenever he can. Photography by Christopher Marona.

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

As fall gives way to winter, Duane Beamer moves the horses off the high pastures. Photography by Christopher Marona.

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

A monumental fieldstone and ponderosa pine gate welcome visitors to one of America's most beautiful ranches. Photography by Roger Wade.

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Ranch life revolves around the log and fieldstone barn. Photography by Roger Wade.

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Vince doing what he loves best. Photography by Christopher Marona.

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

The Collins family takes a break from building the woodshed in 1923. Seventy years later, Vince’s crew carefully skidded the farmstead’s log buildings off their original sites, poured new foundations and moved them back into place before repairing rotted logs and leaky roofs. Vince says they should last another 100 years. Photo courtesy LaVelle Corey.

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Saving Last Dollar Ranch in Colorado

Vince and Joan started the Double Shoe Publishing Co. for the sole purpose of documenting their two ranches in a series of books.

    Story by Vince Kontny

    Mine was, in my view, the ideal childhood. Born and raised on a ranch far from town on the plains of Colorado, I was the ninth of 10 children. My father, a dedicated cattleman, also wintered a couple of thousand lambs on wheat stubble. My oldest brother raised pigs, and we had a pony, saddle horses, a gentle team of draft horses, sheepdogs, cats and more cats. Life was a wonderful daily adventure—not that ranching in the years just after the Depression was in any way easy.

    We kids were expected to do more than simple chores like feeding the chickens and gathering eggs. My brother Jim and I were driving the tractor for summer tilling when we were just 6 or 7 years old.

    Vacations were rare, but for a week one summer my parents took three of us boys to the mountains in the heart of Colorado. They rented a rustic cabin in the woods next to a stream. We thought we had died and gone to heaven.

    My crowning mountain experience was a high school trip with friends of my sister’s, who took us on a two-week adventure to camp, fish and scale a few “fourteeners,” which is what local climbers call peaks over 14,000 feet. If I’d had any doubt that the mountains were paradise, that trip erased it.

    But my father gave me some good advice when I told him I wanted to ranch in the mountains someday. He told me to get an education and a good job to support my family, and then I could get my little ranch in the mountains.

    I chose a career in construction, which eventually took me to all seven continents on projects of every description. Though demanding, it enabled my wife, Joan, and me to raise and educate our three children and finally buy the ranch of my dreams.

    While we were on a family vacation at a guest ranch near Ouray, in southwestern Colorado, we met Duane Beamer, who helped us find Last Dollar Ranch. It had almost everything I’d imagined as a boy: towering mountains, forests of aspen and spruce, lush meadows and abundant wildlife. On top of all that, it had a fascinating ranching history.

    Hastings Mesa, where Last Dollar Ranch sits in the shadow of the Sneffels Range of the San Juan Mountains, is named for George and Mary Hastings, who settled there in 1876, when it was part of Ute Indian territory.

    In a conversation with her grandson Homer in 1927, Mary fondly recalled those early days. “The Indians used to think the stove was quite a curiosity, and sometimes a number of them would come to look at it. The men would sit in a semicircle around the stove, and the squaws would stand up. They knew only a few English words, but usually they could ask for sugar and biscuits. If we were liberal with these, they would probably return in a day or two with a nice piece of venison.”

    Brothers Boyd and Johns Collins moved to Hastings Mesa in 1901 and bought a quarter-section homestead. The log cabin sat at 9,200 feet, and the land ran to 10,000 feet at the upper boundary. In the early years, Boyd and Johns worked together, building nine log barns and outbuildings, planting, haying and keeping a few milk cows.

    In 1911, Boyd married Gertrude Saunders. Johns died suddenly a few months later, but Boyd and Gertrude carried on. They built up their milk herd to as many as 50 cows and bought range cows to pasture on the high meadows. Cream, sold to the gold and silver miners in Telluride, was their major source of cash.

    Unlike ranchers who took their cattle to lower elevations for the winter, the Collinses kept their cows close to the house and milk barn, braving the winter cold. As neighbors gave up and sold out, the couple added more land. Each morning after milking, Boyd harnessed a team, loaded a sled with hay and drove down to Leopard Creek, where the cattle were sheltered from the wind. To water them, he’d chop a hole through the ice with an ax.

    Gertrude gave birth to their first child in the old log cabin. In 1917, they used drawings from Montgomery Ward to build a Victorian-style house, where three more children were born. Boyd and his family lived on Hastings Mesa for over four decades. When he died in 1947, the family moved to warmer climates and leased the ranch for summer grazing. In 1989, Boyd and Gertrude’s granddaughter sold the homestead and 400 acres to Joan and me.

    By then, the mesa was well on its way to reclaiming the buildings, fences and irrigation ditches. I’m sure most folks in the area expected we’d just bulldoze the place and start over, but that thought never crossed my mind. We were determined to preserve the ranch’s legacy, not destroy it.

    I was still devoting my full time to my job as president of Fluor Corp., which at the time was the world’s largest engineering and construction company. So Joan and I formed Double Shoe Cattle Co., hiring Duane—the local man who’d helped us find the place—as ranch and construction manager. With the help of local artist, designer and builder Ted Moews, Duane began working to restore the buildings as closely as possible to their original condition.

    All the log buildings were jacked up and skidded off their original sites. Then they were moved back onto new, hidden concrete foundations; squared up, with rotten logs replaced; and roofed with cedar shakes. In the final phase, they were rechinked and given hand-forged hinges and latches. Thanks to this meticulous restoration, the buildings should retain their historic integrity for another century.

    The house received the same careful treatment. It was jacked up, moved, then moved back onto a solid new foundation. The ranch was too far from power lines to be hooked up to the electrical grid, so a generator supplied power. The interior was modernized, with the exterior remaining true to the original design.

    Finally, Ted designed a new log-and-stone barn for our draft and riding horses. As in the beginning, we wanted both kinds of horses to be an integral part of the operation. The beautiful, lovingly built barn stands as the centerpiece of the ranch, offering the warmth of wood, the smell of hay and horses and welcome shelter from the high winds and winter cold.

    In 1994, we placed Last Dollar under a conservation easement donated to the American Farmland Trust. This ensures that the 400 acres and buildings will remain a working cattle ranch, wildlife habitat and open space. Just as in Boyd and Johns Collins’ heyday, working cowboys, cattle and draft horses share the clear mountain air with the elk, deer, coyotes and black bears.

    Unlike the Collins family, though, we didn’t think this was a fit place to winter cattle. So we started looking for nearby land at a lower elevation with good winter feed—and found Centennial Ranch, on the beautiful Uncompahgre River. But that’s a story for another time.

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