History in Focus: The Two Circle Bar
For the Craig Press
When you drive east on Highway 40 out of Craig you will cruise past and most likely not notice the site of one of the important early ranches of northwest Colorado. Yet, in the early 20th century, the Two Circle Bar ranch was a landmark, impossible to miss, and was one of the largest ranches of the cattle baron era.
The Two Circle Bar was the work of three brothers: Sam, John, and Robert Cary. In 1879, John and Robert came to Leadville and opened a hardware store specializing in mining supplies and equipment. In 1904, the two brothers sold their share of the store, and moved north to the Yampa Valley to join up with the third brother, Sam, who had homesteaded 160 acres just west of Hayden in 1889.
With funds from the sale of their Leadville interests, the Cary brothers turned their attention to open-range ranching and quickly devoured nearby ranches and land until, at its peak, the Cary Ranch comprised between 25,000 and 30,000 acres. The brothers owned almost all of the land along the Yampa River between Craig and Hayden!
Along with its impressive size, the ranch employed thirty carpenters out of Denver to build a compound of barns, stables, sheds, and a bunkhouse for 25 to 30 ranch hands and 15 to 20 cowboys. Three Victorian style homes were built for each brother and their families, even though they resided in Denver and stayed in the Yampa Valley only in the summer (Who can blame them?). Finally, and amazingly, was a cow shed that reportedly ran for a mile long to offer protection to cattle in the feedlot.
In 1902, the Routt County Sentinel reported the Cary ranch employed 75 workers to the tune of a $10,000 monthly payroll. The October 8 Steamboat Pilot reported the nearby sawmills couldn’t keep up with the demand for lumber to construct the ranch compound (1902). All of this development was a good omen for the future of the Yampa Valley.
Unique in the open range era, the Two Circle Bar irrigated, grew, and harvested hay to maintain their herds during the harsh winters. The ranch also diversified its business interests. The local newspapers through the years report the development of breeding stallions, purchasing Berkshire hogs, raising ducks, geese, and poultry, and even a dairy creamery that produced 500 pounds of butter a month (Steamboat Pilot, 2/28/1906). In 1914, a post office was established at the ranch’s headquarters (7/1/1914).
Naturally, the massive ranch with its impressive facilities and posh digs were a beacon that attracted visitors from around the area, state, easterners, and even foreign Belgian capitalists researching possible investment in the local coal fields.
Amid this growth, tragedy hit the Carys when Walter, son of John, drowned in the Yampa in May of 1907 when the boat ferrying him, two ranch hands, and two bulls to the south side overturned in the freezing spring run-off. His decomposed body was recovered in August about four miles downstream, beached on a sandbar. (Steamboat Pilot, 8/7/1907)
In 1908, John was elected to the state senate and helped engineer the creation of Moffat County in 1911. He made sure the Two Circle Bar stayed within Routt County, which explains the stair step jog in the dividing line between the two counties.
In 1908, the year the railroad reached Steamboat, the Cary ranch shipped 14,000 head of cattle to market. Tragedy struck in 1912 when John suddenly died of a heart attack. Perhaps disheartened at the loss of his brother, Robert tried and failed in his attempt to sell the ranch to Belgian investors for $1.5 million in July (Routt County Register, 7/26/1912). Yet, during World War I, beef prices soared and proved to be the peak of the open range era.
After World War I, the Two Circle Bar fell on hard times. The Carys had previously mortgaged the ranch to invest in the extension of the railroad west to Salt Lake. When this effort failed, the ranch was in peril. After the war, cattle prices plummeted, and this double-barreled calamity was the beginning of the end.
In 1922, 13,000 acres were leased to a group of sheep ranchers (Routt County Sentinel, 11/10/1922). Finally, a new wave of settlement based on coal and petroleum hit northwest Colorado, and the Cary Ranch was subdivided into smaller farms and sold off over the next few years.
Today, few physical reminders of the Cary ranch still exist. Just west and north of the entrance to the Yampa River State Park you can spy the site of the headquarters of the once impressive ranch. Just to the east is a small white barn; the lonely remaining sentinel of the Two Circle Bar and a bygone era when ranching was king and cowboys roamed the open range.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sources for this article: Where The Old West Stayed Young by John Rolfe Burroughs, 1963. Mary Murphey, Kyle Monger, and the newspaper archives of the Museum of Northwest Colorado.
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