The small house Ida May Noe shares with John, her husband of 52 years, is one fence line away from the hundred-year-old Noe Farm, run by John's brother James. Both places sit just back from Noe Road, which cuts a two-mile dirt track through the southern half of Douglas County. The Noes came to this country in the 1880s and, unlike the homesteaders who could not stick it out, they stayed.
Ida May, a Noe by marriage for the past half-century, collects Noe history. "I worked in the county clerk's office, hunting up records for people," she explains. "It got to be a habit with me. I started keeping things."
Ida May's things are contained in a shelf of notebooks that have become her companions. She likes to spend evenings sitting at an antique drop-leaf table, with the TV on for company, sorting old newspaper clippings, photographs, letters and maps--anything that pertains to the twenty square miles where she lives.
Since as far back as 1880, it's been known as Greenland.
In 1943, when John and Ida May Noe married, their mail went to a post-office box at the Greenland station. Though they lived in the same house for the next thirty years, the Noes' post-office box numbers kept getting lower and lower as the population of Greenland got smaller and smaller. In 1959 the post office shut down altogether, and Ida May's address officially became part of the town of Larkspur.
"Greenland was more of a place back long ago than it is now," Ida May says. "There were two grocery stores once, and one had a slot machine, I hear, not that anyone had a nickel to put in it. There were three saloons. My husband was born here in 1922, and he says it was a hopping place, although even that happened before his time."
Much of what did happen in Greenland is preserved in Ida May's notebooks, whole volumes of which deal with the Noes and the Higbys, their next-door neighbors for a century. Between the photographs and census entries are cryptic handwritten notes, such as the list of all Ida May's post-office box numbers. A random sampling also reveals:
a photograph of an 1890s-era, grandmotherly woman in black bombazine that was rescued from a Greenland attic. Spidery script on the back of the picture reads: "Dear Old Mrs. Riggs. Never has a better old lady lived on this earth." Ida May has spent many an hour trying to decide whether the writer meant to say "better" or "bitter." She leans toward "bitter."
the words "tertiary sandstone" written on a piece of paper, to remind Ida May exactly what Greenland earth consists of.
a flier advertising free blood-pressure screening available to residents of Greenland and Larkspur.
"I keep even the current things," Ida May says. "Ancient history is good, but you have to be careful not to miss things in between."
In fact, the history of Greenland is the history of being in between: between mountains and plains, between Colorado's two largest--and most hungry--metro areas, between flourishing and ceasing to exist.
Greenland still has its own exit on I-25, ten miles north of Monument and eight miles south of Larkspur. Driving past Greenland on the highway, if the monotony of the Monument plateau has not dulled your brain, you might discern railroad tracks, a half-dozen clapboard buildings, a large red barn and the singularly beautiful stretch of open land that comprises the hundred-year-old, 18,000-acre Greenland Ranch--the largest continuously operating cattle ranch on the Front Range.
How long it will remain in operation is a matter of much discussion in and around Douglas County. Although no deals have been announced, rumors of the ranch's imminent sale, to be immediately followed by anything from a crowded subdivision to pristine open space, have been flying for months.
Should any of this come to pass, the history of what happened here over the last hundred or so years could disappear as completely as the town of Greenland itself, which is why the Douglas County Library has asked Ida May to donate her notebooks, on the off chance that anyone might care. A Compressed History of Early Greenland
Since time immemorial: Roving bands of Indians pass by.
1820s: The Stephen Long expedition marches through.
1858: Rumors of gold in surrounding hills attract Easterners.
1859: A stage stop opens in what is known as Pinedale. Rumors of gold in surrounding hills prove unfounded.
1871: The Denver and Rio Grande railroad begins stopping at the Pinedale depot. A post office opens. Settlers harvest big pines for railroad ties, run cattle, grow famous "Divide" potatoes, dig fancy pottery clay and quarry nearby buttes for stone, some of which ends up in downtown Denver office buildings.
1876: A twenty-acre town plat is drawn up, to include nearly one hundred building sites. Saloons and a blacksmith shop are already in place to service several large ranches in the area.
1877: A large red draft-horse barn is built for the Greenland Breeding Farm. Struck by lightning in the 1920s, it burns and is rebuilt to look almost exactly the same.
