Rancher Mike Strang dies at age 84
January 13, 2014
Longtime Carbondale-area rancher and former Congressman Mike Strang passed away Sunday at his Missouri Heights home of almost five decades.
Strang, 84, passed away from "too many summers," said his wife, Kit. She said Mike was always fond of an old cowboy's standard response when asked what was ailing him that he was suffering from too many summers. Mike finally fell victim to it as well, she said.
Details aren't available yet on a memorial service.
Family and friends remembered Strang on Monday as always good-natured, witty, intelligent and genuinely interested in helping people.
“He set a remarkable standard for all of us.”
"I don't think I ever heard him say anything negative about anybody," said John McBride, a longtime family friend. "He set a remarkable standard for all of us."
Tom Turnbull, Strang's friend since the late 1950s, said Mike was always positive and never complained even when life threw him a curve.
"That was really reflected so much in the end of his life," Turnbull said. Strang managed to remain positive despite deteriorating health, he said.
Quick wit, great one-liners
Strang loved talking with people. He was quick with a laugh and had a knack for churning out one-liners. When a reporter once asked him how many people worked at his ranch, he replied, "Oh, about half of them."
"People were his passion," said his daughter Bridget. He sought out the company of other people and enjoyed engaging them in good conversation, she said. "He would feed the energy," Bridget said.
The kitchen table in the Strang house was a regular gathering place for people discussing life, politics and popular topics of the day. If someone started ranting, Strang wouldn't hesitate to get up and leave. "I'd say, 'Pops, where are you going?' 'Oh, somewhere else,'" Bridget recalled.
McBride said Strang didn't take himself too seriously, and he tried to help others lighten up as well. However, he also opened the eyes of people who engaged him in conversation because he evaluated situations so well.
"Around Mike Strang, you put on a different pair of glasses," McBride said.
Although he was an Ivy Leaguer and started a career as an investment banker, Strang was most at home on ranches in Colorado. The juxtaposed worlds were on display on his vehicle of choice. He drove a Mercedes Benz — a series of them, actually — with personalized plates that said "Cows."
Introduced bill to legalize pot
Strang, a Republican, served in the Colorado Legislature in the early 1970s and raised eyebrows when he introduced a bill to legalize marijuana. It went nowhere, but it didn't harm his political ambitions. Strang successfully ran for U.S. Congress in November 1984 and represented the sprawling Western Slope District that included the Roaring Fork Valley for two years. Ben "Nighthorse" Campbell narrowly defeated him two years later.
Strang, of course, proved to be way ahead of the time on marijuana. Colorado voters approved legalization last year.
Kit said her husband prided himself on being a "citizen politician" rather than a professional politician. "He liked the idea of the landowner who left the farm [to serve in Washington] and then returned," she said.
Strang liked to try to solve the problems that faced the state and U.S. House. A previous story by one of his peers in the state Legislature, a Democrat, credited Strang with diffusing partisan sniping.
Kit confirmed that Mike felt no animosity to elected officials with views at odds with his own. "He had friends across the aisle," she said.
Home-schooled on a ranch
Mike was born in Pennsylvania but spent nearly all his childhood in Colorado. His parents scraped together enough money to buy a ranch in the foothills west of Golden early in the Great Depression. They operated the Ralston Creek Ranch that depended heavily on a summer camp where kids from wealthy East Coast families paid to help with chores.
Strang was home-schooled by his dad, a teacher by training, and served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s. He completed his education at Princeton after serving in the military and worked as an investment banker in New York. His heart remained back in Colorado, said Turnbull, who still ranches in the Carbondale area.
Turnbull and Mike's brother Bart got the urge to find their own ranch in 1960. Mike lent his support from New York.
"We spent the best part of a year going all over Colorado looking for ranches," Turnbull said. They found the Big Four Ranch outside of Carbondale in 1961, and Mike ran a pro forma of their plan that they presented to a lender. A Denver banker reluctantly gave them a loan but told him he didn't think they'd make it, Turnbull said.
They started a cattle operation and carried on the Strang's Ralston Creek Ranch tradition of operating a summer camp to raise extra revenue.
Mike and Kit bought their Missouri Heights spread in 1965, five years after they were married. Mike told The Aspen Times in a 2005 interview that nobody wanted land in Missouri Heights at that time, when ranching was fading and Aspen was taking off as a destination resort. The water-parched, sunbaked land in the hills above Catherine and El Jebel was a difficult place to scratch out a living.
"Missouri Heights was a swear word," Strang said in the 2005 interview. "A jack rabbit had to pack his lunch to get across it."
Welcomed the challenge
He welcomed the challenge of finding ways to make the ranch work. He and Kit diversified into a sod farm just when a severe drought hit in 1976. They turned it into a successful part of the operation despite the tough start. They also raised a special breed of cattle, Australian lowline, which are smaller than most breeds and mature more quickly while relying on grass rather than a feedlot.
"He loved the land and the animals and the whole atmosphere of it," Kit said of Mike's passion for ranching. "He wanted to work with his hands and play with his mind."
The Strangs raised their four kids at the ranch: Laurie, Scott, Bridget and Lathrop, who died in a skiing accident on Mount Sopris in 2008.
The Strangs worked with Aspen Valley Land Trust to place conservation easements on parts of the ranch, to ensure it remains untouched.
"I think ranching is something that's in your blood or you don't do it," Bridget said. The same compassion that Mike showed to people carried over to animals.
"He's one of ranchers who couldn't sell an old cow," Bridget said. He would remember how well a particular cow produced calves and couldn't bear the thought of packing her off to the packing plant.
Bridget runs a thriving horse-boarding business and offers riding lessons, and she's put the ranch on the map as a host of national sheepdog trials. The ranch, in its many roles, serves as a community gathering spot for ranching and equestrian types.
Mike was regularly there to greet ranch visitors. He had the good fortune of dying peacefully on the ranch he loved.
"He was a happy soul," McBride said.