West valley Horsethief ranch nearly self-sufficient in 1890s

George Hurlburt



Cora Hurlburt



This is the first in a two-part series.

Nestled at the head of Horsethief Canyon, below the Loma boat dock, is Horsethief Canyon Ranch, surrounded on the east, north and west by a curving wall of rock.

The southern view from the ranch house looks across the Colorado River to the red rock terrain west of Colorado National Monument. The house is surrounded by cottonwood trees as old as the structure itself.

The area is so named because it was the perfect spot for horse thieves and cattle rustlers to hide. The area was described in the book “Echoes of a Dream” as “a trail from the lower floor of the canyon that goes around the cliffs that hung out over the river — just wide enough to get by. Then it opened up into a park. One man could guard the trail sufficiently to keep anyone out who was in pursuit.”

When Frank Knowles, a building contractor, first came to the area in the 1880s and saw the Horsethief area, he knew he wanted to build there. But he didn’t have the money to purchase the land.

However, his brother-in-law, George Hurlburt, did. Knowles and Hurlburt had married the Hickman sisters. Frank was married to Jennie, and George to Cora.

Hurlburt, who had considerable assets, was a partner in the Bachelor Mine in Ouray and the Grizzly Mine. In 1895 he became a partner in the Bank of Ouray.

Knowles knew that his sister-in-law, Cora Hurlburt, had been looking for a winter home in Grand Junction to get away from the winters in Ouray. Knowles convinced George to not only purchase the property, but to put up the money to construct a house.

Hurlburt purchased the property in 1895 from William W. Post, who had homesteaded the land.

The first people to operate the ranch were John W. and Minnie V. Mace, who acquired a declaration of occupancy in 1885. With the certificate, the Maces could make improvements on the property but didn’t own the land.

Before construction could begin, Knowles had to build a wagon road over steep rock to bring building materials from Fruita.

After studying several homes in the area, Knowles designed the residence and began construction in 1896 using sandstone from the ranch quarry. The quarry was one of the things that had attracted Knowles to the location.

The house was ultra-modern for the late-1890s.

According to the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places done by Judy VanDamm, whose parents, Jack W. and Betty K. Spann, owned the ranch for several years, the house has two stone foundations 3 feet into the ground. One foundation was for the walls, the other for the floors.

The walls on the main floor are 20 inches thick. The upper floor walls are frame construction with an exterior finish using cedar shingles in three patterns.

The 13-room house took three years to complete. Afterward, the Knowles family lived on the main floor, and the second floor was for the Hurlburts, who lived there part of the time and in Ouray the rest of the year.

The main floor consisted of a living room, dining room, kitchen, full bath and bedrooms. The upper floor also had a full bath, bedrooms and a room used as a school for the Knowles and Hurlburt children. The Snook children from across the river also were educated there under the tutelage of George Hurlburt.

The water supply for the two bathrooms came from a windmill south of the house. Water was pumped to the third floor to a holding tank, and a gravity system fed the baths.

The house was heated with a hot water radiator system supplied from a boiler house south of the home. Coal, mined on the property, was used for fuel.

The nearly self-sufficient ranch had a large deposit of fire clay for brick. A 32-foot-diameter water wheel and a flume utilized river water to irrigate an orchard, vineyard, gardens and alfalfa fields.

According to VanDamm, during the Hurlburt/Knowles years the house was the area’s social center. Dances were held in the house, with musicians playing in an alcove (bay window) of what was then the dining room.

She said the Hurlburts had also shipped a pavilion to the ranch, and it was placed by the river for dancing. Often during the summer months, there would be 21 people staying in the house at one time. In later years, fish fries were held on Saturdays with many people attending. During election years, these gatherings “were used by candidates as opportunities for speech-making and baby kissing.”

Jennie Knowles, wife of Frank, died in May of 1906. The Sentinel obituary said she died after an operation to relieve an “abscess on the brain” that had resulted from a cold.

Jennie’s death was the beginning of a period of decline for the house at Horsethief Canyon.

Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel. She is involved in many local preservation efforts and is on the board of directors for Colorado Preservation Inc.

 

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