Boulder Valley’s ranch land is more than picturesque. It boasts a story that goes back generations. Researchers at the University of Colorado Denver are documenting its history as part of an effort to earn the iconic open space a rural historic landscape designation.
Abigail Christman, survey coordinator for the College of Architecture and Planning’s Center of Preservation Research (CoPR), said the Cherryvale Ranch Area, which straddles U.S. Highway 36 in southeast Boulder, is a collection of ranches dating to the 1880s. The land, which has been owned by the City of Boulder since the 1970s, got the notice of historic preservationists after CNN founder Ted Turner last year proposed donating a buffalo herd to the Cherryvale area. His proposal was ultimately voted down by the Boulder City Council.
The uniqueness of having an intact ranching landscape next door to a vibrant city, and still being leased for cattle grazing, wasn’t lost on Julie Johnson, cultural resources program coordinator for the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. Making accommodations for a buffalo herd — including special fencing and larger barns — would have disrupted the historic ranching use of the thousands of acres, Johnson said.
“We’ve had ranchers who’ve leased this land since the ’40s,” she said. “We’ve worked hard on achieving a good balance. There was a chance we’d lose it, and we didn’t like that very much.”
Johnson hired the Center of Preservation Research to document Cherryvale’s property holders, water rights, land uses and homestead buildings. Christman and four graduate students dived into the complex project this semester. When finished, they’ll have a complete narrative Cherryvale history, along with detailed drawings and site maps, to submit for national registry nomination. The project is also being developed in the classroom. The Home on the Range class, taught by Associate Professor Kat Vlahos, focuses on the vernacular cultural landscapes of the region. Students will work on preservation plans and propose a new use for the historic house on the ranch.
The National Park Service’s National Registry of Historic Places has typically selected buildings for the registry, but that’s changing. “In the last couple of years there’s been more of an emphasis on looking beyond individual buildings,” Christman said. “Now they’re also looking at historic landscapes to see if they’re still intact and being used for historic purposes.”
The nomination will first go to the state historic preservation office this summer then on to the National Park Service. “If everything goes well … it would be sometime in the first half of next year that it would actually get listed,” Christman said.
Christman said she is used to documenting historic landscapes in far-flung places. The Boulder ranchland is unique in that it was preserved, thanks to the City of Boulder, in essentially an urban corridor. “When this is done we’ll have a detailed history of how this area specifically evolved. It was used for cattle ranching and dairy operations,” she said. “We’ll document how this area relates to the history of agriculture in Boulder County. … I think a lot of people drive through (on Highway 36) and haven’t given a lot of thought to it.”
Vlahos, director of the Center of Preservation Research, said the Cherryvale project illustrates how CoPR is a resource for communities around the state. “We engage students on almost everything we do,” she said. “We’re educators and we focus on project-based education. The way we’re able to teach and learn is by being out in the world trying to solve real problems with real people. We explore how to tell the story of a place, using history, drawings, visuals and words, to understand what makes it significant and important.”
Johnson appreciates the energy the CU Denver students bring to the project. With her many other responsibilities she doesn’t have time to collect the data that the CU team is producing. “It’s quite a bit of work and it’s great to see young people take this up,” she said.
If the ranch district becomes listed on the National Registry of Historic Places it will be eligible for grant funds for historic preservation, Johnson said. “It’s mostly an honor and a documentation of the history of the area,” she said. “This area used to be pretty much an agricultural area, but it’s contiguous and it still serves the purpose it did 100 years ago, and that’s pretty special.”