1880-something: Novelist Helen Hunt Jackson, the Barbara Cartland of her day, passes through Pinedale on the train and, entranced with the lush colors of the pastures, renames it Greenland.
1884: The New Year's Hop at Greenland attracts eleven gentlemen and six ladies.
1885: The Greenland School opens, serving first through eighth grades in one room.
1888: Pioneer John William Higby opens his first Higby Mercantile store at Monument.
1895: Pioneer cattleman I.J. Noe is reported to be shipping "some fine cattle to the Denver market. Greenland is becoming one of the most important shipping points in the Divide," the Denver Post notes.
1906: Higby Mercantile opens a branch at Greenland.
1909: John William Higby and his wife, Marie, having amassed more than 10,000 acres of failed homesteads and outright land purchases, consolidate as the Greenland Land and Cattle Company, henceforth known by the catch-all title of Greenland Ranch. Their daughter Kate has already married I.J. Noe's only son, Charles, in what was generally regarded as the social event of the 1905 season. The Greenland School now has a total student body of twelve students, many of them Higbys or Noes or both.
Louis Higby Jr., known as Dick for most of his life, is the grandson of John William Higby and the oldest son of Louis Higby Sr., who ended up with controlling interest in Greenland Ranch. Dick was born in 1920 and lived at Greenland Ranch until 1981, when he moved to Redwing, Colorado, where he continues to grow hay and run cattle.
"Pretty much just general ranch work is what I've always done," he says. "Cutting hay, running cattle, putting up corn. I guess I liked it. To tell you the truth, I didn't know anything else."
Dick dates the beginning of Greenland's decline to 1927, the year the Denver-Colorado Springs highway, which had run right through the town, was moved one mile west to its present location. "They thought it was going to be a better highway," Dick says. "Well, they found out it was a bad highway, particularly in the winter time--and it still is."
Dick was seven years old the day the highway moved. He was visiting relatives in Manitou Springs, he remembers, and came back to find his hometown strangely quiet. "Matter of fact, it changed altogether," he says. "There had been at least two grocery stores, a garage for automobile repair and the store that my uncles and father ran. After that, the stores that stayed kept going down, down, down."
But the Higbys stayed on, continuing to acquire land, even after the potato blight came through and decimated their crops. At its height in the 1930s, Greenland Ranch comprised 22,000 acres. Three of John William Higby's four sons (the youngest, Jack, died early) lived and worked on the place.
"We had fun," Dick recalls. "In the winter we used to have ice-skating parties, and when I got old enough to drive, we would go to Colorado Springs to the movies and the country dances. And there were card parties at the schoolhouse. It was a good childhood, I think."
Still, Dick had dreams of leaving it behind. "My plans were to be a doctor, and there would have been no chance out at the ranch," he says. "I'd have had to move to the city. But this was during the war, so I stayed on, working on the ranch and letting my folks influence me. I stayed away from school, one, two, then three years, and after that my mind kind of changed, and I decided that the wide open spaces were for me."
By then, Dick had married his first wife and had begun raising a family. "She was from Denver," he says, "and for many years, I thought she liked it out here, but right around 1969 it turned out she wanted to go back to Denver, and I was so involved with the ranch that I just couldn't get up and leave."
Dick's father had died in 1966; by 1970 Dick's divorce was final. A newly single man, he suddenly saw Greenland as the remote place it was becoming. By that time, practically no one passed through unless they were in some kind of distress.
"I went out and changed tires many a time and gave away water and gasoline," Dick recalls. "We were always pretty free about letting folks use the telephone." Most stranded travelers were friendly, if helpless, but there were times when he was glad to have firearms around the place.
"One New Year's Eve, in particular," Dick remembers. "I had married a second time, and my wife's sister and a friend of hers were over. Along about ten o'clock, there was a rap at the door, and it was two more ladies. They wanted to come in, said they were having car trouble and wanted to call the state patrol for help, but they couldn't seem to get through to them. Then all of a sudden a man just walked in. He said something about fixing their car, but I think he had something else planned. Luckily, there were more of us around than he had figured, and things went our way."
They continued to do so. By the mid-Seventies, Dick and his brother Chuck were the sole owners of Greenland Ranch, their late father having either bought out or traded all the rest of the Higby family interests.
