People can travel 160 years into Summit County’s past using a new interactive tool from the Summit Historical Society.
The society released its Homestead Mapping Project as a way to chart the beginnings of land ownership in the county. The colorful map shows 160-acre parcels that span from Breckenridge to Heeney and includes the names of the around 300 original homesteaders who traveled to Summit County to build ranches, mine for gold and live peacefully among the mountains.
“What we want people to do is to get curious about how that land was used before the reservoir, before the subdivision, before the Walmart,” said Sally Queen, executive director of the historical society.
The historical society was able to complete the project using a grant from the Summit Foundation. The money paid for Will Mertens, a Summit Historical Society intern, who used his geographic information system graduate degree to create the map.
Mertens gathered land documents from the Bureau of Land Management, which was called the General Land Office when many of the homesteads were sold. He then created a code that took the information from the land documents like property boundaries, ownership names and dates so that it would reflect accurately on the map, which people can access by visiting SummitHistorical.org/homesteads.
The names featured on the map were all people who took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed anyone over 21 who was the head of their family to apply for 160 acres.
Both Mertens and Queen were surprised by how the land was divided among the homesteads. In states like Kansas and Nebraska, those land parcels were often perfect squares lined up in rows next to each other. Many of the homesteads in Summit County are shaped like Tetris pieces in order to get around the complicated geography of the mountains.
“Here, they cut into the mountains and they go up into valleys,” Mertens said. “That was the most interesting part.”
The historical society hopes the map can eventually tell the story of Summit County’s homesteaders. Already, the society has published the story of the Rice Family Ranch, which used to be located where Summit Cove sits today.
Mertens and Queen worked with Alan Rice, who grew up on the ranch before it was sold and turned into Summit Cove. Rice, who is 85, said life in Summit County was slower and more peaceful before ski resorts were built in Keystone and Breckenridge.
“It was the best place in the world to be raised,” Rice said. “We had lots of chores to do but we also had lots of fun.”
Rice said he’s excited for people to gain a better understanding of Summit County’s history through the map.
Ultimately, the historical society hopes the map further tells the story of Summit County, Queen said. For example, nine of the map’s homesteads are located in the bounds of the Dillon Reservoir, which crews began building in 1961. Other people may find that their home or favorite grocery store used to be the location of a profitable ranch.
“There’s a relationship in the use of the land between now and the past and then going forward,” Queen said.
As the historical society connects with more descendants of the original homesteaders, it will add more stories to the map. People who have family connections to the original Summit County homesteads can reach out to the historical society by emailing [email protected].