Byron Swanson Oral History

By Byron Swanson
August 29, 1999
Campfire Evening
Phantom Canyon Ranch
Livermore, CO

Interview and transcription by Linda Bell

Available as a PDF download

See also the History of the Swanson Ranch by Kathryn Swanson

How the Swansons Came to Red Feather Lakes

The ranch — if you don’t know where it is — used to be called, years and years
ago, way back in the nineteenth century, Squaw Rock Ranch. And when Peter and
Marie got married, they were married at what was part of the ranch which looked
at Squaw Rock, as the background up in the meadow. Later it became Snowy Owl
Ranch. And today, we just call it Swansons’ Family Ranch for lack of a better
name. I know Gene Barker — a lot of you know Gene Barker — grew up on the
ranch. The Barker Ranch, it was called then. The Barkers sold it to Greg Roth and
his wife KG. The ranch is on the Red Feather Lakes Road, just as you get ready to
turn to the right as you’re coming up the hill to go up to the village, there’s a sign
for “Swansons” on the gatepost just across from Prairie Divide Road. It’s a
beautiful place. You just turn left through the gate and down into the valley. It’s
the valley that has our ranch on the west end of it and now Charlie Monfort owns
the ranch on the east end. Before Charlie Monfort, it was McMorris, before
McMorris it was the Roths, before the Roths, it was Mapelli, before that Scott, Ben
Scott, and so forth. We feel like we’re the luckiest people in the world. But now
we’ve got to talk about that story — and how in the world a family from Omaha
came to live in that particular part of the world.

I just want to focus on the period 1940-1965 tonight. I’ve got to back up a little bit
before 1940, because you have to put 1940 into context. My dad had a small
business. He sold fuel oil to people in Omaha. Nobody needed fuel oil to heat
their homes in the summer, so we were always free all summer, usually four or five
months. But as soon as school was out, we traveled a lot. He even had a trailer —
a whole-house trailer. I think we must have been one of the first families in Omaha
to have one. I remember going to Boston and to Florida and to Minneapolis and all

That was what we did in the summer, just traveled and really enjoyed it — until all
of a sudden the first serendipity came along and that was the tragedy of World War
II. Because of World War II, it became impossible to do what we had done for all
sorts of reasons. Are any of you old enough to remember all the rationing, all the
things that were disrupted? I’m sure a lot of you fought in World War II, so you
would remember. My wife tells about how, in her family, women painted their legs
because you couldn’t have silk stockings. And you couldn’t buy sugar — we had
to ration sugar, we had to ration coffee. Remember all these things? Anyone old
enough? Gas? Well, okay, we’ll get to gas in a minute.

Now, as far as automobiles were concerned — that’s why that’s important for our
story, because that’s what we used to do all summer. All of a sudden they stopped
making cars. So for about five years, no new cars were made. You had to get
along in the old one, and make repairs and so forth. Tires were rationed, gas was
rationed. In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, but the story that we’ve passed down is
that you could only drive 500 miles at one time; if you went beyond that, you’d be
breaking the law. And it just so happened that Omaha, Nebraska, was 500 miles
from Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. So the serendipity is starting to fit in now —
that we no more could be nomads, no more could we be wandering around, going
here, there, and everywhere with the trailer. We had to attach ourselves to a piece
of land. Anyway, not only did they ration gas, but you had to drive, I think, 35
miles an hour – and whatever some of the other requirements were.

Anyway, a friend of ours had a cabin in Red Feather. If you know where the thrift
shop is, right next to Ramona Lake on the dike side? The friends had a little cabin
— it’s still there. It was just a couple of houses from the lake, an old log house
with about 10,000 mice in it. And we came out and spent two weeks.

Because of those travels before the war, we had been to places like Estes. And my
mom, my sister and myself loved Estes with all our hearts — and here’s where The
Nature Conservancy came in — because there were lots of people, everything was
developed, you had ice cream cones and movie theaters and all kinds of stuff, salt
water taffee. You had beautiful scenery too but … my dad always joked that my
mom, if she had her wishes, would live in Omaha on 16th and Barnham — which
doesn’t mean a thing to you, but that’d be right in the middle of downtown. It’d be
like 42nd and Broadway in New York, or it’d be like Hollywood and Vine in Los
Angeles. I don’t know what it would be in Denver. But anyway, just the opposite
of where we are tonight. She wanted to be right in the middle of millions of
bustling people. And my sister and I — I was ten years old — I thought that was
pretty great too, to be around all those things.

