Museum Monday: Iles Grove — 134 years old and the last of its kind
February 26, 2019
If you've ever traveled on Colo. Highway 13 18 miles south of Craig, you've probably noticed a large, conspicuous grouping of trees on the north side of the highway as you enter Axial Basin. This five-acre stand of cottonwood trees, known as Iles Grove, represents one of the few remaining vestiges of an old method to obtain free land.
In a follow-up to the Homestead Act of 1862, the Timber Culture Act of 1873 was meant to provide opportunity for homesteaders to add up to 160 additional acres to their homestead. All that was required was that 25 percent of the acreage (40 of 160 acres) be planted with trees. In 1878, this was reduced to 6.25 percent (10 of 160 acres).
The act had three main goals. First, it was meant to allow settlers an opportunity to acquire more land in areas that required more than 160 acres to run a successful farm/ranch. Second, it was meant to encourage the forestation of the arid West. Trees were considered a necessity for westward growth by providing wood for fuel, shelter and windbreaks. Third, at the time, there was a belief that more trees encouraged more rainfall — something that large parts of the West desperately needed in order to raise livestock and crops.
Thomas H. Iles, one of the first settlers in Northwest Colorado, arrived in 1874 near the confluence of Elk Head Creek and Yampa River, just east of present-day Craig. After a few years, he made his way south of present-day Hamilton, where he staked his homestead of 160 acres at the base of the mountain that today bears his name. In 1885, he decided to grow his claim by 80 acres through the Timber Culture Act.
To obtain his additional 80 acres of land, Iles would need to plant five acres of trees. However, this would require substantial water to keep them alive, and water wasn't exactly plentiful. So Iles, who was armed with an agriculture degree, dammed and diverted Morapos Creek into Stinking Gulch. His plan, while touch-and-go at first, worked. Not only did his trees grow enough to obtain his 80 acres, after 133 years, they still remain.
The Timber Culture Act was riddled with loopholes and ripe for profiteers. In addition, the additional trees didn't make it rain and were usually planted in areas that simply wouldn't support them. The act was finally repealed in 1891, and most of the groves were soon removed to make way for profitable crops.
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Today, though beginning to show significant signs of deterioration, Iles Grove is believed to be one of the, if not the, last intact Timber Culture Act groves left in Colorado.
Paul Knowles is assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. To learn more about Iles Grove, as well as other stories and artifacts from our area's rich Western history, drop by the Museum of Northwest Colorado at 590 Yampa Ave., or visit the museum's Facebook page, facebook.com/MuseumNorthwestColorado.