HESPERUS – Helen Ruth Aspaas lives in a white house a mile south of the Old Fort campus in Hesperus.
The old coal-burning stoves are gone, and additions have been built, but the structure’s original design and layout – military officers’ quarters in the 1800s – are largely untouched. In summer, oriental poppies bob near the south windows and lilacs blossom to the north, both planted more than a century ago by Aspaas’ great-grandmother.
The 149-acre ranch was homesteaded 130 years ago by some of the first European settlers – Aspaas’ great-grandparents – to try their luck in the San Juan Basin.
On Tuesday, La Plata County commissioners unanimously voted to add the property to the La Plata County Historic Register, joining more than 10 ranches, old roads, government buildings and schoolhouses on the list. Between a conservation easement and the new historic designation, the ranch’s historic, cultural and natural integrity are among the most well-protected in La Plata County.
Standing close to the north-facing porch where her great-grandmother’s photo was taken a century ago, Aspaas, 65, explained her decision to preserve the place: “I grew up here.”
Fortune lured Hans Aspaas to the mineral-rich San Juans from Norway with his wife, Annette, and infant son (who later founded the town of Ignacio) in the early 1870s. Over the next 10 years, the family left its tracks all over San Juan and La Plata counties.
They weathered their first Colorado winter in Silverton in 1874 where Hans worked as a postman, but the cold drove them south the following year to farm the Animas Valley. The family subsequently moved to Parrott City where Hans tried placer mining along the La Plata River, then Hermosa, Animas City and finally to western La Plata County in the 1880s.
“That was typical,” local historian Duane Smith said of the family’s frequent migration. “As families tried to find their angle of repose, where they could make a living, that’s what a lot of them did. Mining: There was glamor and excitement over the idea of quick wealth, but then settlers found mining was hard. There was not a lot of wealth in it, and there were better occupations. The Aspaas’ were a pioneering family to prove that.”
At the Hesperus ranch, Hans worked as a clerk and mail dispatcher in Fort Lewis.
When Hans died, leaving Annette with four children, she worked as a laundress at the Southern Ute boarding school at the Old Fort. The officers’ boarding house was reportedly moved from the campus to Annette’s ranch sometime in the 1890s, and she filed for property rights in 1913.
Annette’s second son, Ralph, was Helen Ruth’s grandfather.
Aspaas began paying taxes on the property in 1994 and gradually bought her cousins’ shares to the ranch when her mother died. She finally acquired full ownership in 2010, while teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
That year, the property was placed in a conservation easement to protect wildlife, including the occasional mountain lion or bear that wanders through, and the resident elk herd that routinely grazes along the La Plata River cutting through the ranch’s eastern side.
The conservation easement protects the habitat and ensures the property will not be subdivided.
“We want to leave the ranch intact and minimize disturbance,” County Planner Daniel Murray told commissioners Tuesday. “This is also a stepping stone to receive a higher historic designation from the state, or potential grant funding at the owner’s discretion.”
Walking the ranch, Aspaas, a geographer, has unearthed old calvary shells – which tell her the land could have been an encampment for Civil War-era buffalo soldiers.
Seven ponderosa pines on the property’s southern and eastern sides also bear some rare scars: the bark is peeled, indicating a traditional foraging technique common to Southern Ute women who sought the edible underlayer.
Today, Aspaas leases her land to neighboring cattle ranchers, continuing a consistent land-use tradition since the ranch was homesteaded. Aspaas moved back to Hesperus in 2013 and began the application process for historic listing in April 2016.
Now that the property has historic protections, Aspaas plans to pursue funding to date the culturally modified trees and uncover more documentation on the Ute Strip – a piece of homesteading land that runs through La Plata County and encompasses the ranch.
“It’s indicative of the value that we place on history,” said Andrew Gulliford, a Fort Lewis College history professor and head of the county Historic Preservation Review Commission, which recommended listing for the Aspaas ranch.
“As an original homestead flowing from the 1862 Homestead Act, this is a deep part of our agricultural and ranching history,” he said. “Heritage tourism is a big reason people come here, and preserving historic landscapes is preserving the future.”
And in another 130 years, with the property’s new protections, Aspaas hopes the ranch looks much the same as it does today.
“Property in the hands of one is always risky, so it would be nice if this was some kind of retreat one day,” said Aspaas, who has no children to inherit the land. “I’d love for this place to be what it is now, and for people to be able to come here and accomplish something academic or artistic.”