Life in the Rocky Mountains can be challenging. Snow drifts in by the feet in the winter making travel difficult. Miles from a grocery store, daily run-ins with many species of wildlife are common. This is what people encounter when calling the wilds of Colorado home. With modern technology, vehicles, and clothing to help us enjoy the wilderness, people find pleasure in exploring the backcountry of the Rockies. Can you imagine calling this place your home 100 years ago?
In 1917, John and Sophia Holzwarth used the Homestead Act of 1862 to make a home high in the Rocky Mountains. The 160 acres was close to the newly dedicated Rocky Mountain National Park in the beautiful Kawuneeche Valley. Immigrants from Germany, their story is like many people who have dealt with major changes in their lives, yet, persevered and left a legacy of their heritage.
Legacy of a Mountain Life
At the age of 14, John Holzwarth left his home in Germany in 1879 and boarded a ship for America. He was to become an apprentice to a baker in St. Louis, Missouri. After being treated poorly he ran away and took many different jobs around the West, including working in a saloon, on ranches, as a cook for sheep herders, and even with the Texas Rangers. He homesteaded the Stillwater Ranch near Granby in 1882, but with silver panic of 1893, he left the ranch and moved to Denver where he worked at the Tivoli Brewing Company as a bottling foreman. The change of lifestyle proved to work in John’s favor; he met Sophia Lebfromm, who also immigrated to America from Germany. They were married the next year in Denver, growing their family and businesses. While operating a saloon and boarding house they had five children, Christina, Julia, Maria Anna, Sophia, and John Jr. (Johnnie). Julia, Sophia, and Johnnie survived into adulthood. Their successful life would drastically change between 1914 and 1916 as World War I began and prohibition came to Colorado. Suddenly, the Holzwarth family had to face the reality of a changing world.
The high Rocky Mountains were once again on their minds. Large portions of land were still available for homesteading; with that came the opportunity to start over. John homestead 160 acres on the west side of the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley and built a small cabin in 1917. Sophia and their son John Jr. (Johnnie), who was 14 years old at the time, joined them on the homestead. During the summers of 1917-1919, they built additional cabins that would eventually become available for guests. In 1918, the Holzwarth’s purchased the adjoining homestead on the west side of the Colorado River for $2,000. Fleshut Cabin, located on that homestead, is named after the original homesteader Joseph Fleshut. The additional property would be called the Never Summer Ranch in later years, and is now used by summer volunteers to greet visitors.
Following a wagon accident in 1919, John Holzwarth Sr., known as Papa, had to use a leg brace and cane to walk. This left much of the farm and homestead work to Johnnie, requiring him to learn the ways of the mountain survival quickly. Diversification helped the family make ends meet. For example, they cut ice off of Grand Lake in the winter and sold it to locals in the area for refrigeration and construction lumber was milled on their property with their own sawmill.
“I bought a sawmill in 1923 which was my first sawmill. I didn’t know nothing about timberwork or sawmilling. I paid $600 for it. I paid off half of it with furs…, and I paid of the other half with lumber I sold for $20 a thousand. That’s the way I paid off that little ole sawmill. Many of those first old buildings were built from that sawmill, and the logs were cut right there on the ranch.” – Johnnie Holzwarth
Throughout the 1920s the Holzwarth’s built additional cabins, sheds, and a barn. The opening of Fall River Road brought visitors from the east side to the west side of the Continental Divide, increasing the tourism in the area. After many occasions of Papa’s friends staying at the lodge for free, Sophia, also known as Mama, suggested they charge guests in a German-style inn on the property. They began to change their home into a “dude ranch” which would become known as the Holzwarth Trout Lodge. For $2 a day or $11 a week, visitors enjoyed the splendor of Rocky Mountain National Park and rustic mountain cabins. On Admiral Blue, the kitchen range that was purchased in 1923 for $40 and freighted to the ranch, Mama cooked three meals a day for guests and served them in the dining room. A typical $1.50 meal included freshly caught trout, soup stock, wilted dandelion greens (bacon, vinegar, and sugar), deer roast, biscuits, and boiled potatoes. The Holzwarth Trout Lodge was officially in business!
Over the years, Johnnie made improvements on the property, including building a lodge, dining hall, guest rooms, and barn for the Never Summer Ranch. By the mid-1950s, fishing was not as popular with guests as horseback riding and sightseeing. The Never Summer Ranch dude ranch offered various excursions for visitors to see the magnificence of the mountain country. During this time, the National Park Service began surveying the property for acquisition. Over time, Johnnie had acquired over 800 acres of land in the Kawuneeche Valley. In 1974, the successful homestead and business was purchased by The Nature Conservancy and eventually transferred to the National Park Service. Exploring the property today offers visitors a glimpse into the life of Colorado homesteaders. To preserve the legacy of the family and the early pioneers, volunteers offer daily tours in the summer from mid-June through Labor Day weekend. Take a tour of the Mama cabin to see many original furnishings, linens, and even the Admiral Blue stove! The heritage of the Holzwarth family’s success, perseverance, and their beautiful dude ranch high in the Rocky Mountains is preserved through the stories and buildings of Holzwarth Historic Site.
Volunteer at the Holzwarth Historic Site!
Have you ever imagined stepping into the shoes of a historic family? As a Volunteer-in-Park (VIP) at the Holzwarth Historic Site, you can! From June thru the beginning of September, VIPs assist with operations at the historic site on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. VIPs help visitors connect to the challenges and successes of one family who homesteaded in the Kawuneeche Valley in 1917. Through interpretive programs they help visitors connect to the Holzwarth’s story, the homestead way of life, and what early dude ranches were like on the border of Rocky Mountain National Park. Like all VIP programs across the National Park Service, dedication and passion to the mission of preserving and protecting both cultural and natural resources, and a passion to serve visitors is a must. If you are interested in sharing your enthusiasm for Rocky Mountain National Park and the early high mountain homesteaders, apply to be a VIP at the Holzwarth Historic Site!
For more information about volunteer opportunities throughout Rocky Mountain National Park, click here. For information regarding volunteering at the Holzwarth Historic Site on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, contact the park's Volunteer Program Manager by email or by calling at 970-586-1330.