A paradise resettled and a community lost

  • Book cover of "Old Fences, New Neighbors"


In 1974, when Peter and Deedee Decker bought a rundown, 600-acre ranch six miles from the small, doomed, also rundown town of Ridgway, Colo. (the Bureau of Reclamation planned to bury it under a reservoir, but later relented), it was nowheresville. Despite the San Juan Mountains, which loom up almost as abruptly and beautifully as the Tetons, Ouray County was still mining and ranching country, where the value of the land depended on how many cattle it could feed.

Decker, with a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, was one of the first outsiders to buy a ranch there. Not knowing a lot about ranching, he held on to his day job - teaching at Duke University - but after five years gave that up to become a full-time rancher.

Despite a chilly initial reception from the 40 or so old-time ranching families that ran the area, Decker earned their acceptance, becoming head of the Ouray County Planning and Zoning Commission and eventually Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture. His ranch in the shadow of Mount Sneffels and his official positions gave him a good seat from which to watch Ouray County go straight to hell, or become a much better place, depending on your values.

If you think cows are range maggots, a la Edward Abbey, then Ouray County is three times better than it used to be. From 1975 to 1995, the number of maggots in Ouray County dropped from 19,000 to 6,000, and the price of land, the number of millionaires and the county's population all increased to fill the vacuum. Ralph Lauren, who owns the Polo brand, was one of the first outsiders to buy a large ranch there. His designer fence along Dallas Divide is still one of the wonders of the Western world. Dennis Weaver, who comes by his Western roots honestly (he played Chester in the TV series Gunsmoke), also moved in, as did Texas oilmen, high-end surgeons, land developers and Wall Street investors.

Decker, after spending the first two-thirds of the book describing Ouray's early days of Native Americans, mining, ranching and homesteading, spends the last third arguing with himself, and no doubt with his readers, about whether Ouray County is better off for the changes that hit it, starting in the early 1980s.

It is not an easy question. The newcomers, in uneasy alliance with the oldtimers, have mostly saved the county from sloppy land development. Ranches are bigger on average now than 20 years ago, and they're less intensively grazed, if they're grazed at all. Residential development has been clustered in non-agricultural areas, and, except for Ridgway's determination to go cutesy-pie Western, the county looks rural.

But the old-time work ethic is gone, Decker tells us. People no longer use neighbor as a verb; cash, rather than cooperation, rules. The schools are battlegrounds where the different social and economic classes fight over values, and Decker himself has sold one of his two ranches and re-established himself in the Nebraska Sandhills, where land, for the moment, is worth only what a cow can take off it.

After weighing the changes, Decker tells us in his last couple of pages that Ouray County is better for the socioeconomic upheaval. He writes that it is now diverse and less insular, instead of "stagnated in an atmosphere of quiet resignation, if not intolerance."

But that's the history professor talking. When Decker is writing from the heart or from the spleen, which is most of the time, it is clear that he misses the old, insular, intolerant Ridgway, where a Ph.D., one neighbor told him, isn't worth a damn unless it means post-hole digger. You can buy your way into the new Ridgway, but it took a lot more than cash to gain entry into the old Ridgway. It is also clear that whatever Decker was when he came to Ridgway, he has by now thoroughly absorbed the values of the place he moved to.

In print, anyway, he's ornery, impatient and more than a little disgusted with a Ouray County awash in too much money, too much leisure, and an ignorant infatuation with the West.

Which brings us back to beginnings. Why did a worldly, educated professor work so hard to become part of one of the nation's narrowest-minded, hardest-working societies? Why did he decide to spend his days and nights, for a good many years, tending some of the stupidest beasts in the world, instead of inspiring the best and the brightest of our youth in a college classroom?

To figure that out, you will have to read the book. And even then, the answer won't be totally clear.