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
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...