Orchards to gas drilling: Rifle is a land of many uses
Western Colorado has often been referred to as the land of many uses. Indeed, its proved to be a fitting phrase during the last 100 years.When John Hickman came to this area in 1887, he cut grain where the town of Rifle sits today. When the Estes family settled on Taughenbaugh Mesa in 1889, they planted fruit orchards. Later, the Estes family made a living freighting coal and livestock around the state. Cheryl Murray Morgans father, William Murray, came to the area with a group of engineers to explore the land for oil in the late 1930s. Her grandfather worked at the vanadium mill east of Rifle. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, coal mining was a major industry near Rifle Gap. And from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, so many people filed into Rifle and its surrounding areas to work for Exxon and its oil shale industry, it seemed the city would burst at the seams. Exxon attracted people from all over the country. Then the oil giant shut its gates and closed up shop without so much as a days warning in 1982.Locals have worked for and fought against the gas industry for at least four decades. The government-sanctioned Project Rulison in 1969 involved detonating a nuclear bomb more than 8,000 feet underground to fracture the sandstone that made gas extraction difficult.And today, the area around Rifle is one of the biggest natural gas drilling sites in the country, once again fueling the Rifle economy.
Emmaline Stephenson married John Hickman and came west with him from Missouri in 1889.”She was always an outdoors person,” Marilyn Ukele said about her grandmother. “They had fruit trees on the ranch and she went out and picked the fruit.”Marilyn said the orchard was gone by the time she was old enough to remember the ranch.”I think the market changed and they just couldnt make any money with the fruit,” Marilyn said.After the Hickmans pulled up their orchard, they planted hay fields and grazed cattle there.According to “Rifle Shots,” a book about the history of the area, public grazing lands became scarce and crowded with more and more ranchers. Settlers came in and took up range land and brought cattle with them. Ranchers took their livestock to the top of the Roan Plateau, originally called the Book Cliffs, for grazing. Eventually even that territory became overcrowded.Most of the ranchers who used the plateau grazed cattle. At one time, the cattlemen waged a war against Luther Hulburt, who had ranged sheep since 1882. They ran several of his sheep off the cliffs, smothered them and cut their throats.
“Fierce competition for range,” according to “Rifle Shots,” “together with improved methods of marketing farm produce by railroad turned many of these early stockmen into productive farmers. In place of hay, they began to plant grain, potatoes, fine fruit and sugar beets.” The Hickmans eventually replaced their orchards with a sugar beat crop. After time, that proved too labor-intensive and the farmland was again used for raising grain. Native Rifleite Mary Jane Estes Mead didnt even grow up on the family farm. Her father was a trucker who delivered coal all over the state.She returned to Taughenbaugh Mesa, where her family settled, when she married Norman Mead. Normans mother signed a lease with one of the gas companies in 1958, Mary Jane said. Ever since, natural gas has been extracted from atop Taughenbaugh Mesa.Today, many of the old ranches, like the Hickman land on either side of 16th Street at the top of the mesa east of town, have been subdivided and turned into housing developments. And other longtime ranch families, like the Cloughs, have turned their ranches over to natural gas development. “Times change,” Mary Jane said. “Rifle is growing.”
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