Nimon-Walker Award honors two recipients for preserving local history
Rae Benton and Sylvan Lake State Park received the 20th Annual Nimon-Walker Award this year
Every year, the Eagle Valley Library District and the Eagle County Historical Society jointly recognize an individual or group that has made a significant contribution to preserving local history by presenting them with the Nimon-Walker Award. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the award, two names were added to the distinguished list of recipients this October: Rae Benton and Sylvan Lake State Park.
Named after the people who received the inaugural distinction in 2001, the Nimon-Walker Award was created by Eagle County librarians as a way to call attention to the important steps being taken to preserve local history. Previous actions that have been recognized include museum development and curation, the preservation of photographs and artifacts, books written about different elements of Eagle County’s past, and engaging the community in local history, among others.
Kathy Heicher is the president of the Eagle County Historical Society and is part of the committee that selects the recipients each year. She emphasized that preservation efforts can come from anyone in the community, and the list is almost exclusively made up of amateur historians.
“I believe there is only one trained historian on here,” Heicher said, going through the list of former recipients. “Most of them are volunteers, and it’s a way to call attention to the local history and to thank people.”
Some notable volunteer contributions that have been recognized in the past include those of John Comer, who was awarded in 2017 for his diligent restoration of a landmark water wheel on the Waterwheel Ranch in McCoy, and the Ping-DeGraw Families, who discovered hundreds of old photos of Eagle County preserved in a building they were demolishing and donated them to the historical society.
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Each piece of history that community members preserve or contribute helps construct a larger picture of Eagle County’s past, and the Nimon-Walker Award celebrates this important service.
“We want people to know that Eagle County didn’t start when Vail developed,” Heicher said. “It has a whole lengthy history before it was a ski area, and it’s a rich history. It’s a mini version of Colorado history, which is a mini version of the whole West. If you know your history, it gives people a sense of belonging, and it tells you who you are and how your community got to be where it is.”
Rae Benton was honored with the Nimon-Walker Award this year in recognition of her and her family’s work to preserve the history and artifacts of Eagle County’s cattle ranching economy in the early 20th century. Benton is also being celebrated for her time as an early board member of the Eagle County Historical Society, during which she helped curate items for the historical museum that remains active in Eagle today.
Benton, 92, grew up in Denver, but married into a third-generation ranching family that homesteaded in northwestern Eagle County for over 80 years.
“When I married into that older generation, we did not have electricity yet,” Benton said. “If I wanted running water, I had to run up to my spring and bring it down in a bucket. Our ranch holdings were all very primitive — you had chickens for eggs, you milked cows for your own milk, and that was life.”
In the 1980s, Benton served on the Historical Board of Directors and, with the help of her late husband, played an instrumental role in developing the Historical Society’s museum. The Bentons helped document the ranching history of the county and donated invaluable artifacts to the museum that remain in the collection today, such as a buggy, a collection of arrowheads from the indigenous Ute tribe and a diorama that portrays what life was like as a cattle rancher.
“Anyone who was second and third generation in Eagle County had gathered a lot of things, and we had a desire to educate those that knew nothing about agriculture,” Benton said. “I helped supply some things in the museum, but it took some of the longer-term members to move the barn and get the railroad there, and the cottage. So that’s a credit to the people who were there before me.”
Benton said it was important to her then, as it is now, to help newcomers to the valley understand the work and the lifestyles that established the community they now live in.
“The farther you get away from the people who really established the roads and brought in the conveniences, the less you know and the less you can identify with it,” Benton said. “There are still some five-generation ranch holdings in Eagle County, but that’s unusual. Most are new — Vail is all new people — and those people are from New York and goodness knows where else, and they know nothing about raising cattle. It’s all new to them, and it would be hard to understand. Camping out doesn’t really give you a taste of being subject to having land.”
Receiving the 20th anniversary Nimon-Walker Award came as a surprise to Benton who never thought of her efforts in historical preservation as work.
“Well I don’t think I’ve earned much,” Benton said. “When you do something you like to do, you don’t call that earning. I was very surprised and very honored that they would put my name on that.”
After her husband passed, Benton moved off the ranch and back to Denver, where she continues to reside today. Though she is grateful for the ease of life and conveniences of the city, her heart still lies in the valley, and her passion for preserving Eagle County’s history remains just as strong.
“I don’t live there now, and I miss it,” Benton said. “If I could live there I’d be right back, helping to sort pictures.”
Sylvan Lake State Park
Sylvan Lake State Park staff received the Nimon-Walker Award this year in recognition of their 10-year effort to preserve the Upper Brush Creek Schoolhouse, located on park property in Eagle.
Built in 1915 by local ranchers, it is the only historic schoolhouse located in a Colorado state park. The structure also served as a meeting place for the residents of the Brush Creek Valley and was a central ranching community between the years of 1915 and 1941.
Thanks to the persistence of the staff, funding from Great Outdoors Colorado, and the construction skills of HistoriCorp volunteers, the roof and front porch have been replaced and the building has been stabilized to stand for many years to come.
The park is not required to maintain historic buildings and voluntarily chose to make this preservation project a priority and see it through to completion.
“The park offers exceptional camping and recreational opportunities, but it also has an extensive mining and agricultural history that is important to honor,” park ranger Matt Westerberg said. “The preservation of the Upper Brush Creek Schoolhouse is a way to offer people a glimpse of the fascinating history of the park, and pay tribute to some of the earliest settlers of the Brush Creek Valley.”
In addition to the physical restoration project, the staff diligently attained multiple historical designations for the structure that allowed the park to secure the funding necessary to complete this project and ensure protections for the schoolhouse down the line. The structure was added to the Colorado State Register of Historic Properties in 2014 and to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.
“Our hope is that future visitors will see these historic buildings in the park, such as the schoolhouse or nearby halfway house, and be inspired to learn more about the history of the area,” Westerberg said. “Ideally it will spark curiosity and encourage people to imagine life as an early settler to Eagle County, or even pick up a book such as ‘A Cup of Clear Cold Water: Life on Brush Creek’. In turn, this could lead to a greater appreciation of the area and encourage visitors to connect with the park’s mission of conservation and protecting our natural resources.”
To learn more about the Nimon-Walker Award and other recent recipients, visit EVLD.org. To nominate someone for a future award, contact the Eagle County Historical Society at ECHS@EagleCountyHistoricalSociety.com.