Immigrant Stories: Rancher realizes the land is everything
Note: This story is a collaboration of the Aspen Valley Land Trust and the Immigrant Stories Project.
Strang: I was born in the country outside of Milwaukee in 1935, the oldest of four siblings. I took to horses early. There was a place just down the road where I could go and sign up to ride, and my grandparents lived nearby and my cousins were close, so we spent hours running around the neighborhood.
My mom and dad divorced when I was a tiny baby, so I grew up with a stepfather. He was an architect. I spent time with my real dad, but as a kid I wanted to be with my family. It must have been difficult for him, but he was very supportive.
I went to an all-girl high school in Milwaukee. My mom wanted to send me to a boarding school in the East, but I resisted, and she listened. But part of the deal I made with her was that I would go to college in the East.
Gallacher: Where did you go to college?
Strang: Vassar, I ended up with a combined degree in conservation and natural resources. I had taken a lot of geology courses from a professor who was an early conservationist, and he inspired me.
After Vassar, I went to Europe for about a year, skied and studied German. When I came back most of my friends were getting married or working as secretaries in someone’s office. I knew I didn’t want to do either, so I came to Denver and took a job with an oil exploration company.
A Vassar geologist was as rare as a woman geologist, but they hired me, and it was a great experience.
Gallacher: When did you meet Mike Strang?
Strang: It was 1959. I was in Denver, and one of my college friends came through town and invited me to go up to Golden to visit an old couple that she knew. The couple turned out to be Mike’s parents. Mike was back from New York where he had been working and home to help his parents.
That was in the fall, and we saw each other through the winter. I ended up working with the kids on their ranch that summer. We were married that fall.
Gallacher: Was the plan to stay in the West?
Strang: It became the plan when we considered the options of going back to New York City. Mike’s older brother, Bart, wanted to stay in the ranching business, and they had a mutual friend from Princeton, Tommy Turnbull, who had worked at the ranch in the summers. Tommy wanted to live in the West and raise cattle.
The Golden ranch wasn’t suited for raising cattle or supporting three families. So after Mike and I were married, the three guys drove around the West looking for a ranch that could support all of us.
We were lucky to have Tommy Turnbull because his father had been forced to sell his ranch to the government because they were putting a power line through it. Tommy needed to put the money from the ranch back into agriculture.
So we had the down payment but not much else when we found the Big 4 ranch in Carbondale. Carbondale was a tiny town then, Aspen was a quiet community, and Vail was just an idea. We started putting cattle on it.
It was a lot of hard work, and the only income we had beside the cattle was the summer camp. So we moved the summer camp idea from Golden to Carbondale. My father provided the design for the boys’ and girls’ cabins and a central meeting place, and we opened the camp that next summer.
Gallacher: Did kids show up?
Strang: They definitely did. The camp was started in the early ’30s, when Mike and Bart were just kids, so it had earned a very good reputation over the years.
People who had attended the camp as kids were now sending their kids. They helped build fence, tended the cows, took fishing trips to the mountains. There was anywhere from 30 to 40 of them plus the staff. There was a baseball game every night, but other than that they pretty much worked on the ranch.
Gallacher: You folks were busy with the ranch and the camp and starting a family.
Strang: Yes. Our son, Lathrop, was born the year after we were married. It was a busy time, but we had great staff members. We still hear from the kids who spent summers with us on the ranch. Many of them found a connection to the land and the mountains and came back to the West in some capacity.
Gallacher: So by the mid-’60s you had four children.
Strang: We had Lathrop, the twins, Laurie and Scottie, and I was pregnant with Bridget.
Gallacher: When you look on that time now was it a hard on you and your family?
Strang: No, it was fun, we loved doing it. We were so busy, I think of those years as a blur, but it was a wonderful time.
Our partnership broke up in 1965. Mike hurt his back and wasn’t able to do as much physical work, so we decided it was best to split, and that’s when we bought the ranch on Missouri Heights where we are now.
People often referred to Missouri Heights as “misery heights” back then, which made me nervous. But Mike knew that it had very good water rights, and that gave us a better chance than many of the ranches up here that have limited water.
We have survived over the years because of a little luck, good water and the willingness to do a lot of different things to get by. We never would have made it on just cattle, we’ve always had horses, and that has allowed us to do boarding and teaching. We started the sod farm in 1977, the year of the really big drought. Somehow we were able to keep the animals alive, and the rains finally came.
Mike went to work as a stockbroker. He opened an office and hoped that people would come. He made friends and contacts and eventually got into politics. He served in the state Legislature for four years in the ’70s. He loved it and worked hard at it. He would come home most weekends, but some weekends he couldn’t.
Gallacher: That must have been a difficult time for you.
Strang: It was a difficult time, and I finally told Mike he needed to come back to the ranch and help me sort things out. We had had to borrow money at a time when ranches all over the west were going broke. We got into terrible debt, and those were the hardest years for me. Our creditors were wonderful. They stuck with us, but interest rates were high, and the debt kept getting bigger. But we kept on, and when Mike got the opportunity to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, I encouraged him to do it.
Gallacher: What changed your mind?
Strang: I thought he’d be good at it. Mike was very much a people person and loved the challenge of getting them to work together. It was a whole new experience for both of us. But during that whole time, we had this burden of debt lingering. We finally got out from under it when my real father died and left me some money.
In ranching, you are so busy, you just keep doing whatever comes next until the next thing comes along and there isn’t much time to worry. You just keep going. We never went hungry. We’ve been lucky.
Gallacher: For all the ups and downs what does this land mean to you?
Strang: It has come to mean everything. I think when you are in the midst of ranching and you’re in debt, you’ve got a family and you’re worried about how you’re going to feed your family it is hard to rhapsodize about the land.
Now that we do own the ranch and have put a conservation easement on it and I have a sense that it’s going to stay in agriculture and my kids want to keep it that way, I can sit back and realize that the land and the community and the lifestyle and the heritage is everything. It’s wonderful. It has made my life what it has been, even through the difficult years.
Gallacher: Can you talk about those difficult years?
Strang: Well, we lost our son, Lathrop, in 2008. Lathrop was responsible for us putting conservation easements on this place. Mike always said, when we were struggling, that we just needed to sell it and divide the money up with the kids.
It was Lathrop who always said, “This ranch is special, and we need to save it.” He was on the board of the Aspen Valley Land Trust and worked hard for conservation. But he fell off of Mount Sopris in the spring of ‘08. He was a very good skier and mountaineer. Someone said, “Isn’t it ironic that such a mild mountain as Sopris would cause his death.”
Losing Lathrop was the hardest thing that has ever happened to me. But he lives on here on the ranch. My children were wonderful; they helped me get through it.
Gallacher: You have had to deal with deep loss in the last eight years.
Strang: Yes, we lost Mike in 2014. Losing Mike was hard, but his legacy is here, everywhere. We talk about him all the time. We fill in sentences with something Mike would have said.
Life and death is part of life. It is very much a circle of life. Mike lived a wonderful life but he was so tired and worn out. His life had gone full-circle.
But Lathrop, his life was still ahead of him. That is what still gets me.
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