Colorado Petrified Forest Ranch and the National Monument
Just south of the small town of Florissant, Colorado, in a saucer-shaped valley about three miles in diameter, lies one of the richest fossil beds in the world. First discovered in 1871, the ancient lake bed was part of the “public domain” and subject to the terms of the 1862 Homestead Act. Before anyone realized the geologic significance of the fossils, the land had been government surveyed, laid out in squares like a checkerboard, and opened for homestead claims. By 1905, 33 homesteads of 160 acres each were established on the valley floor. Required to improve their land, the settlers built homes and fences, plowed and cultivated the land, and constructed wagon roads throughout the fossil beds. The effects of the Homestead Act changed the integrity and landscape of the Florissant valley, placed it into private ownership, and would hinder efforts at federal protection and preservation for the next 90 years.
In 1961 Agnes Ryan Singer, aged 73, widowed, and the owner of the largest ranch in the central part of the fossil beds, requested reconsideration by the Department of Interior for national monument status for the valley. She and her late husband, Palmer, had operated their ranch since 1927 and had already witnessed two rejections by the government. She felt strongly that the time had finally come for the National Park Service to grant federal protection and preservation to the Eocene epoch fossils. Being one of the most influential ranch owners in the fossil bed area, some historians argue that without Mrs. Singer’s initiative and support, the Monument as visitors now know it would not have happened.
In 1889, Palmer J. Singer was born in the farming country of Logan County, Nebraska. When he was a teenager, his family resettled to the prairie town of Haswell, in southeastern Colorado. This was a region of cowboys, horses, and large cattle ranches, and one of the last areas of Colorado to be settled. In 1915, when he was 26 and a seasoned cowboy, he married a local teacher, Agnes Ryan. Agnes was born in Nobles County, Minnesota in 1888, and moved to Haswell when she was 20.. For 6 years Agnes and Palmer homesteaded near Haswell. While Palmer worked cattle and livestock, Agnes managed the homestead, taught school, wrote music, and raised their children.
In 1921 they sold the Haswell ranch and moved their family to the Pikes Peak region—a rapidly growing tourist mecca. Six years later, they bought the Petrified Forest Hotel and Resort of Florissant. Once known as the Petrified Stump Ranch and containing several petrified tree stumps and acres of fossil shale, this tract was one of the first parts of the fossil beds to be claimed under the original Homestead Act. Besides the natural wonders on the property, the high mountain ranch had a rustic hotel situated on a natural bench on the western slope of the fossil beds. From its front porch, visitors could look eastward at acres of grassy meadows, ridges crowned with pine trees, and scenic views of the backside of Pikes Peak. They could explore the ranch, stay overnight in one of eleven guest rooms, walk the trails to the petrified tree stumps, or collect fossils in an on-site quarry. The lodge could also accommodate large groups in a great hall highlighted with a giant fireplace made of petrified wood.
Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on the tourists’ fascination with Colorado’s heritage of cattle ranching, the Singers broadened the appeal of the ranch by adding horses, stables, corrals, and riding trails. The ranch would be promoted as the Broncho Dude Ranch and would function as both a science park for study by naturalists and students and a working horse ranch for the adventurous.
The ranch was temporarily closed during World War II, and Palmer, in his 50s, worked as a custodian in Colorado Springs while three of his sons served during the war. Yet the size of the ranch continued to grow. In 1943 Palmer and Agnes purchased an adjoining ranch that included a pioneer log house, which became a bunkhouse for the ranch hands, and more corrals for the horses. As tourism returned to Colorado, the Singers later acquired additional property, increasing the size of the ranch to 840 acres and making the property one of the largest working ranches on the fossil beds.
Following the end of the war, the Singers’ ranch was busy as more visitors and scientists came to see the giant petrified tree stumps and collect some of the best insect and plant fossils the world would ever see. The ranch was now promoted as the Colorado Petrified Forest Ranch. The dirt road that led to the fossils beds from Florissant was improved, and Palmer, the forever cowboy and promoter, was often seen on the dirt road directing cars full of parents and kids. Once on the ranch, their kids and or grandkids, trained as guides, would share the geologic history of the area, give tours, and if visitors were hungry, serve a chuckwagon meal.
In 1954 Palmer J. Singer died unexpectedly and was buried in Colorado Springs. He left a rich legacy as a veteran Colorado stockman, family man, and an environmentalist dedicated to the protection of natural resources and outdoor recreation. Agnes, an experienced business woman, would continue to operate the ranch alongside her grown children.
Pressure began to build in the early 1960s to reconsider the fossil beds for federal monument status. Environmental groups refocused their priorities from air and water pollution to the preservation of the country’s natural wonders. In 1962 a new and more friendly national park study, generated in part by Mrs. Singer’s earlier request, concluded the area should be established as a national monument—a huge victory for supporters and the first step in the efforts for federal protection for the fossils. Finally, after years of debate, and a lively legal battle, Congress established Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in1969. Agnes sold the ranch to the Park Service three years later and the valley of the fossils was whole once again.
Agnes died in 1981 and was buried next to Palmer in Colorado Springs. During the 45 years that the Singers owned the ranch, they kept the land intact, served as de facto conservationists, promoted tourism, and introduced the fossil beds to thousands of families, students, and outdoor enthusiasts. Although the historical lodge and outbuildings were demolished in 1974, the memory of the Singers’ ranch and their contributions to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument will never be forgotten.
Reseached and written by Lloyd Lacy with help of the Singer family
Last updated: October 24, 2020