From White House Ranch to Rock Ledge Ranch
Smith, original director, looks back
In a recent, taped interview, Smith talked about how Rock Ledge became what it is today, including some little-known facts - such as what happened to the pool that used to be in front of the Orchard House, the name change from “White House Ranch” and the steady restoration efforts that turned the old Rock Ledge and Orchard houses into “million-dollar” homes.
During his city career, Smith also played a lead role in the 1990s changes at the Garden of the Gods City Park (which Rock Ledge is technically a part of), lessening the vehicular impact of its 1.7 million visitors a year; as well as in the formation of City Parks' visitor centers at Helen Hunt Falls and in North Cheyenne Canon Park.
Almost straight out of college with an environmental education degree in 1977, Smith was initially hired by City Parks as a recreational leader. After about a month, City Parks Recreation Superintendent Nancy Lewis (who later became the department's director), “called me in,” Smith recalled. “She had this project she wanted me to look at, at a place called White House Ranch.”
His first reaction? “I thought 'Wow, great,' because my degree was in environmental education, and so she handed me the keys and I walked around by myself and I thought this was quite the place.”
He spent time researching the property's history, learning that it had been one of the area's early homesteads in the 1860s, followed by the Chambers family's ranch/farm operation (and construction of their home, the Rock Ledge House) from about 1880 to 1900, and that in 1907 William Palmer built a house there for his sister-in-law Charlotte and her husband, Dr. William Schlater.
The city bought the property in 1967, after it nearly became a Pleasant Valley housing subdivision. “The community at that time went to the city to save the ranch as part of the Garden of the Gods, and the city said, 'We don't have the money for it,'” Smith related. “And so the activist group went out and received pledges from the El Pomar Foundation and the Bemis-Taylor Foundation to provide the $225,000 necessary for the purchase of the property.”
But in the 10 years after 1967, the city had no definite course of action for the land. There were a couple of early programs - one was El Ranchito, a program in the Orchard House for physically challenged kids. Meanwhile, “there were all sorts of proposals,” Smith said. One that surfaced was by the Rocky Mountain Arboretum, an historical arts society which “had an office in the north bedroom area of the Orchard House with library books and that sort of stuff, and they were housed there for probably five years before being unable to proceed with their project,” Smith said. However, he happily added, the trees the Arboretum planted remain to this day between the Orchard House lawn and the field in front of the Rock Ledge House, thus providing “a nice vegetated barrier between the time periods.”
One of the biggest decisions that had to be made early on, according to Smith, concerned buildings on the property. “In 1976, they [the city] moved the American Mother's Chapel [to the site] as part of the bicentennial effort,” he said. “So when I arrived, there was a lot of interest in putting old buildings on the property, and one of the fundamentally right decisions we made over time was that the real history of the landscape and the structures was substantial enough there was no need to bring in other buildings.”
The year before Smith arrived, the city had approved a master plan for the Garden of the Gods, calling for White House Ranch to become an environmental center. His appreciation of the history led him to write up a recommendation that it instead become a historic site. After reading what he wrote, Lewis “asked me a few questions and then said, 'OK, let's do it.” After that, he said, “We worked feverishly - at that point our department was much smaller - and it was kind of a departmental effort to put together a program for this place.”
In mid-May 1978, the ranch opened for the summer as a “pilot project,” Smith said. Free and open to the public, it was open daily, 10 hours a day. “I didn't get much time off that summer,” Smith said.
The set-up was similar to what still exists. There were the three time periods: Galloway, Chambers and Palmer's Orchard House - although the Galloway cabin wasn't built yet and no historic restoration had occurred on either of the two houses. Construction of the Galloway cabin, using traditional methods and materials (ponderosa pine logs), was a featured part of the ranch experience during the first two years. “Tom Coon, a very good carpenter, worked at demonstrating the construction of a cabin in that time period,” Smith said. “We kind of took it slow, so people could see the cabin in the process of being constructed. At one point we actually thought we could take it up and put it down every so often just to show how it was done, but that was too painstaking, so it stayed up and is about as good a representation as we could have had at that time.” As for it not being the “real” Galloway cabin, “it's a replica, yes, but 18 years from now it will be 50 years old,” Smith said. “We don't really even have a photo of the cabin itself, so there's much debate over some of those buildings as to which one it might have been. The theory is it was over near the barn area.”
Like today, the ranch had guides who could talk about the ranch activities. The difference is that back then, as Smith put it, “we were foolhardy enough to do first- person interpretation” - in other words, they would portray historical characters as if they really were those people, ignoring nearby distractions such as ambulance sirens or planes flying overhead. Nowadays, although the guides still dress and speak in a historical manner, they use the opportunity to “compare and contrast,” Smith said, “rather than pretend they're in some time bubble.” The firstperson “just began to be too difficult... [but] we still have people coming through who think that's what happens here.”
It would still be a while before interpretation occurred inside the buildings themselves. “In one of the worst things you can do with historic renovation, the city decided to fix them up with the use of interior designers and redecorated them with the styles, wallpapers, and fashion of the 1970s,” Smith lamented.
One aspect that has remained unchanged is keeping the ranch open to the public. “That's very rare for historic sites,” Smith said. “Generally they'd put a fence around it and only have it open during hours of operation. But very early on a decision was made to let people in Pleasant Valley continue to have access to it and to be able to walk around a significant historic landscape. Dozens of people walk through here on any given day.”
Editor’s note: The concluding Part 2 of the interview with Gene Smith will appear in the June 11 issue of the Westside Pioneer.
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