Staying the course: Preserving the Roberts Ranch

The story starts way back to the day in 1829 that Robert Owen Roberts was born in Watertown, N.Y., and continues now, as R.O. Roberts’ descendants, D.L. Roberts and his sons, Burke Evan Roberts and Benjamin Lee Sterling Roberts, remain committed to nurturing and preserving 17,000 acres of cattle ranch land among the “sunshine and sparkling waters” of Northern Colorado. The Roberts Ranch remains a working cattle ranch, and after 142 years of operation, quite likely the oldest ranch still whole and functioning in the state.

And the Roberts family is doing everything in its power to see that it stays that way for all time.

A long and tangled tale with twists and turns, triumphs and disappointments, the recent history of Roberts Ranch bears much in common with many historic ranches in the area that have struggled to survive. In nearly every instance, overwhelming estate taxes demand more than 50 percent of a ranch’s value when it is sold or inherited have forced most ranch owners to sell off land to pay the bill, leaving them without enough acreage to make a living. Too many of those who inherit ranch land are eager to sell, take their money and run, according to D.L. Roberts. He feels fortunate that his two sons are as committed as he is to keeping the ranch in one piece “for perpetuity.”

The Roberts Ranch hasn’t always been 17,000 acres, capable of sustaining up to 1,000 cows, bulls and calves. It began as a humble homestead of 160 acres on the North Fork of the Poudre River, acquired by R.O. in 1874, and grew over time. A cabinet and coffin maker by trade, R.O. left New York as a young man with a family of five, seeking greener pastures, first in Chicago and briefly east of Greeley. He sent his oldest son, Charlie, to check out the “sunshine and sparkling waters” he’d been promised on the high plains of Colorado by a Chicago real estate man. The land turned out to be more like sand dunes.

R.O. moved on and found his way to the Livermore area, where the territory was more to his liking. He settled into a dugout with his family for the summer months. By the following year he had built the original Forks Hotel, now a restaurant on the corner of U.S. 287 and Larimer County Road 74, and begun to ranch on his homestead.

He operated the hotel for seven years, then sold it and relocated to a 280-acre stock ranch on the North Fork of the Poudre, a mile north of Livermore. Along with sons George and Ernest, he became an extremely successful cattle rancher, adding land and animals to his herd. Late in his life, he moved into Fort Collins, leaving the day-to-day ranching business to his sons.

“Meet me at the Forks,” D.L. said when I asked to speak with him. At the time, I didn’t understand the historic significance of his request. The Forks has been “the meeting place,” in the area for many years. The place suffered a destructive fire in 1985, followed by a series of short-term owners. It is currently thriving under new . They take pride in a spacious, newly remodeled dining room and bar that serves regionally famous steakburgers, as well as catering to locals and passers-by with grocery items.

George’s son, James Evan, carried on the ranching tradition and passed this heritage on to his son, David Lee Roberts, who goes by D.L. James Evan and D.L.’s mother, Helen Lee, divorced when D.L. was 4. He moved to California with his mother but spent summers at the ranch and moved back when he was 10 and his father remarried in 1943.

His new stepmother was 23-year-old Catherine Allison Roberts. She was a native of North Carolina who had never been west before. “I’ve wondered whether she would have come if she’d known what she was in for,” D.L said.

But Catherine adapted quickly to rural life and over the years taught school in Owl Canyon, Livermore and Cherokee Park. Her stepson was one of her students.

Catherine was active in the Livermore community and a long-time member of the Livermore Womens’ Club. She was passionately dedicated to preserving the Roberts Ranch. After her husband’s death in 2002, she was responsible for working with the Nature Conservancy to establish a conservation easement on the entire ranch, guaranteeing that it would never be used for development. She died Dec. 31, 2015, at age 95, after 72 years of living on the Roberts Ranch.

D.L. Roberts still lives in the house his great grandfather built from hand-hewn logs in 1874. There have been some additions and improvements over time, but it remains a comfortable home for he and his son, Ben, who is actively involved in running the cattle operation on the ranch.

They raise Herefords, Angus and mixed breeds, are considering adding bison to the herd and growing enough grass to feed their cattle. Fortunately the land does have the “sunshine and sparkling streams” R.O. sought out as well as several historical features including tipi rings and a “signature” rock where Overland Trail travelers etched their names.

While D.L. never lost his love of the ranch, he did spend years away from it, following a career as a singer, actor and real estate agent in New York and Los Angeles.

But eventually, the ranch called him home for good. Now 82, he is actively involved in creating a non-profit charitable trust that will insure the existence of the ranch as an entity “in perpetuity.”

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