So that’s a part of the serendipity. So, for us, it was a terrible experience — for my
sister, my mom and myself — those two weeks. There’s nothing you can do in
Red Feather back in those days. It was gravel roads. We had to take 100 miles of
gravel from Sterling to Fort Collins — the worst roads I’ve even been on in my life
— then a gravel road all the way up to Red Feather, which was horrible. With the
war going on, there was no grading, I’m sure, for five or six years. There was no
electricity when you got to Red Feather. Somebody said the REA came in after
World War II. I don’t think it was ’til the early `50s, So no electricity, no ice
creams, and no movies. But no refrigerators? Back in those days, everybody had
ice boxes. Do you remember? There was a barn in Red Feather some place, I
think between Ramona and Hiawatha, that had all sorts of straw and ice that they
had cut out of the lakes, and we’d go over once a week and get a new block of ice.
No running water, because of no electricity, so my job was to walk to the well with
two buckets about six times a day, I thought. So I just hated Red Feather all the
more because of all this stuff. We like to ride horses, but there weren’t even any
horses you could ride in those days. So Red Feather was just not the kind of place,
we decided in those two weeks — the three of us, my sister and myself and my
mom — that we wanted to have anything to do with.

But my dad had a Nature Conservancy philosophy, which said: The beauty of life
is to get away from people to get out into pristine nature. And so on …. And you
know, you all know what that means. So anyway, before we left that two weeks —
and this was back in 1940 before the war, of course, but the rationing had already
started — my dad bought a cabin. Ted Dunning — you all know Ted Dunning?
Oh, Ted just was one of my heroes. We loved him as a family. He, of course, was
the postmaster, the only gas station, I think, (maybe there might’ve been one
more), only general store (there might have been one more), and the only realtor
(there might been one other, but he’s the only one we knew). So he was kind of
Red Feather. And the population of the town was probably 25 people or
something, that stayed in winter.

But anyway, before we left, Ted and my dad got together. And we bought a little
cottage that was just off of Hiawatha by the lake, about three to four houses from
the well — not on the lake, but to the west, I think — or to the north. Yeah, north
of the lake. And it cost $225 — that’s going to be an important factor. The walls
were made out of paper — pressed beaver board — and it was just a little
rectangle, with a kitchen at the front and then a little bedroom and then a little
living room and then an open front porch. All for $225.

The next year, of course, 1941, the war — well, the war [didn’t begin] until
December — but we came up again. My dad brought some wiring with him, so
that we could have electricity, and he brought a generator. But all you could
generate was just some weak light bulbs; you still couldn’t have a refrigerator or
ice cream or any of that important stuff. So at least he brought that. And then he
also bought some native Red Father Lakes knotty pine, and paneled the rooms in
the house and enclosed the front porch. Now we actually had four rooms in the
house. I was only eleven, so I wasn’t much help. But that really made it — for
those days — a pretty fancy house, we thought.

The next year, we just enjoyed — or my dad did. My sister and I still were bored.
Here we were, right on a lake — Hiawatha — but it was so cold, we couldn’t even
go swimming. Still couldn’t go horseback riding; still no ice cream cones; no
movies — nothing that really appealed to us. But my dad was in seventh heaven.

The next year, 1943, right in the middle of the war, my dad realized that now we
had a place in the mountains and he recalled his great love for horses because
every summer when he was growing up, he used to go to northern Nebraska to
some of our relatives who had a farm. He would spend the summer with them and
he would ride their horses, and this became his obsession — to have a horse of his
own. So since we lived in the mountains and had a house — that wasn’t even
electrified — he said, “Now we have to have horses.” That’s another story… .

We bought two horses that were five years old, had been in a meadow (probably
some place up at Snowy Creek, oh, no, it was actually on the Manhattan Road, way
way down there), that had never seen people in their lives, never had a halter on,
never been broken, never been touched by a human being. He bought those horses
and we were supposed to break them. I was 13 years old then and had probably
been on a tame trail horse about once in my life. That’s a story I won’t get into.
But now the point was, we had horses and a house, but we had no place to keep the
horses. So we had to lease grazing rights from some rancher — and I’m not sure
who that was or where that was — but that’s what we did.

