Former Colorado State University historic preservation instructor John Albright used to gather his graduate students around a conference table and pose a single hypothetical question. "As the executive director of a historic site with multiple periods of significance," he said, implying that his students would find employment someday, "how would you choose a specific period to preserve and interpret?" Suspecting a trick question, some students covered their bets and answered, "I would choose to preserve and interpret all of the periods." If the seminar had been a game show, a buzzer would have sounded, a red light would have flashed, and Albright would have shouted "Wrong!" But his seminars were civilized give-and-take conversations between educated people, so there were no buzzers or flashing lights. But John Albright knew how to run a seminar. He simply said, "Explain your answer with an example. You have two minutes."
Employees of the Denver Botanic Gardens' Hildebrand Ranch could answer Albright's hypothetical question with a real-world problem and solution. Over the last several years, they have successfully restored and interpreted the Hildebrand Ranch, a National Register property with a period of significance extending from the 1860s to the mid-1900s. Denver Botanic Gardens received four State Historical Fund grants totaling over $147,000 to restore building exteriors and interiors, create and install interpretive signs, and develop interactive live demonstrations on agricultural practices.
Situated in the Chatfield Nature Preserve south of Littleton, the ranch includes a main house and a dozen outbuildings. The main house's original section is a log cabin built sometime in the 1860s. Frank and Elizabeth Hildebrand purchased the cabin and surrounding property in 1866 and built several additions to it over the next several decades as their family grew. They covered the log cabin with wood shingles (later replaced by wood siding) and built other structures, including a stable, carriage house, wood shed, bunk house, granary, blacksmith shop, icehouse, chicken house, milking barn, and other buildings as needed. The Hildebrand family operated the ranch for over a century. In 1968 the federal government acquired 150 acres of the Hildebrand Ranch as part of a water storage project. Later, the Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) leased the ranch and made plans to use it as a nature preserve and educational center.
When DBG created their interpretive plan, they incorporated the concept that most properties change over time and that historically significant changes should be retained. In accordance with accepted preservation standards, they preserved the structures without removing significant additions. For example, the main house retains the original log cabin center section, two 1880s additions, an 1890s summer kitchen, and a post-1918 porch. From the outside, the old cabin remains hidden from view by clapboard siding. DBG staff also saved the significant outbuildings, the newest of which was built in the 1920s. By preserving all of the significant additions and the most recently constructed structures, DBG implicitly chose to interpret the latest period of significance-the early twentieth century-while preserving the older structures as well.
The decision to keep the additions also allows staff to focus their interpretation of the site on the development of the ranch over time. And though the main house itself cannot give visitors a sense of what the ranch looked like in the 1860s, interpretation can fill in the story's gaps. Signs posted at each building tell how the family grew and how the ranch changed. The sign interpreting the main house includes a timeline and a floor plan that, when juxtaposed, show how the Hildebrands added rooms to their house when children were born or when they needed extra space to cook food for the ranch hands.
The living history demonstrations focus specifically on agricultural techniques practiced between 1915 and 1925. Interpreters use farm implements and other artifacts to demonstrate blacksmithing, gardening, farming, and household chores. The narrow focus allows visitors to experience life on the Hildebrand Ranch when it looked much the same as it does now.
Visitors come away from the ranch with a solid understanding of early twentieth-century agriculture in Colorado, as well as an appreciation for the work associated with developing a successful ranch over a lifetime. And if they pay attention to the main house's interior, they may see portions of the original log cabin, its notched logs nearly hidden, but not forgotten. John Albright and his students would appreciate the subtlety.