FRUITA When late winter weather rolls in I think of cowboys waiting out storms huddled in their line shacks drinking hot coffee from blue metal cups.
Rode hard and put away wet, with ice-encrusted mustaches, frozen cowboy boots and red bandannas stiff as cardboard, the herders slowly thawed out in remote winter camps stocked with survival rations of beans, jerked meat, biscuit fixins, matches, dry wood and thin wool blankets atop mouse-infested wooden bunks.
These days there are few cowboys, even fewer sheepherders, and the lonely, one-room line shacks and cowboy camps are almost gone. But this winter, I hiked four miles into one deep in Devils Canyon in the Black Ridge Wilderness of McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area on U.S. Bureau of Land Management Land. Id been there before but not in winter, and its late winter/early spring when these camps proved to be lifesavers for cowboys or sheepherders.
Spring storms or blue northers can come out of nowhere, blasting out of the Canadian Arctic and rolling down the Rockies at the same time cows are birthing calves and mother ewes bleat painfully over twin lambs stuck in a birth canal. Thats when herders have to be with their livestock on the range, and if the blizzard is fierce enough with a cold white wind and zero visibility, as darkness descends, a well-stocked cowboy camp meant the difference between life and death.
With no moon, no stars and drifts of snow piling up against a closed door, I can imagine a cowboy loading pine knots into a front-entrance sheet-metal stove trying to get warm as his frozen leather gloves sat like beige rocks atop two cast-iron stove lids. My hero Teddy Roosevelt wrote: A successful stock-grower must not only be shrewd, thrifty, patient and enterprising, but he must also possess qualities of personal bravery, hardihood and self-reliance. Stockmen are in the West the pioneers of civilization.
TR hunted and ranched in North Dakota, and he explained, The men in the line camps lead a hard life, for they have to be out in every kind of weather, and should be especially active and watchful during the storms.
Caught in a heavy snowstorm himself and in between ranches, Teddy teamed up with another cowboy and traveled nearly blind.
After feeling our way along for eight or nine hours, he remembered, they finally came across an empty hut, a welcome sight to men as cold, hungry and tired as we were.
Tales of line shacks filter down through pioneer memories. Writing about Dominguez and Escalante canyons and the Uncompahgre Plateau, historian Muriel Marshall described stoop-door cabins with just enough room for a cowboy to lay out his bedroll and build a cook fire.
Higher up in the quakies were more substantial cowboy camps, never locked, with doors secured by a wooden peg on a latchstring. No padlock just a whittled stick in the hasp where the lock should be. In those pioneer days, neighbor was a verb not a noun, and to be beholding to a friend meant a personal debt never satisfied by mere money.
Marshall says: Traditionally cow camps were never locked and were kept stocked with a minimum of things vital to life for anyone caught out by sudden deep snow or by injury. Stove wood and kindling, chopped and dry. Matches and staple groceries in tight-lidded lard buckets to keep the wood mice out. Lamp and lantern, coal oil, ax, shovel and a bit of rope. Kettles, skillet, tin plates and cups, cutlery in apple-box cupboards nailed to the logs. Bedding.
So I respect these old camps when I find them on public lands. The vertical-board and tar-paper camp in Devils Canyon sits in a stunning location beneath red-rock cliffs west of Colorado National Monument. A white porcelain enamel reservoir holds water, and two bunk beds crowd the tiny cabin against the north wall. A plank board table has seen plenty of pointed elbows and playing cards. Homemade shelves jut from rough two-by-four walls. The front door has lost its porcelain enamel handle, and a rusty horseshoe is nailed to the wood for good luck.
The exact history of the Devils Canyon camp has yet to be determined. McInnis Canyons Manager Katie Stevens believes the cabin most likely dates to the late 1920s.
Historian Zebulon Miracle at the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction thinks the cabin may have been built by John G. Beard, who homesteaded in Devils Canyon and whose family raised sheep. Other interesting anecdotes refer to the 1930s, when herds of mohair goats, perhaps as many as 4,000 of them, grazed canyon systems south of the Colorado River.
And if the cabin was used by cowboys herding cattle and waiting out a storm, other oral histories tell of Devils Canyon being a hidey hole for unbranded calves and rustlers staying out of sight. Local man Frank Moore told a story of keeping cows higher on the canyon rim, and lowering their calves into the canyon by lariats. Then, when the cows milk dried up and the unbranded calves got bigger and weaned, the calves were rounded up and branded.
Whatever the full story, the Devils Canyon camp has become a popular destination for hikers and horsemen. The historic stove had to be pulled to keep visitors from possibly burning the cabin down.
Stevens says, The main threat to wooden structures is fire, and since there was evidence the stove was being used, it was removed.
Black Ridge Wilderness, part of McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, is in turn part of the BLMs National Landscape Conservation System of treasured lands important for their natural and cultural resources. I respect that designation and our responsibility to protect the few remaining livestock grazing camps on public lands. When spring storms hit, sheepherders and cowboys needed those lonely cabins. Stories linked to landscapes tell the history of the West.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at [email protected]