HistoriCorps’ Volunteers Breathe New Life to Johnson Stage Stop
Teams of exuberant and highly-energized volunteers with the Denver-based preservation group HistoriCorps are turning back the hands of time at a unique complex of log buildings on the lower Lake Fork Valley near Red Bridge.
Known as the Carr Ranch and, before that, the Johnson Stage Stop, the log buildings are now owned by the Bureau of Land Management and were on the point of collapse prior a month-long stabilization project which began in early June.
Project Supervisors Mike Logan and Steve Harris, and Crew Leader Sarah Mees are supervising successive crews of volunteers from throughout the country who began stabilization work at the site earlier this month and will continue into early July.
Massachusetts native Susan Mickey and her friend, Jane Ashley, from Holliday, Texas, are members of Team 4 which arrived on Sunday, June 23, and will continue through Friday, June 28.
Although originally from Massachusetts, Mickey now lives in Lakewood, Colorado, closer to grandchildren and enthuses that this is her fifth preservation project as a volunteer with HistoriCorps.
Unlike her previous volunteer efforts which included the historic Skinner cabin at Fruita, Colorado, a log barn on the Navajo Reservation at Canyon de Chelly, and a forestry cabin at Centennial, Wyoming, Mickey says the Carr Ranch project is unique in the fact she can literally see progress being made before her eyes.
“We’re seeing such great progress!,” Mickey exclaims, crediting the efforts of her fellow crew members and prior teams who labored to stabilize the cabins. On Monday this week there was obvious camaraderie among Team 4 crew members as rejuvenation of the historic buildings continued.
HistoriCorps is well regarded in the Lake City area from a succession of successful historic preservation projects which it has coordinated for both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, as well as Town of Lake City and Hinsdale County. For Town of Lake City, HistoriCorps brought in a team of volunteers to stabilize alleyway architecture in the historic district, including vintage coal sheds, carriage houses,
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and privies. The organization’s work on behalf of Hinsdale County included two emergency stabilization sessions at the Ute-Ulay Mine. HistoriCorps undertook mammoth, multi-year work for the BLM stabilizing the multistory New Golconda boarding house and compressor building in Hurricane Basin; for the U.S. Forest Service, HistoriCorps put into liveable condition the guard house at Alpine Ranger Station.
BLM is budgeting $71,000 for this year’s Carr Ranch project, the special project funding derived from both the BLM’s state office in Denver and headquarters in Washington, DC. According to BLM Archaeologist Liz Francisco, the funding is the result of a competitive process and, for Carr Ranch buildings, also includes “establishing positive drainage” on Johnson Gulch in proximity to the cabins.
Separate from HistoriCorps, BLM is also funding two weeks of Western Colorado Youth Corps, consisting of 10-person crews, who will mainly work on sod roofs.
At Johnson Stage Station/Carr Ranch, the first HistoriCorps teams on the scene this month cleared vegetation which enshrouded the four contiguous cabins. Subsequent teams dug out earth from around each of the structures in order to replace sill logs at ground level which were badly deteriorated.
From her perch on top of a newly-installed ridge log which will support a reconstructed roof, Crew Leader Sarah Mees says that she began as a HistoriCorps volunteer last year and was so enthused that she transitioned to staff. Mees coordinated volunteer teams at a CCC youth camp at Silver Falls State Park, Oregon, and a church bell tower in Smartsville, California, before arriving at the lower Lake Fork preservation project this month.
Mees referenced the 8’ drop from the top of the Carr Ranch cabin in comparison to her earlier work on the five-story-tall California church bell tower. “I feel more confident up here,” she confides.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of HistoriCorps work such as the Carr Ranch project, Mees says, is the problem solving aspect of the work.
As a for instance, Mees recalls that one of the ranch cabins had been pushed out of alignment and its log footprint was rather parallelogram in shape rather than being a true rectangle. As part of the stabilization process, the cabin was brought back into alignment using a cable which was gently tightened with a come-along attachment.
Mees says a steady stream of visitors has dropped by to inspect stabilization work on the historic cabins. One of the most enjoyable was 87-year-old Duane Carr, from Grand Junction, who is the grandson of the ranch’s long-time owners, Charles and Maud Carr.
