Written by Heather L. Bailey
As a Tennessee Scholar at the 2009 National Preservation Conference in Nashville, we were encouraged to take our experience and education out into the field and become personally involved in historic preservation. My graduate work involved education and outreach, and my employment after graduation involved preservation planning. While that framework certainly ensures that historic preservation is possible, I was eager to find an opportunity to have a direct and immediate involvement with historic preservation.
Shortly after moving to Colorado, I learned about Historicorps, a new initiative that grew out of a collaboration with Colorado Preservation, Inc., Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, and the United States Forest Service. Modeled on community service initiatives like the Civilian Conservation Corps and Americorps, volunteers had the opportunity to work on a number of projects that involved hands-on historic preservation.
Never one to take the easy route, I volunteered for the week-long commitment to work at the Alpine Guard Station located 11,600 feet up on a mountain in the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest, roughly between Lake City and Powderhorn, CO. The volunteers brought tents and campers, stayed on site, drew our water from a well, and gathered around a campfire at the end of each work day.
The ranger station (1920) and bunk house (1913) were built a century ago so that rangers could check the permits of the sheepherders (of Basque and Spanish descent) who used US Forest Service land to graze their animals. While the sheep industry was prominent in the Western Mountain Region in the early twentieth century, this location has remained vacant for decades. The only residents were an enormous population of rats inside the buildings, and ground squirrels outside. Our work was to repair and stabilize the buildings, with minimal modifications to allow the cabins to be adaptively used as seasonal rentals.
Prior to my arrival, the staff and volunteer crews had already completed considerable work on the barn and bunk house (including rat clean up), installed a pit toilet and shed for the solar array accouterments, and installed the new pump well. The crew of volunteer expert carpenters from Wisconsin took up numerous tasks inside the buildings, and the rest of us took on re-shingling the roof on the ranger station, among other things.
I learned that laying cedar shingles (pre-treated to be fire resistant) is truly an art form and that precision matters (particularly after a helper who showed up for two days quickly laid down a number of rows, bragging about his speed, and leaving us with a few noticeably wavy rows to correct). I also learned that the nail gun (powered by our onsite generator) was a lot more fun when I was seventeen and re-shingling my parents’ roof; thus, I opted to use a regular hammer most of the time. But, hey, I could claim that I was being authentic in my craftsmanship. I also realized that the heaviest thing I lifted on a regular basis doing preservation planning was my computer mouse.
The volunteer opportunity with Historicorps was inspirational and invigorating. It brought full circle my work in the field by doing hands-on preservation rather than just making it possible for others to do preservation. I’ll always be able to go back to that ranger station and know that this place stands in part because of the physical work we did on this historic treasure.
Heather L. Bailey is a State and National Register Historian for History Colorado.