"The thing was, though, that Chuck and I both have sons," Dick relates. "And though we got along, our sons couldn't. The only logical solution was to sell."
In 1977 Greenland Ranch was sold to a Colorado Springs investment group. A local newspaper reported the transaction as "the largest real estate parcel ever listed as a single property" in Douglas County and gave the sale price as $11.5 million. What had been the Higby place for nearly a century became a big piece of land owned by faceless people from some other place--and the people kept changing, as bankruptcies and foreclosures rattled on into the Eighties. Today Greenland Ranch is just one of many assets owned by the Oklahoma Publishing Company of Oklahoma City--which has the local reputation of being uncommunicative and unapproachable. (OPUBCO's real estate spokesman, Monroe Vaughan, says no one in the OPUBCO office is available to answer Westword's Greenland questions.)
Dick Higby and his second wife, Verna, stayed on at Greenland as managers until 1981.
"It took some getting used to, living at Greenland," Verna remembers. "I'd been living in Wichita, doing things like going to the grocery store on the spur of the moment. But I got to love the openness of it, the view of Pikes Peak. I thought we'd never find a place as pretty, ever."
But eventually, they bought a seven-acre spread near Walsenburg, whose scenery rivals Greenland's. The Higbys stay in touch with their former neighbors, keeping abreast of the Greenland gossip, which has been intensifying of late.
"Right here we have 40 acres," says Ida May Noe. "There used to be 1,440, but when John's father died, his estate had to be settled among eight children."
John Noe's forty acres--which abut parcels owned by his brother James and his sister Helen--lie southwest of Greenland Ranch, across the railroad tracks and the old highway Ida May likes to call the "Ribbon of Death," as local journalists once did. John's mother was a Higby, but no Greenland Ranch shares ended up in his branch of the family, and though the land it sits on is certainly worth money, the small white house he lives in with Ida May is modest.
"Strangers have driven up and offered to buy the outhouse, though," Ida May points out. "Apparently it's very historic." She has never considered selling--Ida May believes in preservation, and she loves the detective work involved. Between frequent interruptions from John--who is almost totally incapacitated with emphysema as well as a dislocated shoulder--she delves, with relish, into her notebooks.
"Now, here is how Greenland was laid out as a town," she says, unrolling a purplish mimeograph of the original Pinedale plat. "You'll notice the school, where John went, and so did his father, and three of our children. They should have made it a historic site, but someone lives there now. This is the Higby Mercantile building. We wanted to preserve it, but it turned out there was an underground fuel tank that was polluting the ground, and it had to be torn down. I wish we could have saved it."
Ida May first came to Greenland as a teenager. Although she grew up in Littleton, her parents had a summer cabin near Palmer Lake's Little Log Church, where she attended a group for young people. "John used to go to the young folks' parties, too," she recalls, "and one day he came along with his hayrack and asked me would I like to ride back to town on it."
They were married in the fall of 1943. According to newspaper accounts, Ida May wore a brown suit with powder-blue accents, and the church was decorated with autumn leaves. She can't prove it, though, because Dick Higby, who was supposed to document the event with his camera, forgot to remove its lens cap. Despite that faux pas, Dick married Ida May's sister less than a year later and took her to live on Greenland Ranch with his mother and father.
"She never had much good to say about him," Ida May says of her sister's father-in-law, Louis Higby Sr. "He was always good to me, but I wouldn't have wanted to live with him or work for him. He'd bring his help out from the Salvation Army and have them stacking hay, cleaning out stalls...I'll never forget one day when I was riding the bus out to Greenland from Denver, and a woman asked me if we were passing the Greenland Ranch. And she told me her father had worked there for a while during the Depression and what a nasty place it was."
Ida May had had no preparation for small-town life, but she soon adjusted, helping John with his father's cattle and attending meetings of the Friendly Larks Home Demonstration Club, an organization she helped found in the mid-Forties.
"We finally shut it down last year," she says sadly, "because no one has time for that sort of thing anymore." Ida May kept some of the programs and minutes, though. One, from the late Forties, lists the following meeting topics:
A Valentine I Once Received
Best Use of a Rainy Day
Common Mistakes in English and Their Corrections
"It was all we had to do," Ida May says. "We enjoyed each other's company very much."
This is clear in the pictures she's saved of the Noe Family Thanksgiving, circa 1945, in which all the women wear voluminous aprons and many have babies. On the next page of the notebook is the Noe family reunion of 1992, held to commemorate the designation of the original Noe place as a Colorado Centennial farm. Nearly a hundred Noes gathered for the event; many of the babies of 1945 are already gray. Further on in the book are fifth- and sixth-grade reading certificates awarded to Ida May's husband when he attended the Greenland School. Back then, everyone, even his teacher, called him Buster.
Ladis Higby lives in Castle Rock, where he has spent most of his 78 years. "Years ago, I did live at Greenland," he admits, "but my part of the family sort of branched away, if you want to know."
Ladis is a grandson of John William Higby. His father, Carl, who once watched over the Higby Mercantile at Greenland, died during the flu epidemic of 1918. "He was 28, and I was something over one year old," Ladis says. "My mother and my brother and I stayed out there for a while, and then my mother inherited some land and we moved away, and then she remarried. My stepfather was a carpenter, and that's what I ended up doing."
Ladis and his family were still invited to Greenland Ranch for family dinners and picnics, but there was always a slight chill between Ladis's branch and the mainline Higbys. "For one thing," Ladis says, "my mother and I sold out our shares to old Louis in 1948, and we got $15,000 a share, and we felt lucky to get it. Nobody knew nothing about how much they were really worth except old Louis, and he ended up a millionaire. But you know how families fight over money and land," he adds. "I can't explain all that. That's a lawyer's and a court's game."
Ladis may not be able to explain everything, but he knows plenty of stories about Greenland. On his visits to the ranch, he'd eschew horseback riding and drive around the place in his pickup truck instead, "hunting antelope and deer from the South Lake Gulch Road clear to the county line. It was beautiful country, and it probably still is," he says.
"Old Louis didn't have what you call cowboys on that place, he had hired men," Ladis remembers, "and they were mostly transients. He was a rough old character, and I imagine he was awful rough on the men. They sure didn't stick around long.
"And after he died, his two sons split the ranch. They're friendly guys, as far as I know," he says, "but how they got along with each other was not well at all."
Like everyone else in Douglas Country, Ladis has heard rumblings that Greenland Ranch may again change hands. Since Castle Rock is experiencing its own growing pains, Ladis contemplates the possibilities with a certain muffled glee.
"Oh, I used to like it here, when it was a little town," he says. "You could go out and have a little pepper-upper or a toddy, whatever you want to call it. You dasn't even go downtown anymore and have a beer these days. In Castle Rock, they'd sooner pick you up for a DUI than murder."
"Yes, yes, yes, there have been major proposals for Greenland," says Kent Brandebery, Castle Rock history buff and a member of the Douglas County Historic Preservation task force. "One was a housing development that would rival Highlands Ranch. One talked about a 500-room Holiday Inn. God knows what might happen there."
But Brandebery is certain that something will happen. At this point, it's just a matter of time--and he's racing against it to try to save what few buildings remain in the town. "Oh, the barn," he says. "The barn's so historic. What a National Historic Site it would make."
Last year Brandebery approached OPUBCO, the ranch's current owners, about trying to get historic designation for the structure. "We received no cooperation at all," he says bitterly. "They are ignorant, as far as thinking historic designation would tie up whatever development they want to do. They just didn't want anything to do with it."
Brandebery can't stand the idea of losing another piece of history. "If you think that kind of thing happens too much around here, you hit the nail on the head," he says. "Look at the town of Parker. People are always asking me, `Where is the town of Parker?' Well, it's gone. It was just a rampage over there with the development. That can't happen at Greenland. But the owners won't help."
Greenland Social Notes
June 27, 1906: Miss Kate Higby marries Charles Fred Noe. A local reporter calls it "one of the most elaborate receptions" ever to be held at Greenland. After the ceremony and a "fine collation" of food and drink, the guests are invited to the huge red barn, where they are encouraged to "indulge" in hours and hours of spirited dancing.
1918: Not just the year of Greenland's first automobile accident, which occurs on the railroad tracks, but also the year Miss Merman, "the popular and efficient teacher" at the Greenland School, announces that the Parent-Teacher Association will give a play entitled A Busy Liar, proceeds to be applied to paying for the school Victrola. The play is later postponed because of an outbreak of diphtheria.