The next year, 1944 — it’s almost serendipity — but I won’t call it that. The golf
course (which is still the public sand golf course today, only it looks different than
it did then) went bankrupt because it was late in the war and after all these years,
people just weren’t coming up. They had no income, no people were using the
course. At that time, it was 90 acres. To try to pay some of their debts, they had
torn down the clubhouse. Have any of you ever seen the golf course way back
then, when it had a clubhouse and gate houses and all of that? Well, anyway it did.
And it was on the road that just got paved last summer … the Dowdy Lake Road.
That was the golf course that had gone bankrupt. And they had torn down the
clubhouse to sell the materials to people who might be willing to buy them, to try
to pay their debt.

So what was left at this particular point in 1944 was 90 acres and a big hole in the
ground, which is where the foundation of the old clubhouse was. And a beautiful
fireplace — stone and moss rock — which went up two or three stories. My dad
was a dreamer and a visionary and he figured that, most importantly, we’d have 90
acres for those crazy horses we had. But we’d also have a fireplace around which
we could build a log cabin. And the log cabin, of course, wouldn’t require the
whole foundation of the clubhouse, so we just took a little section of it that was
near the fireplace and eventually built the log cabin there.

What he did then, that winter, was to come up with one of his drivers, who drove a
truck. And at that time, back in 1944, the government through the federal Forest
Service would allow you to cut free, at no cost whatsoever, standing dead timber.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the story that my dad told. So they came up
and they cut down enough logs and took them down and dumped them around the
foundation on the golf course, so that next summer, the day school was out, he and
I could come up to Red Feather and try to build a log cabin around the fireplace.
My job was mostly to peel the logs and to keep busy. We started at sunup, worked
`til sundown (because there’s still no electricity; you can’t have lights at night).

In those days also, in the 1940s, other people, friends from Omaha, would say … .
My dad would tell them about the project that we were going to do. And one was
an electrician, and he said, “Well, I’ll be glad to come up and help you with your
electrical work.” And another was a sheet-metal worker and he said, “I’ll be glad
to come up and help you with the furnace stuff.” And another was a plumber and
he would come up and help. So by the end of the summer, we had built a nice little
log cabin. It was going to last us, actually from 1944 `til about 1960. This
would’ve probably gone on and on forever, but I’ll interrupt it and put something
else in.

After the war was over, we were living in that little log cabin. And we had the 90
acres. The horses had multiplied now to three or four or five. My dad is having a
great time, and my sister and I are enjoying it a little bit more. That, by the way,
was the second serendipity — that a golf course had to go bankrupt. And what I
forgot to tell you was that they wanted $2,125 for the 90 acres and the clubhouse
(which wasn’t anymore). And by that time, because we had fixed up the other
house, we sold it for $2,125. So financially — because the logs were free, the
labor was free — really, this is the [amazing] part of the story: There’s not much
expense in having what we had at that particular point.

Then, when the war was over, by 1946, people started coming back. In `45, the
war was still going on through the summer. So in the summer of `46, people
started coming back up to Red Feather, interested in finding property or building or
buying something so that they could vacation again. And they started making cars
all over again and so forth. So anyway, my dad took ten one-acre sites on the far
west end of the 90 acres, which kind of rolled up into the trees — it really didn’t
have grass anyway, and what we wanted was grass for the horses. So he sold ten
one-acre sites to these people who were looking for sites to build a cabin, at $1000
each. So that made $10,000, which — if there had been any expenses in building
whatever we had built or doing whatever we had done — would still put us ahead
financially, whatever the cost might have been.

Anyway, then things would have gone on fine forever — probably. And there are
other stories we could tell about how the horses got out every winter [when we
would go home], but I won’t tell you that either. But there was water on the land.
There’s still that spring, that’s right on the north side of the Red Feather Road as
you come up on that particular place. And also the irrigation ditch that goes to
West Lake would come though. So there was always water for the horses.

But the bad thing now — and this is probably another serendipity, number three —
was that the road in front (which was finally paved last summer) was the dustiest
road in Red Feather. It had lots of traffic on it, people going on vacation and to
Dowdy. And all that dust just poured right into our house, which was right on the
road, and drove my mother absolutely insane.

