A sheep makes an unlikely candidate for ruler of the ranch—unless, of course, that sheep possesses “mental force” and “occult power” granting it dominion over all other beasts. In 1901, just such a magical animal enjoyed retirement on John W. Springer’s Cross Country Horse and Cattle Ranch, at the present-day site of the Highlands Ranch Mansion.
The sheep came from no particularly special breeding, it was just another lamb born on the Continental Land and Cattle Company property in Montana. Springer’s father-in-law, Col. William Hughes, served as president of the business.
Despite her conventional origins, the sheep demonstrated extraordinary powers: identifying sick or hurt animals, discovering unlocked gates, and herding cattle to shelter in the face of upcoming storms.
The Denver Post reported the sheep’s greatest accomplishment in December 1901.1 The hero sheep subdued a bull, nicknamed “Devil” because of his attempts to gore farmhands, by rubbing her nose against his “panting nostrils” and leading him peacefully around the pasture and through the chute.
The sheep’s prowess earned her an early retirement at the Springer ranch in the gentler Colorado climate. The animal’s presence caused a stir in the Denver media, which theorized her supernatural abilities originated from the reincarnated spirit of some great, departed person.
The sheep’s uncanniness continued upon its arrival in Colorado. On the Springer ranch, she developed a special bond with a swine, raising the possibility that the two farm animals’ affinity for each other began in another life.
Before the sheep’s arrival, local dogs bullied, bit, and scared the pig. The sheep’s company established a paranormal circle of protection, preventing further attacks on her friend. As a result, the pig and sheep devoted themselves to each other, eating, sleeping, and roaming the ranch hoof in hoof.
The “sheep with the lost soul now acts the protector of the pig with the meek soul, and together they will go through life seemingly counterbalancing each other,” read an article in the Denver Post on December 29, 1901.
The mysterious sheep is lost after these 1901 records. Perhaps she witnessed the passing of Springer’s wife, Eliza Hughes, in 1904. Maybe, in 1911, she observed as Mr. Springer’s scandalous second marriage ended in a web of adultery, murder, and divorce. Possibly she passed, along with the ranch, into the hands of Col. Hughes and then his granddaughter Annie Clifton Springer.
No matter her final fate, in her lifetime she soothed a devil and befriended a pig—not bad for a sheep.
These sheep lived in Highlands Ranch on Diamond K Ranch 30 years after the supernatural sheep’s arrival. Diamond K Ranch, Sheep, 2011.004.0025, by: Stoffel, Everett; Hunter Antonides Collection of Diamond K Ranch Photographs; DCL Archives & Local History, Castle Rock, Colorado; https://archives.dcl.org/digital/collection/photos/id/2860/rec/1
1 Spiritualism; Topical Files; DCL Archives & Local History, Castle Rock, Colorado
Modern-day Highlands Ranch is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, yet the stories of industry, entrepreneurship, and community in the area date back more than a century. Luckily, you only need a smidgen of pioneer spirit and the slightest bit of gumption to discover those history lessons along trails that likely are just a stone’s throw from your own backyard.
During a break in the cold this winter, I embarked on an exploration of the trails around the historic Cheese Ranch in Highlands Ranch. And since every explorer needs a treasure to seek, I aimed to learn more about local history while discovering my first geocache.
Only 100 yards from my parked car, I stood at the base of a towering windmill facing an empty field once covered by buildings belonging to one of Douglas County’s successful dairy farms. Only the windmill, built in 1927, proved salvageable. Standing there, I could imagine the flurry of activities that must have taken place daily at the farm’s bunkhouse, chicken house, outhouse, icehouse, barn, well, main home, cheese factory, and corrals that once stood.1
Johann Welte and his brother-in-law Plaziduo Gassner grew the business from the first seed, relying on Johann’s experience working in cheese factories before he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1867.2 The two men shared their knowledge with Johann’s son-in-law, Philip Renner, who embraced the family business with his wife, Ida Welte. Years before the community comprising the residences that now surround this modern trail existed, ranchers would drive washtubs filled with beer and pop from farm to farm, helping each other brand cattle, according to the oral history of siblings Rodney Cole and Deborah Cole Hunter.
Today, the informational signs near the windmill are a deep well of factual information that I drank dry before turning my attention to the second part of my treasure hunt. Like any good pioneer, I whipped out my smartphone, pulled up the geocaching app, and followed the blue line pointing me to the Rainbow Bridge. My tennis shoes sank into the muddy mixture of melting snow and bare ground.
As the distance between me and my goal closed from 1 mile to 5 feet, I slipped on a particularly slick patch of ground. Word of advice to modern explorers: Don’t wear your favorite pair of jeans. Five minutes later and with muddy knees, I added my name to the list of geocachers who came before me and placed a couple of ALH stickers inside the silver tin and then headed back to my car.
Connecting the past to the present is difficult. We can only imagine the historical experiences described on a sign. Later at home, I pulled out a plastic-wrapped wedge of Limburger cheese that I bought before my hike—the same kind once produced at the Big Dry Creek Cheese Ranch. Descriptions of this cheese range from pungent and funky to something similar to foot odor. Not exactly the appetizing snack a person craves after a hike in the Colorado sun.
Summoning my pioneer spirit, I popped a slice of that stinky cheese into my mouth and appreciated the connections between myself, the Welte family, the community of ranchers, and the other geocachers—all of us, past and present, who have trekked across Cheese Ranch.
1 Cheese Ranch Site Survey, 1986, Douglas County Libraries, Archives & Local History, Castle Rock, Colorado.