How to tell the story of the West, rural and urban

A residential library for readers, poets and naturalists takes shape.

 

At Buffalo Peaks Ranch in Colorado, a cluster of whitewashed buildings and tin-sided barns, aspiring and accomplished illustrators have gathered around the main house’s front porch in camp chairs on a late summer morning. Clutching cream-colored sketching paper and blue enamel mugs filled with lukewarm coffee, they’re participants in an illustrated field journal class. A cool breeze flips pages and coaxes the old rocking chair on the porch into motion. Down at the ranch’s southwestern edge, past barbed wire fences and prairie dog burrows, the South Platte River bubbles by.

It’s been eight years since Jeff Lee and Ann Martin first laid eyes on this ranch, built in 1862 on the golden plains of South Park, 90 miles southwest of Denver. For years, the couple, who met in 1986 while working at Denver’s famed Tattered Cover bookstore, had been searching for a home for the Rocky Mountain Land Library — their “residential” library of more than 35,000 books, many dedicated to wild Western landscapes. Now, with a 95-year lease on the ranch from the city of Aurora, the library, which hosts monthly summer book clubs and workshops for poets, artists and naturalists, is slowly taking shape.

The ranch is a far cry from the project’s inspiration — Gladstone’s, the old “Harry Potteresque” residential library in Flintshire, North Wales, which Lee and Martin visited 20 years ago during a book-buying trip for the Tattered Cover. Unlike American libraries, it allows patrons to stay overnight in barebones dormitories on site, never far from the legendary book collection of the longtime Victorian prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone.

“We went away thinking, ‘God, wouldn’t that be wonderful if something like this was in the Southern Rockies,’ ” says Lee, now in his 60s. “We had always gravitated towards natural history books — books about the land.”

For years, Lee and Martin visited properties all over Colorado, looking for a suitable home for the many thousands of books they had collected from bargain bins and donations, ranging from the usual suspects –– paperbacks by Wallace Stegner and Ed Abbey –– to rarities such as original clothbound volumes of Theodore Roosevelt’s Hunting Tales of the West. But something was always missing; the place’s connection to the West’s history wasn’t strong enough or the location wasn’t right. Then, a friend recommended Park County, known for its investment in heritage tourism. Buffalo Peaks Ranch, located near the ghost town of Garo, was just what they had imagined: a place that reflected the region’s cultural history—ranching, mining, Native American settlements –– as well as its natural history. “It’s not just nature that defines a land library,” says Lee; “it’s how people have interacted with the land over millennia.”

The modest cluster of buildings at Buffalo Peaks Ranch houses the Rocky Mountain Land Library, a collection of books related to natural history and western landscapes.
Gloria Dickie

Phase one of the renovations, now underway, will see the property’s seven buildings converted into year-round lodging, workshop and classroom spaces, a welcome center and a commercial kitchen, with a number of themed library spaces — from ranching to women in the West — scattered throughout. The main focus right now is fundraising, says Lee, who says they need to raise about $6 million from private donors, federal and state grants, and membership fees. Already, they’ve received a $60,000 grant from the South Park National Heritage Area.

The project is partnering with the University of Colorado Denver’s Graduate School of Architecture, whose students have come up with designs for the library as part of their coursework, and a pro bono architect. And for the past two summers, volunteers from the historic preservation nonprofit HistoriCorps have painted buildings and replaced three roofs.

The library is already looking to expand beyond the ranch, Lee tells me with soft-spoken enthusiasm, perched on a stool in its makeshift main room. Behind him, tables teem with railroad history tomes. Already, 3,000 books from the couple’s collection are housed at Denver Water’s Kassler Center southwest of the city, where they comprise the Waterton Canyon Kids and Educators Library. And just days earlier, Lee and Martin had found the perfect location for the final component of their vision — an urban branch in downtown Denver.

“It’s the old Puritan Pie Company building in Curtis Park. It’s just one of those beautiful old Denver factory buildings,” he says. Though Curtis Park is gentrifying, the neighborhood has always been one of the most diverse in the city. “There’s a very strong African American foothold there in both history and culture.”

As part of what the pair dubs the “Headwaters-to-Plains” initiative, the Denver branch will focus on urban homesteading (beekeeping, gardens and backyard chickens), and feature a kids’ nature library. Now, they have to raise another $1 million to get that branch fully up and running. “Philosophically, if we really want to tell the story of the land,” says Lee, “having both the rural and urban is so important.”

Gloria Dickie is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac