The San Luis Valley is the largest alpine valley in the world. The sunniest spot in Colorado, the valley is very level and has a dry climate. The valley floor averages 7500 feet in elevation and averages 7-8 inches of precipitation each year. The mountain streams generally flow into the Rio Grande River which originates in the San Juan Mountain range.
Early settlers viewed the valley as an area to graze stock. The Spanish were the first to introduce horses, sheep and cattle to the valley. They drove their herds of cattle and flocks of sheep into the valley for summer grazing before actual settlements were established. It is thought that Native Americans may have planted some maize, beans, squash and possibly tobacco along the river bottoms but the first real gardening that was recorded was behind the walls of Fort Massachusetts. At this same time Hispano settlements along the Culebra and Costilla rivers worked with wooden plows, mattock and shovels to dig ditches so they could cultivate small fields of crops, using the acequia system to irrigate. Non-irrigated land was used for pasture. Early settlers generally had a small flock of sheep, a few cattle, chickens, a few acres of hay and crops such as corn, wheat and beans.
Anglo-Americans, primarily of German and Scandinavian origin, came to the valley from the Midwest in the 1870s, taking up land under the Homestead Act. The first settled in Hooper, Mosca and Moffat area of the valley, thinking the deeper soils would be beneficial for farming. They used dry farming methods and turned to raising wheat because the growing season was too short for corn. Many learned the hard way that the same crop could not be grown year after year on the same land without depleting the soils fertility. Many of them left to start farms in the Del Norte area.
Ranching became a lucrative business, due in part to the excellent nutritional value of the native grasses and clover. The abandoned homesteads around Mosca and Hooper were gradually acquired and extended in to large grazing ranches. The Sangre de Cristo Ranch became two large ranches; the Trinchera Ranch of 160,000 acres, and the Baca Ranch consisting of 80,000 acres. These ranches added to the Medano and Zapata ranches near Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and San Luis Lakes. Turmoil arose over Hispano settlers raising sheep and Anglo settlers raising cattle in the area.
Mormon settlers founded the towns of Manassa, Sanford, Ephraim and Richfield. They built a central village where everyone resided and was surrounded by fields where people worked. The farms ranged from 80 to 160 acres. The Mormons prospered introducing and growing hardy varieties of spring wheat, barley and oats in the valley. They also established large and extensive canal systems learned from the existing acequia systems.
The Japanese-Americans moved to the valley in the 1920s and introduced truck farming. The valley’s abundant sunshine and cool summers made growing lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, peas and cauliflower particularly profitable. The success of the Japanese-American farmers was so successful that at one time 90% of the spinach marketed in the U.S. came from the San Luis Valley.
Railroads were a necessary component to success in agriculture. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a narrow gauge over La Veta pass in 1877. The extension to the new railroad town of Alamosa was completed in June of 1878. The railroad shipped in whole buildings from Garland City and aligned them along the tracks facing the train depot to form the new destination. Railroad construction later connected Alamosa to La Jara, Antonito, over Cumbres Pass to Chama, to Durango and Santa Fe. Passenger trains arrived and departed daily to Santa Fe, Denver, Salida, Durango, and Creede. Goods could now be sold and shipped out including ore, lumber, cattle, sheep and farm products.
Centennial Farms & Ranches
What are Centennial Farms & Ranches?
The Colorado Centennial Farms & Ranches program was created in 1986 by Gov. Richard D. Lamm in contribution with the Colorado Historical Society–today known as History Colorado–and the Colorado Department of Agriculture. The program was created to recognize the role agriculture has played in Colorado’s history, as well as economic development. The program is administered today through History Colorado. This program was the first of its kind in the United States to give a Historic Structures Award to farm and ranch owners who have preserved historic buildings and architecture on their farms and ranches.
