Ranchers, environmental educators Betsy and Geoff Blakeslee say goodbye to Carpenter Ranch after 23 years
HAYDEN — When Betsy Blakeslee looks back on the two decades she and husband, Geoff, have spent at the Carpenter Ranch, gratitude is the thread that sews together all of her memories on the ranch east of Hayden.
She’s thankful for the land, both the fields the cattle graze on and the forested banks of the Yampa River, and the revolving cast of interns, researchers, students, artists, ranchers, birders and conservationists who have walked through the doors of Farrington “Ferry” Carpenter’s historic home.
She’s thankful for the opportunity she had to chase her grandchildren around the ranch and to show so many other children the agriculture, forest, river and wildlife. She’s thankful for the sunrises and sunsets over the Elkhead Mountains that she and Geoff have shared.
Betsy will retire next week as facilities manager at the Carpenter Ranch. She and Geoff are working to fit 23 years worth of life at the ranch into boxes to move into their new home in Stagecoach. Geoff will continue working as The Nature Conservancy’s Yampa River project director, but soon, a new facilities manager will move in to continue stewarding the history, conservation and management of the ranch.
“They have considered the ranch kind of like their own place in the sense that they gave it that same loving care that one would give to one’s own property,” said Willis Carpenter, Ferry’s son, who lives in Denver. “I couldn’t have asked for more wonderful people to be there than Geoff and Betsy.”
The Carpenter Ranch was both home and office for the Blakeslees. Each morning, Geoff and Betsy planned their day over coffee together and then went about their respective jobs. Each evening, together, they recapped their days working on the ranch. There was no commute and no daycare for the youngest of their three children, who was in seventh grade when they moved to the Carpenter Ranch.
“I’m going to miss it, obviously, waking up in the morning and just seeing the sights that we’re so used to and to know that won’t be our daytime greeting,” Geoff said. “But, it’s always going to be here, and I know we can come back to it. We’re just getting excited about the next phase of our life and are just thankful that we’ve had this opportunity.”
Betsy said she feels good about leaving the ranch in the hands of the Nature Conservancy. She said the organization is committed to educating people about the land and its history as well as keeping up with the cows and the relationships in the community that she and Geoff have built.
“I can’t even tell you how grateful I am to have spent 23 years here,” Betsy said. “It’s like a gift that I never could’ve imagined. Life is good that way. We worked hard. I feel like we were the right people to be here.
“The Nature Conservancy gave us this challenge, and there’s been a lot of curveballs, but we welcomed those — we owned those,” Betsy continued. “I feel like we’ve been successful here in our jobs, and personally, for our family, we couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Stewarding Carpenter’s legacy
Geoff and Betsy first moved to the Yampa Valley in 1972, when they worked on the Fetcher and Frentress ranches. They moved to Nevada in 1982, leasing their own ranch there for 13 years.
Then, they got a call from rancher Jay Fetcher, who said The Nature Conservancy was interested in buying the Carpenter Ranch. He asked if Geoff would be interested in running the ranch. Of course, he was, but the deal didn’t go through for another couple of years, Betsy said.
Every six months or so, Fetcher called to ask if they were still interested.
“Finally, it did happen, so we were thrilled to move back here,” Betsy said.
The Blakeslees were the right fit, Gael Fetcher explained, because they’re not just “cow people.” They were also “people people,” who liked talking and sharing what they knew with others.
“Geoff was, to me, a logical person to come here, but the real plus was Betsy,” said Jay Fetcher, who was a member of the board who advised the Nature Conservancy as it bought the ranch. “We hit more than a home run by getting Betsy, too.”
The Blakeslees moved to the Carpenter Ranch in 1996, shortly after the Nature Conservancy purchased the ranch from the Carpenter family. They faced the challenge of bringing the historic property into a new era while balancing a working cattle ranch with the Nature Conservancy’s conservation and education goals.
The Carpenter family didn’t get a say in who ran the ranch after they sold it to The Nature Conservancy. They got lucky that it was Geoff and Betsy.
“It’s beyond belief really,” Willis Carpenter said. “They have just been marvelous, and the Nature Conservancy has just been marvelous. They made some very badly needed repairs to the ranch house and also to the barn, and they have kept up care of the meadows.”
Ferry Carpenter, a Yampa Valley rancher, holds a number of firsts — he was the first director of the U.S. Grazing Service, the town of Hayden’s first lawyer and Colorado’s first Director of Revenue. He was a senator, a district attorney and played an instrumental part in authoring and implementing the Taylor Grazing Act, which created the system of grazing permits on federal public lands that livestock growers still use today.
“When they were living on the (Fetcher) ranch, they knew Ferry, too. We’d go down and be with Ferry when he was alive,” Fetcher said. “They had that history, and it was really important that history was protected by the Blakeslees, which they have done.”
Every year, the Blakeslees and former ranch hands are invited to the Carpenter family reunion at the ranch.
“They play a lot of music,” Betsy said. “On a Saturday night, all of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren — the whole family knows all 17 verses of these western ballads that they play.”
She said watching Ferry Carpenter’s children play piano, banjo and guitar with 45 or so family members who knew all the words, “you knew you were in a moment.”
In her time at the ranch, Betsy guided the renovation of Carpenter’s historic home, which is a conglomerate of five homestead cabins mashed together into one house. It was meticulously restored to its historic form, and in the eastern wing of the Carpenter home, which was damaged by a fire in 1974, they gutted it and built the ranch’s education center.
This center is also the starting point for students of all ages to explore and learn about the ranch. Betsy helped develop the ranch into an outdoor classroom, using the garden, river and forest to teach kids about agriculture, the environment and intersections between the two. She also helped numerous artists in residence find inspiration at the ranch.
And, Fetcher said, she always did it with a smile on her face.
“She has a real passion for using that resource to educate, to get kids on the ground,” Fetcher said. “She realized that if she had kids that got dirt under their fingernails, they would become lifetime environmental voters.”
Geoff worked to keep Ferry Carpenter’s legacy alive raising cattle in the fields for nearly 10 years as ranch manager. The Blakeslees began leasing the cattle operation out in 2005 when Geoff started as Yampa River project director.
A new door opening
The move away from the ranch into their new home will take some getting used to, both for the Blakeslees and their dog Georgie.
“It’s going to be a big change for her, too,” Geoff said with a laugh. “I don’t know how she’s going to like it, living in a neighborhood.”
But, the Blakeslees see it as a new door opening.
Betsy’s not looking for any more work, but she plans to volunteer in projects aligned with what she cares about — birds and trees and helping others discover the solace she finds in nature. She’ll have more time with her friends and her grandchildren. And luckily, she jokes, Geoff is younger than her and will keep up his work.
Geoff said that as he and Betsy start a new beginning, the ranch will continue on as it is now.
“Hopefully, this place can continue to be a resource for the community, and the presence The Nature Conservancy has created can continue to be integrated with all of the activities that people in this community care about,” he said.
“I think it was hard for the Carpenters to sell this place, and I watched them go through that,” Betsy said. “Now it’s our turn, and I think the important part of this is to bring the history forward and to not leave that behind.”
Lindsey Marlow grew up on the West Coast, but she’s no saltwater snob. That’s a good thing, because this month she started as program manager for Friends of the Yampa, becoming the organization’s first full-time staff member.