Montrose families earn awards for generations of labor on farm, ranch lands
MONTROSE — Members of three Montrose families recently returned from the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo where they and 21 other families received the 2010 Centennial Farm and Ranch award.
The Colorado Centennial Farms program honors farmers and ranches whose families have worked the same land for 100 years or more. The program is sponsored by the Colorado Historical Society, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The program started in 1986 and has honored nearly 400 families throughout Colorado.
A century ago, three families — the Bellgardts, Heaths and Leonards — participated in the birth of a new local economy and a new way of life when they began to farm and build upon unsettled land in the Montrose area. The Gunnison Tunnel had been completed one year earlier, and the rich farm and pasture lands surrounding Montrose were drawing hundreds of farmers from across the country to the Uncompahgre Valley.
“It was real hard in those days. Money was real tight,” said Margaret Hale, granddaughter of Albert and Matilda Bellgardt, who in October 1910 began the Bellgardt ranch on land now identified as being east of Montrose off U.S. Highway 50.
During the Aug. 27 event at the state fair, the three families each were given a large metal sign to display on their respective properties and a framed certificate.
If any original buildings remained from the various homesteads, the families were given a National Trust Historic Structure Award.
The three Montrose families were the only recipients from the Western Slope this year.
Friday afternoon, 82-year-old Margaret Hale sat in the kitchen of her family home with her husband, Bob, and daughter, Elaine Hale Jones, to discuss the honor recently bestowed on their family.
Margaret is the granddaughter of German immigrants Albert and Matilda Bellgardt, who came to the United States in 1906. Albert had worked as a coal miner in the Ruhr Valley of central Germany.
After passing though Ellis Island in New York, the Bellgardts moved to Montrose soon after, and Albert used his experience as a coal miner, working underground for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Gunnison Tunnel project.
The family lived in the small town of Lujane, which now is just an intersection between U.S. Highway 50 and Colorado Highway 347.
The family moved a few miles east, where the Bellgardts built a paper shack in the middle of a clearing.
They raised a family, planted potatoes and made money shipping their potato harvests east to Kansas City on the train.
They built the current family home in 1918, and the property still has remnants of the original homestead, which can be seen from the kitchen window: an old granary, a blacksmith shop, a three-level barn and a garage.
Margaret Hale is happy her entire family can share in the recognition.
“It was an honor. It was so nice to have the family there,” she said of their trip to Pueblo.
“Having the department of ag, historical society and the state fair, all three jointly, I think has a lot of special meaning,” Bob Hale said.
For 85-year-old Howard Heath, the Bostwick Park area east of Montrose has been home for almost his entire life. He was born in the bedroom he sleeps in today.
He lives with his wife, Ruth, and both are natives of the Montrose area. Their living room looks out over a large green hay field. Past the grassy pasture, a huge expanse of territory unfolds, leading all the way to the peaks of the San Juan mountains. This is their home, and later this month they will celebrate 60 years of marriage.
Heath’s family was one of thousands who traveled west in horse-drawn covered wagons, traversing unfamiliar country in search of a new home and workable land. Heath’s father, Frank F. Heath, was 80 years old in 1892 when his family moved from Nebraska to Montrose to settle the area. Frank graduated from Montrose County High School twice, once in 1904 and again in 1905 after the new four-year high school was built.
Frank had a desire to farm, and in 1910, following his marriage to his wife, Ruth, he bought 80 acres on Bostwick Park. He managed a merchant store in Ophir, and Ruth worked as a postmistress until they could afford to build a home and begin farming potatoes in the spring of 1915.
Being honored for a century of family ranching, Howard Heath said, “gives me a tremendous amount of pride, given the fact that so many of these properties have sold out to become subdivisions or sold to other people. The fact that we worked to keep the ranch in the family, I think, is quite a feat in this day and age.”
The 80 original acres, along with an additional 80 acres purchased later, produce hay and alfalfa to this day.
Leonard Farms and Livestock
“I look and feel pretty good for being an old sheepherder,” 82-year-old Ralph Leonard proclaimed last week from the front seat of his Chevrolet pickup.
Leonard has been working cattle and sheep on the family properties around Montrose for nearly 60 years. His family raises 300 cows and 2,500 sheep on 3,500 acres east of town.
Ralph’s grandparents, Edward and Mary Ellen Leonard, planted roots in the Montrose area in 1887.
After traveling to the area in covered wagons, they homesteaded 298 acres east of Montrose, where they raised seven children and worked to acquire more acreage.
Like Albert Bellgardt, Edward Leonard worked on the Gunnison Tunnel project.
Ralph Leonard was drafted during World War II and played trombone for the U.S. Army band. After leaving the Army, Leonard wanted to get a higher education, but the family business beckoned for his help.
“I wanted to have an education. I didn’t want to work as hard as my dad, but he got sick and I stayed, and I ended up working as hard as he did,” Leonard said.
Ralph’s son, Randy, and 24-year-old grandson, Justin, the fifth generation on the ranch, continue the tradition of herding sheep and ranching the Western Slope.
“I love what I do,” Ralph Leonard said.
He added the family’s homestead and outbuildings still stand, and he’s proud his family still works the same land as Edward Leonard once did.