Centennial Farms & Ranches in SdCNHA
SCIDMORE FARMS–1913–Alamosa, Alamosa County–In 1913, Fred Scidmore purchased the farm and leased the 640 acres from 1913 to 1933 while he continued to live in Kansas. The first house was built in 1889 and Fred had an adobe house built in 1924. In 1933, Walter and Fern and their children Harold Keith and Lois Helen came from Kansas and lived in the home built in 1924. Keith married Irene Entz in 1938. They have three children Kay Rene, Harold Keith Jr., and Mary Dee. They moved to this house in 1942 when Walter and Fern moved to Alamosa. Harold married Frances Woolley in 1961. They have three children, Vicki, Scott and Melissa. With the passing of Fred, Walter, Keith, and the retirement of Harold, son Scott is carrying on with the family tradition. Here he raises potatoes, Coors barley, and alfalfa. Five generations of the Scidmore family have lived in various dwellings on the property, which has grown to 2080 acres, and it is hoped that the sixth generation will someday continue the farm’s legacy. (Information courtesy of History Colorado)
BROWN FAMILY RANCH–1914–Mosca, Alamosa County–In 1897, James Martin Brown, Sr. and his family leased 160 acres in Alamosa County from the Mosca Milling and Elevator Company, and in 1914 the family bought the property, which they later expanded to its current size of 480 acres. They started with small grains, hay and potatoes, as well as livestock, including cattle, sheep, hogs and horses, then added in 1907 alfalfa, and attempted sugar beets in the early 1940s. Today the 1887 irrigation ditch still runs, and several of the buildings from the 1950s, including a milking barn, a calving and lambing shed, a chicken house and a box car, are still in use. The land, currently owned Jimmy and Terry Brown, was passed down to them by James Martin, III. Jimmy and Terry continue to raise cattle, sheep and hay at the ranch today.
MADDUX BROS. RANCH–1874–Alamosa, Alamosa County–James T. Maddux came to the Valley in 1864 and homesteaded on a section of land here, just one mile north of the present site of Alamosa. He married Mary Schock in 1876. They raised seven children: Etta, Alva, William, Ella, Nora, Aria and Arthur. Mr. Maddux built seven buildings here, one of which was used for a store and post office. The name of this small community was Wayside. Horses were kept here for the stage run from Denver to Creede. At this location he drilled the first artesian well (350 ft.) in the Valley. Ranch products, baked goods, shelter (25 cents a night) and the ever present, much needed two-holers were available. Other supplies were limited as they had to be shipped in by wagon train. A large scale was also installed for weighing freight and animals. A stage coach carrying several gold bars was robbed about 5 miles west of Wayside. Ute Indians came when hungry for food, sugar, cornmeal, and flour. San Luis was the county seat at this time so all official business was transacted there. Also the only flour mill was in San Luis, so wheat had to be hauled there to be ground into flour. After the DRGW railroad came across the Rio Grande to the south, Alamosa was rapidly formed by moving the buildings on a work train from the town of Garland. The post office was moved from Wayside to Alamosa in 1878. (Information courtesy of City of Alamosa, and Historical Monument on site of ranch.)
VIGIL FARMS–1876–Capulin, Conejos County–Around 1876, when Colorado was in the process of becoming a state, Maximo Vigil acquired approximately 200 acres under the 1862 Homestead Act and established a farm near Capulin. During this time the water was also registered. The farmland has been worked by six generations of the Vigil family. Maximo worked the land for many years until his son Venancio Vigil took over in the late 1930s. Venancio worked the farm with his children growing peas, alfalfa, and barley. Venancio purchased an additional 80 acres to expand the farm in 1936. When Venancio’s son Pete Vigil Sr. returned from World War II in June of 1945 he began working the farm with his father and his siblings. Pete Vigil Sr. farmed and obtained the land in the 1950s growing peas, wheat, oats, barley, and alfalfa. In the early 1970s Maximo’s great-grandson Pete Vigil Jr. took over the farm, which is now identified as Vigil Farms. Pete made many improvements, such as building a reservoir in 1976 and land leveling the acreage. Pete has grown alfalfa on the 280-acre farm for over 48 years and worked the farm with his late son Michael Vigil. Pete Vigil Jr. continues to improve the farm every year, recently adding new head gates and a new sprinkler system and pipeline for more efficient irrigation. Pete received the 2012 Outstanding Conservationist of the Year Award from the Conejos County Conservation District and with his grandchildren continues his family’s tradition of farming and working hard to earn an honest living.