During his brief visit, Carr pointed out original uses of the cabins when his grandparents resided there, energizing the volunteers with his shared vision of where Maud’s upright piano was located, his grandfather’s gun cabinet, and a McCormick cream separator which was handily located in Charles and Maud’s dining room.
Other Team 4 volunteers busily working on the Carr Ranch cabins this week are Port Orange, Florida, resident Allen Neal, who receives the award for travelling the greatest distance, and Mariel Bloom, an historic preservation student from University of Colorado, Denver.
Bloom joins other team members in their sheer enthusiasm for what they are accomplishing. In reference to saving historic structures, she says this work makes up in part for her generation’s “fixation with technology… this is what I want to do with my life.”
In addition to Mickey, Ashley, Neal and Bloom, there are two husband and wife teams which also comprise HistoriCorps’ Team 4 at Carr Ranch; David and Julie Dean, from Royal Oak, Michigan, and Grand Junction residents Phil and Julie Mesdag. Phil Mesdag works at REI sporting goods in Junction and is enthused as a first-time volunteer for Histori-Corps.
“This is pretty amazing work,” he says, noting the satisfaction of saving an historic building which might otherwise fall down while “also learning a new skills set.”
Focus for the volunteers this week is setting the stout framework for new roofs on three of the cabins which will replicate the original sod roofs. A fourth, slightly uphill cabin in the complex is of somewhat later 1890’s construction, which was either built or moved to its present location by Charles Carr.
This fourth cabin was used to house ranch hands and, while also roofless at present, will receive a new corrugated tin roof thanks to the efforts of the HistoriCorps volunteers.
The three lower cabins which are the focus of this week’s intensive work are of slightly older, 1880’s vintage and date to freighting entrepreneur Charlie Johnson for whom Johnson Gulch is named. Each of the closely grouped cabins originally boasted an earthen sod roof which was maintained by Charlie Johnson and his successors at the ranch, Nathan Carr and his son and daughter-in-law, Charles and Maud Carr.
After Mrs. Carr’s death in 1959, the cabins gradually fell into disrepair and the dirt roofs eventually collapsed.
On Monday, Mariel Bloom, and Phil and Julie Mesdag were busily engaged excavating the collapsed earth from within the cabins, in the process digging down through a foot or more of soil to
discover a layer of 1920s-design linoleum and remnants of a surprisingly well preserved wood plank floor beneath.
Mariel Bloom was delighted to uncover a layer of 1925 Montrose PRESS newspapers beneath the linoleum with thrilling headlines including “City Purchases Ford Dump Truck” and the fact a jury had been selected for the Ellingson murder trial.
In tandem with linoleum and newspaper extraction, Julie Dean was assisting at top level as roof planking is prepared for the cabin’s new roof. Christian Hartman of Lake City’s Sentinel Woodworks is supplying lumber for the stabilization project, including numerous Ponderosa Pine and conifer logs averaging 12” in circumference and in lengths ranging from 20’ to 26’ and 30’.
Essential to the reconstructed roof design is the central ridge pole, on either side of which are supporting purlin logs. With the supporting logs in place, Project Supervisor Steve Harris easily wielded a chainsaw adding final custom tapering in preparation for covering the log poles with two layers of overlapping 1”x 8” rough sawn decking boards.
Once installed, the decking boards will in turn be covered with heavy gauge rubber pond liner onto
which the soft roof will be applied. The dirt layer — all dirt which was excavated from within the cabins — will be 2” to 4” in depth, almost identically replicating the dirt roofs which were on the cabins
when they were occupied by Charlie Johnson, and Charles and Maud Carr.
Hands on hips while briefly looking out over the steady hum of activity and progress, Susan Mickey says she enjoys working on historic buildings such as the Carr cabins because it puts her closer in touch with history and the rugged pioneers who peopled this country.
“It’s good not to forget how we got to where we are today,” Mickey says.
Glancing toward the carefully notched log corners of one of the cabins built by Charlie Johnson in the early 1880s, she adds, “these people led a hard life.”
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