By the way, when you go along that road, tomorrow or whenever it might be, that
foundation of the old clubhouse is still there. The fireplace is still there too. But if
you look on the back side, the west side of the clubhouse, you’ll see that old

Okay, the third serendipity now is that my mom couldn’t stand the dust and she
convinced my dad that we should sell that cabin, which we did. And from the
money we got from that, my dad paid a professional builder to build a nicer cabin,
which was a little bit bigger. It was settled back behind some trees and rocks on
that now-80 acres, so that it was not very visible from the road nor was it
susceptible to dust. And the reason that becomes the third serendipity is that just a
year or two after we did that, the log cabin burned down. So if we had stayed in
the log cabin, we probably wouldn’t have had a house at all — the one that we had
built. That’s sad, too, that somebody — whoever bought that, I’m not sure — lost
the house. But it has been rebuilt now.

Then — we’re getting awfully close now! My story’s about to end.

About four or five years later … we didn’t stay in that professionally-built house
very long, because — unlike this summer in which we’ve had so much moisture,
we had the driest summer that I think Red Feather has ever experienced. It was
1964 and no rain hardly at all; the little spring dried up; there was no water coming
through the irrigation ditch. And there was no way we could go home at the end of
the summer and leave the horses, which now probably numbered about seven or
eight, in the pasture. And as a result, my dad went down to the ranch that we were
talking about, the ranch that we now have, where Greg Rath was living. It was just
before we were going back to Omaha. And he said, “Greg, can I lease some
grazing rights from you this winter so that the horses can have water, because I
can’t go off and leave them up there on that 80 acres.” And Greg blurted out, “Hell
no.” Then he said, “My wife and I just decided last night to get divorced. And
we’re going to sell this place and we’re going to get out of here.”

And that became the fourth serendipity — because that, again, is a tragic, negative
situation. Nobody wanted to hear that or have that happen in Greg’s life. But the
serendipity was that my dad just happened to be the very first person to hear it.
And as a result, after saying all the appropriate things about being sorry and so
forth, he said, “How much do you want for the ranch?” And Greg said
“$100,000.” Actually, it was two ranches. It’s our ranch, which was about 500
acres, and it’s the ranch to the east that I’ve already told you about — which now is
owned by the Monfort family and which was also about 500 acres. At that time
actually, it was owned by Ben Scott, but Greg had just bought him out the year
before. So anyway, he said he wanted $100,000 for the ranch — ranches, actually
— which doesn’t seem like very much. But that back in the days, in the 1960s,
when one popular program on television was The $64,000 Question — didn’t that
seem like an enormous about of money, $64,000? And when Joe Namath was the
first professional athlete ever to get a salary of $100,000 a year, and everybody
thought the world was going to come to an end because that was such a big salary.

But anyway, it was $100,000. So my dad went back up to Ted Dunning — that
wonderful Ted Dunning — and they talked about it that day. And they figured that
they could probably sell the 80 acres and the nice house on the golf course for a
pretty good price. And that my dad surely — the guy from Omaha whose wife
wanted to live in the middle of downtown Omaha — certainly didn’t need two
ranches, let alone one, but it’d be nice to have that ranch. So they figured they
would sell the second ranch. But before they sold the second ranch, they figured
they could take about anywhere from eight to ten sites — right along the Red
Feather Road, looking at Parvin Lake as you’re coming up the hill (Parvin on the
right — that three-fingered lake) and sell those, which they did. Mostly, they were
two-and-a-half acre lots for about $5000 each. So that’s going to be, let’s say,
$40,000-$50,000 that they’re going to make there. And for the other ranch, for
$50,000, and they sold the 80 acres for $60,000. So that’s the end of the story and
the unbelievable … .
The High Country Restaurant now — that was part of the deal too, when they sold
the property. But anyway, the total income almost doubled the amount what the
ranch cost, for a small town businessman. And for the kids — like, I’m a teacher
and my wife’s a teacher, almost all of our kids are teachers — we don’t have a lot
of money. But unbelievably we have this ranch, which has just been the greatest
thing in the world. The greatest blessing in the world.
Now, the final serendipity is that — unlike the young Byron Swanson, who hated
and cussed and fumed about having to come to Red Feather — finally — during all
this process, we have come to realize that I wouldn’t want property in Estes Park if
you gave it to me. There’s no place to me more beautiful and wonderful than Red
Feather. And if we can just keep it that way, as pristine and open and uncluttered
and unpopulated as possible … .

But the last serendipity also has its negative because the negative is: Why do you
have to get so old to get even a little bit of smarts? It took me all my life — well
not all of it — but so long to realize that nothing could be finer than what we’re
doing tonight. And what we would like to do with the ranch, too, is to keep it as
unpopulated and as pristine as possible. But anyway, that’s the unlikely story of a
family from Omaha.