SALAZAR FARM & RANCH–1888–Manassa, Conejos County–In the 1860s, a large portion of Rancho la Luz was settled and inhabited by Felipe Cantu, John Salazar’s great grandfather. Over time, the property was divided up and sold as the family faced economic pressures and hardships. In 2000, John and his wife, Mary Lou began buying back portions of the historic ranch, with the ultimate goal of conserving the property for future generations. Today, John and Mary Lou are thrilled that the ranch and its associated water rights will remain in agricultural production and intact forever. Like many properties in the Valley, some of the water rights on Rancho la Luz were established as far back as 1857, with ditches that were originally dug by John’s ancestors. This ranch means so much to our family and we are blessed to honor my great grandfather’s legacy while at the same time creating opportunities for future generations of the Salazar family to continue our connection with the land and the San Luis Valley,” said John Salazar. Read more here. More info in the video linked below. (Information courtesy of Conejos County Citizen.)
If you have any information about these Centennial Farms & Ranches, please reach out to the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area.
GONZALES RANCH–1870–La Jara, Conejos County
VALDEZ FARM–1890–La Jara, Conejos County
PETERSON RANCH–1900–La Jara, Conejos County
STEWART RANCH–1863–Sanford, Conejos County
ORTEGA FARM–1851–San Luis, Costilla County–Established in 1851, the Ortega Farm in San Luis is Colorado’s oldest Centennial Farm. If you have any information about this Centennial Farm & Ranch, please reach out to the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area.
RIO CULEBRA RANCH (VALDEZ FAMILY)–1863–San Luis, Costilla County–The 225 acre Valdez Rio Culebra Ranch is located in Costilla County in another Centennial Ranch in Colorado having been in the Valdez Family since 1863, 158 years! Located in Costilla County, this ranch is a part of Colorado’s oldest agricultural community, protecting critical acequia senior water rights, highly productive agricultural lands, and considerable views from multiple Costilla County vantage points. The ranch is also a part of La Vega, the only common in the United States still used for community grazing. La Vega is the only Mexican-Era land grant commons in the country which is still in use for its initial function. Continuing to serve its original purpose of communal grazing, La Vega was designated by a 1863 covenant for villagers living in Rio Culebra Basin. The shape of the ranch is a riparian long-lot (a vara strip) which was delineated as part of the historic Sangre de Cristo Land Grant established in 1844. The Valdez Rio Culebra Ranch provides a critical convergence of natural, historical and cultural heritage. The ranch encompasses a portion of the Rio Culebra, it provides a specific habitat to Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron and Southwest Flycatcher. The Valdez Rio Culebra Ranch is currently used as a working cattle ranch. It is irrigated from the San Pedro Ditch, the second most senior water right in the Rio Culebra system. The San Pedro Ditch is a traditional acequia, which was hand dug in the spring of 1852 and adjudicated in 1889. The Valdez family uses customary flood irrigation to grow alfalfa for their cow-calf herd.
ATENCIO FARM–1894–San Pablo, Costilla County–La Otra Banda Ranch is located in the beautiful and historic San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. The ranch is owned by the Atencio family of San Pablo, Colorado and has been in the family for over 100 years. La Otra Banda Ranch is located in the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 107 Acres of prime wildlife habitat, containing over 1.9 miles of private water. The stream is filled with Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, and an occasional “Brookie.” The open setting of the beautiful landscape makes learning to fly-fish fun and easy for beginners. Read more here. (Information courtesy of La Otra Band Ranch website.)
GALLEGOS RANCHES–1860–San Luis, Costilla County–In 1865, Dario Gallegos established the Corpus Gallegos Ranches. Generations later, his direct descendants, Jerry and Joe, own the ranch. The brothers are feeding their cows an alfalfa mix grown using water from the San Luis People’s Ditch, the same water source used by Dario. The community-operated irrigation ditch is also known historically as an acequia. It runs four miles long through 24 different lots supplying water for crops. Read more here. (Information courtesy of KGNU.)
See below for a link to the full list of Colorado’s Centennial Farms & Ranches, and a video discussing Centennial Farms, the Salazar Farm and Ranch, and the history of agriculture in Colorado.