Women Ranchers in Ouray County
By Ninah Hunter
Although many of the historic ranches have, through the years, been sold to large corporations or wealthier newcomers, a few intrepid individuals carry on the ranching tradition on smaller farms and ranches.
[October 2019 | San Juan Silver Stage]
Ouray County has a rich and colorful ranching history, which underlies its motto, “A Right to Farm County.” Ranching and farming continue to be important parts of its current economy and culture. Although many of the historic ranches have, through the years, been sold to large corporations or wealthier newcomers, a few intrepid individuals carry on the ranching tradition on smaller farms and ranches. And some of these individuals, like the ranching legends Marie Scott, Esther Lewis, and Edith Lowery, are women.
Katie Merkley, Muddy Boot Farm and Ranch
Katie began ranching “in utero” while her mother worked the family ranch raising sheep and cows in Vernal, UT, where Katie grew up. Her father worked as a computer programmer. Katie and her husband, Jason, moved from Utah to Ouray County in 2003 for Jason’s job as a deputy sheriff. They leased a home in Pleasant Valley and the acreage around it. Initially, Katie raised chickens, increasing her flock from 150 to 200 chickens. She started a Farm Store, selling eggs, chickens, and eventually beef.
In 2008, a friend needed a place to keep some Belted Galloway cows he was managing for an owner in Florida. (The cattle are also known as “Oreo” because of the wide white band around their otherwise all-black body.) The Merkleys agreed to keep them on their property. The friend later wanted out and turned management of the cows over to them. Katie eventually obtained a 50% interest in the herd. Meanwhile, she also managed a cattle ranch down the road for another out-of-state owner.
Katie now single-handedly works the ranch and takes care of the couple’s three-year-old daughter, Emma, while Jason is in Greenland, working as a welder at Thule Air Base. She continues to manage her neighbor’s ranch and serves as the treasurer for the Ouray County Cattlemen’s Association. With the severe drought last year and Jason away in Kentucky at school, Katie was forced to sell off her share of the cows (about 30), except for one bull she still owns. Her horse recently kicked him in the face and broke his jaw, which Katie is now nursing. She is also down to about 12 chickens after a fox destroyed almost her entire flock.
“It’s hard,” she admits, “the endless work and uncertainty.” She can rarely take time off or go on vacation. Retirement seems out of the question. She is sad she’ll never be able to buy and own her own ranch here. “Everything has gotten so expensive.” With all the talk in the County about affordable housing, Katie says there needs to be more focus on ranchers. It’s always about condos and apartments, and that’s not what they need. “There really is no answer,” she sighs.
Despite the uncertainty and hardships, Katie loves ranching. She has a lot invested in it. The best part for Katie is the land: improving and maintaining it, learning and implementing best practices to protect it. And, of course, she loves the animals. She’ll continue ranching in Ouray County for as long as she can.
Lanah Hutt, The Hutt Ranch
Lanah Hutt is the youngest of four children born to Ray and Shirley Hutt of Ouray County. She was 6 months old when her family moved into the house on County Road 24 that her father leased from the renowned rancher, Harry McClure of Pleasant Valley Ranches. Ray did all the irrigation for McClure and began raising cattle himself. From her earliest memories, Lanah and her two older brothers and sister worked around the ranch.
Lanah lived and grew up in the Pleasant Valley home until she graduated from Ridgway High School. Realizing ranching was a 24/7 job, she decided to try something different and moved to Texas. After 10 years, she’d had enough and decided to move back to Ouray County. Her father had had a heart attack, which was another reason to return home, where Lanah could assist him with the ranch.
Lanah had grown up with quite a few of the well-known ranch families in Pleasant Valley, including Ester Lewis, who had been ranching all her life. Complications of age were making it difficult for Ester to continue; she still had horses and raised cattle. So, in the mid-1990s, Lanah moved in with Esther at her home on County Road 24 near the old Dallas town site and became her ranchhand as well as full-time caretaker. Meanwhile, Lanah continued to help her father, Ray, at the family ranch.
In 2006, Lanah moved with Esther to her 200-acre ranch in Olathe along the Uncompahgre River, where she continued to take care of Esther and the ranch until Esther died in 2012, at age 102. Lanah inherited the Olathe Ranch from Esther. She continues to live there today, raising Angus cattle with a partner, taking care of horses, growing hay, and maintaining the ranch.
When asked what she loved the best about ranching, Lanah held her arms out and swung a gaze around her acreage. “This,” she exclaimed. “I love the land, the river, the space, the animals.” And the hardest part? Her answer is not unlike Katie’s response to a similar question.
“Finances,” Lanah says. “That’s the hardest part.” She admits she could never keep ranching if she had not inherited the ranch or had to pay a mortgage. Lanah is grateful and cannot think of anything else she would rather be doing at this time in her life.
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Marie Scott, legendary rancher
This story would not be complete without mentioning Marie Scott, far-and-away Ouray County’s most legendary rancher. Marie, who came from a family of pioneer ranchers, was tiny, but tough, working from before dawn till after dusk managing her land, running cattle (at one time, over 1,000 head of “white-faced” Herefords), and sheep. One neighbor recalled she did the work of three men. A high-school drop out, she became one of Southwest Colorado’s shrewdest business persons.
Marie bought her first 240 acres at age 16 and added 640 more when she was 21. At one time, her property stretched from Colorado into southwest Utah, encompassing parts of Ouray, Montrose, and San Miguel counties in Colorado, and comprised of more than 100,000 acres valued at over $30 million in 1970’s dollars. Before she died in 1972 at the age of 83, she had begun selling land (at low prices to help them) to neighbors and friends. Her estate was about 25,000 acres at her death, valued somewhere around $10- to 15-million. Because she left no direct heirs—12 friends, neighbors, and ranch hands were named in her will—the IRS taxed her estate at the maximum 70 percent.
Today, the largest remaining piece of the old ranch, now the Double RL, belongs to Ralph Lauren and stretches along the Dallas Divide. Marie’s old home, still painted white with red trim, as she left it, sits on the north side of Hwy 62. Folks who knew her still remember the cherry pies she baked there, her red geraniums that lined the window boxes, and her beloved cat, Ike, that sat in the window. They remember her driving around in her old pickup, with her dog, her cheeks marked with a red spot of rouge, like the ladies used to wear back then—it was one of her few “feminine” traits. Marie was a formidable lady, a hugely successful businesswoman and rancher, a good friend to many, and missed by everyone who knew her.
Learn more about the historic ranching families of Ouray County in two books published by San Juan Publishing: Ranching History of Ouray County Volume I and Volume II. Both are available at the Ouray County Ranch History Museum, in Ridgway, Colorado, where you will also see exhibits about the Esther Lewis family and Marie Scott.