1925: A flood causes a train to derail at the Greenland depot. To the children's delight, one car's cargo of candy and toys spews out all over the street.
1931: At the wedding of a Higby grandson, according to the Castle Rock Record Journal, "the hostess served a very dainty lunch of ice cream and cake and cocoa and mints." Also, someone--the paper coyly doesn't say who--laid "a new linoleum" in her Greenland kitchen.
1933: Miss Emily Higby, in college at Greeley, comes home for summer vacation in an automobile! While she is there, the paper reports, "quite a few from Greenland" attend a Saturday-night dance at Monument.
1957: To mark the last year that the Greenland School will ever hold classes, teacher Gladys Johnson commissions her students to write a history of their town. The two-page, typed document ends with these words: "It is good to live at Greenland, with its purple mountain majesty."
Dave Miller has lived in Greenland for the past twenty years and can't imagine living anywhere else.
He's always hung around ranches--whether they belonged to a friend or a relative didn't matter. After attending Castle Rock High School, Dave came to Greenland as a hired hand in 1975, when he was sixteen and the Higbys were still in residence. He worked on the ranch and lived in various small houses on the property until the Higbys moved out altogether in 1981 and Dave was made ranch manager. As such, he was entitled to the original Higby farmhouse.
Today he lives there with his wife of two years, Monique, and three dogs. A neighbor, Doug Bryant, acts as head cowboy. "It's just the three of us, and it's a full-time, seven-day-a-week schedule," Dave says. "We lay off when we can. If you're a person that's got to be regimented, you wouldn't like our life one bit."
Even if you understood it--and Dave's not sure you do. "We do everything on horseback," he says, "and that's the way of it when you have to rope and doctor stock. I mean, say you're four or five miles from the house, and one of our cattle has got the foot rot...but what do your readers know about foot rot?
"In fact," he decides, "how do you explain any of this to people who don't eat beef? I believe in an agrarian society, and they don't. It's that simple. There is no cruelty to animals going on around here. Look at my horse. He's a little bored, maybe, but he's not being abused."
In fact, Dave's horse looks quite content, saddled and waiting patiently at the fence in front of the hundred-year-old Higby house. Behind him are an ancient gas pump, the ranch's original pumphouse, and the old red barn. Behind all that is the purple mountain majesty Miss Johnson had her students write about.
Inside, the Higby house is amazingly unchanged. Despite the millions the Higbys may have collected toward the end of their tenure, it is a Western farmhouse, plain and simple. "The Higbys were kind of tight, actually," Dave says. "Frugal, you might want to say."
"If you look under the eaves," Monique points out, "you can see the gunnysacks they used for insulation."
Dave has heard the talk that Greenland's days as a ranch may be numbered. "As far as what the owners plan to do, I have no idea," he says. "But this is still America, it's their place, and whatever they decide, it's their right. Meanwhile, we're still here."
What's changed is the area around here. "The highway, for one," Dave says. "The highway's kind of the blues. We try to help everyone that breaks down, but there's so many of them anymore. You couldn't call us remote anymore. Not in the least. We don't have but a couple of ranches as neighbors anymore."
The rest of the neighborhood is occupied by new houses on half-acre to five-acre plots, as well as several high-end subdivisions. "Some of these people seem to live almost in a compound more than a house," Dave says. "I hate when one of our cattle gets onto their land, like they will, and I have to try and make things right. These people don't contribute as far as ranch life is concerned. Sometimes I think they figure the fences fix themselves."
Recently Dave had the unpleasant experience of moving a herd across a dirt road in front of a car-phone-screaming BMW driver. "These people are always a week late and frantic, and then they get upset because we're holding them up," Dave sighs. "They move here, but they don't seem to enjoy the rural lifestyle."
Too bad, because Greenland could still show them how it's done. Just last month, teams from four ranches spread between the mountains and the plains gathered at Greenland for a friendly, if competitive, weekend of cowhand games. Shooting, fishing, roping and polo, in which each team had to include a rank beginner, were all part of the program, although no dancing was indulged in at the red barn.
The Greenland team won--but for how long? Their brand of fun is rapidly becoming extinct in these parts. The ranch that earned its own highway exit is on the road to becoming history.
"The people around us seem to feel we are interlopers somehow," Dave says. "Could that be true?
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