by Kathy Heicher
Special to the Enterprise

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August 1, 2012
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Brush Creek: A ranching history

"Here are some of the finest and most beautiful ranches in Eagle County, and as one comes through the valley, past the waving acres of grass and grain, he is lost in amazement at the beauty of this spot, tucked away between the everlasting hills. Brush Creek Valley has a limitless water supply, excellent ditches, rich land, good fences, residences, barns and granaries."

William McCabe

"The Empire of Eagle, A Descriptive History of a Great County"

Published September 1899

Those honeyed words printed in an 1899 promotional pamphlet were likely more poetic than accurate.

Still, the people drawn to these mountains at the turn of the last century recognized the value of the Brush Creek Valley. Many pioneers were initially lured to the area by the potential riches in the Fulford mining district. They stayed here because they recognized the value of a different sort in the high altitude meadows, rich soils and mountain streams.

Those early settlers cleared fields, dug irrigation ditches and built homestead cabins. They established an agricultural district that remained a driving economic force in the county for most of a century.

The wide valley on lower Brush Creek and high mountain meadows above the forks of the stream produced enough crops for a rancher to make a living. Key crops included Timothy hay, alfalfa, wheat, oats, potatoes and head lettuce. Ranchers could raise two crops of hay in a season. Irrigation was the key. The Brush Creek valley is laced with historic ditches.

These days, recreation has replaced ranching in the Brush Creek Valley. What was once a series of mountain ranches is now Sylvan Lake State Park. Camper tents and recreational vehicles set up in what was once a prize hay meadow. Spandex-clad bikers ride roads first established by ranchers. Hikers explore the remains of old homesteads. Lower on the creek, golfers hit balls on what was once Webb Frost's cattle ranch.

Those original homesteaders would likely be amazed to see how their ranches are used a century later.

George Wilkinson, John W. Love and Webb Frost are credited with being the first to bring domestic cattle into the Brush Creek valley from South Park in November of 1880. The cattle arrived at the start of a harsh snowstorm.

Reports of that first cattle venture vary. Some sources suggest that only 30 of 400 animals survived until spring. Other sources report that although the cattle scattered for miles from the mouth of Brush Creek to Dotsero, all but one were recovered when the cowboys gathered the animals in the spring. Regardless, cattle ranching was here to stay.

Wilkinson and Love eventually established large ranches on lower Brush Creek. Frost, credited with being "the real cowboy" of the trio, was a restless rancher. He homesteaded several parcels on East and West Brush Creeks, selling out and moving to a more remote location each time neighbors settled in. A rickety log wall below the switchbacks on East Brush Creek is the last remaining remnant of a parcel Frost homesteaded in 1913.

Frost couldn't quit this country. In 1918, at the age of 62, he decided to seek new ground. He sold all of his property holdings, loaded his personal belongings into a wagon and headed west. He had barely crossed the Utah desert when his longing for the Brush Creek country drew him back. He purchased an unimproved ranch on lower Brush Creek and began establishing a new ranch. Some blame hard physical work for his sudden death in 1920. The tributary creek that runs through the property still bears his name.

Anthony Sneve, who homesteaded 160 acres in an open meadow (now Sylvan Lake) at the head of West Brush Creek in 1911 was undoubtedly Brush Creek's most quirky rancher.

A former freight agent for the Colorado Midland Railroad, Sneve was well educated. He received the Wall Street Journal by mail. He was rumored to have served as an ambassador to China before becoming a cattle rancher. A fastidious fellow, Sneve dressed well when he came to town.

Records indicate Sneve ran anywhere from 400-700 cattle on his ranch. He held grazing permits on Upper Brush Creek, Gypsum Creek and Crooked Creek Pass, and grew hay on his ranch.

He was always proper. Years later, his former ranch hands would remember with some amusement Sneve chiding them gently as they herded the animals, "Don't shout, boys - the woods are full of cattle."

The trait Sneve is most remembered for was his dislike of females - any kind of female. The speculation was that he was bitter after being jilted at the alter. Reportedly no female animal - cow, horse, cat or livestock was ever housed at Sneve's ranch. He made a point of hiring male cooks to prepare meals for the haying crews.

He was fiercely protective of his property, sometimes using a shotgun to chase away fishermen who were after the trout in West Brush Creek. The Denver Times newspaper printed an article in the early 1900s about Sneve's success in the cattle business. That story also reported that a pajama-clad Sneve once scattered a pack of wolves and coyotes by throwing open his cabin door and letting loose some wild howls of his own.

At times Sneve's ranch prospered, particularly during World War I when cattle prices were high. However, he suffered significant financial loss during the Depression year. When his health began failing in 1935, he sold the ranch and moved to Denver.

Sneve apparently died alone in 1947. His cremated remains were never claimed.

The log remains of some outbuildings are all that is left of the Cy Dice ranch, located on West Brush Creek immediately below Sylvan Lake and at the mouth of Borah Gulch.

The property's ownership records are checkered, reflecting the pattern of frequent turnovers that was common with the early settlers of the valley. Among those who at one time claimed the land were Mont Fulford, Webb Frost and Ernie Nogal.

It was probably sometime in the 1920s when Eagle businessman Harvey Dice acquired the property.

Dice was a savvy businessman and also a gambler. His successes at those endeavors permitted him to invest in numerous properties, including the West Brush Creek parcel.

A nephew, Cyrus Dice, and his wife, Anna, moved into the upper place to operate the cattle ranch. Like most Brush Creek ranchers, Cy and Anna Dice raised cattle, hay and grains. They eventually inherited the property when Harvey died in 1938.

Eventually, the Dice property became part of the larger Norman Brothers holdings. The property was ranched until the mid-1970s.

Agricultural production on Brush Creek was impressive for many decades. Ranching was hard, uncertain work and properties changed hands frequently. During times of war (World Wars I and II), ranchers tended to be prosperous as demand for their products rose. The more successful ranchers would acquire adjacent holdings, transforming a series of smaller ranches into larger commercial operations. Advances in farming techniques and machinery made ranches more efficient.

By the mid-1940s the importance of agriculture as an economic force in the valley was dwindling. Many of the young men who would have worked on ranches and farms left to fight the war. Not all were eager to go back to ranch work when the war ended. The Dec. 31, 1948 issue of the Enterprise acknowledged that the local agricultural community was now sharing its "top industry" status with other businesses, including lumber production and mining.

After World War II, the economic trends changed. New transportation, shipping and production methods made it hard for small-scale Brush Creek ranchers to compete with large corporate operations. The returning soldiers had new interests other than ranching, and the labor pool became depleted. By the 1960s the trend was clear: ranching in the Brush Creek Valley was being replaced by recreation and real estate.

Actually working ranches in the valley are now more of a novelty than a way of life. But the role that ranching played in shaping this community will never diminish.

(Information for this story came from the historical archives at the Eagle Public Library.)

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The VailDaily Updated Aug 1, 2012 02:44PM Published Aug 1, 2012 02:26PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.