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.
Getting started on the trail.
The windmill still stands as part of the historic Cheese Ranch.
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.
Members of the Welte and Renner families at the Big Dry Creek Cheese Ranch circa 1900. Welte is third from right-front, and son-in-law Philip Renner stands partially obscured behind him. ALH 2011.020.0003
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.
2 Welte, John, Biography Files S-Z, Douglas County Archives & Local History, Castle Rock, Colorado.