This humble, one-room cabin sits near the present-day trailhead for the hike to Delicate Arch. Visitors regularly peer through the doorway and wonder aloud, "Who lived here... and how?... And why?"
In 1898, a nagging leg injury from the Civil War prompted 69-year-old John Wesley Wolfe to leave his wife and three of his children in Etna, Ohio, to seek a drier climate. He brought his oldest son, Fred, with him out west, and the two settled a 100+-acre property along Salt Wash, just north of the sleepy little village of Moab. The property had fresh water, enough grassland to feed a few head of cattle, and plenty of peace and quiet. For nearly a decade, they lived and worked alone on the remote "Bar DX" ranch.
Living in the Desert
The first cabin that John and Fred built was not elaborate, but provided basic shelter from spring winds, summer heat, fall rains, and winter cold. A dam on the wash helped capture water for root vegetables, pumpkins, and melons raised in their garden. The dam washed out regularly and no sign of it remains today. They ordered staple groceries from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog about once every three months and picked them up at the Thompson Springs railroad station, which was a full day’s wagon trip away.
The scene changed in 1906 when John's daughter, Flora, made the westward trek with her husband, Ed Stanley, and two young children, Esther and Ferol. Appalled by the condition in which her father and brother lived, Flora demanded they build a new cabin with a wooden floor and real windows. John obliged, creating the sturdy cabin made of cottonwood logs that remains in the park to this day. The small cabin measures just 17 feet by 15 feet (5.2m by 4.6m). Wolfe also constructed a root celler, irrigation dams, and a corral. All six family members lived and slept under the distinctive thatch-and-clay roof.
Flora spent two lonely years at the ranch. Wolfe tried to make her more comfortable in what must have seemed a desolate place. Because Flora disliked eating on tin plates, Wolfe ordered a one-hundred-piece set of blue china dishes from Sears. The children found the butter plates useful for mud pie parties! Wolfe also surprised his daughter by ordering a camera and developing kit from Sears. Flora took this photograph (at right) of Delicate Arch, one of the earliest taken of the often-photographed arch.
In 1908, Flora and Ed moved resettled in nearby Moab so the children could attend school. (That house also remains, a few blocks off Main Street in the center of town.) John and Fred stayed at the ranch for two more years before joining the Stanleys in Moab. John, Fred, and all the rest finally returned to Ohio in 1910, where John remained until his death in 1913 at the age of 84.
After the Wolfes
The cabin passed through several more hands, including J. Marvin Turnbow (at right), the first custodian of Arches National Monument. The final private owner, Emmett Elizondo, sold the property to the US government for inclusion in the monument.
Wolfe Ranch and surrounding acreage were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. The nomination reads: “Historically, the activities of man on the Colorado Plateau have been a function of his ability to exploit and control its meager water resources. Wolfe’s ranching operation on Salt Wash is an excellent example of early subsistence farming and grazing in a marginal environment.”
It was indeed a marginal environment, and years of cattle and sheep grazing have had a significant impact on the natural vegetation of the region. No grazing has occurred for more than two decades, but native grasses are still sparse and in some localized areas have disappeared completely. Today, we may admire the perseverance and determination of early ranchers, but we also realize that the impacts of their actions went far beyond their brief stay. It will be years—if ever—before the ranch and surrounding area look like they did when American Indians or John Wesley Wolfe first saw it.
Last updated: December 15, 2017