The first time my wife and I traveled to the San Luis Valley, we fell in love with it. We got to know the valley well, and in March 2005 we were invited to see the Medano Ranch, a 50,000-acre spread just west of the Great Sand Dunes. The Pedro Trujillo Homestead is located on the property, and we were taken there to experience the remoteness and beauty of its setting.
The Pedro Trujillo Homestead
An hour at the site, with its free-flowing artesian well and breathtaking views of the dunes, left us changed forever. As a boy I tagged along with my parents on 4-wheel visits to many Colorado mountain ghost towns. Everything I had learned on those trips told me that the Pedro Trujillo structure was a treasure. My wife and I decided it needed to be preserved—and soon. In a few more years, there’d be nothing left to save.
We inquired whether The Nature Conservancy, the owner of the ranch, would be interested in our helping to preserve the homestead—their tagline is “Protecting nature, Preserving life,” so they don’t usually do historic preservation. From our first contact, though, we received enthusiastic support. We tapped a retirement nest-egg and made what was, for us, a significant pledge. Little did we know this journey would take five years and consume savings six times that original donation.
A lot of research had already been done on the Pedro Trujillo site. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places—thanks, in part, to a grant from The Nature Conservancy. We had arrived at an opportune moment. The Nature Conservancy had clearly given thought to historic preservation, but because their mission lay elsewhere, action had been deferred.
Early Settlement and the Range War
In 1866 Pedro Trujillo’s father established a homestead on the range west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and soon became one of the most prosperous homesteaders in the county. He had seven children, but only one, Pedro, survived to adulthood. At age 13, Pedro moved about three quarters of a mile from his father’s homestead to stake his own 160-acre claim, and in 1885 he married. The main portion of his house probably dates from that time. Instead of the adobe structure typical of Hispanic homesteaders, Pedro erected a two-story Anglo-American style log home with great mullioned windows facing out over the sand dunes. He and his wife raised nine children in the house.
In 1902 Pedro’s father’s house was burned to the ground. The elder Trujillo had begun to raise sheep in recent years and got caught in a range war then flaring across the valley. Pedro wasn’t a sheep man himself—he raised cattle and horses—but as the perpetrators of violence (even murder) were charged in nearby locales and exonerated by juries of their peers, it became clear that Hispanic homesteaders would receive no protection from the powerful Anglo cattlemen. So Pedro and his father resettled elsewhere in the valley.
The old Medano Ranch headquarters, some distance away, was a hub of activity at the dawn of the 20th century. Raised wooden sidewalks connected a maze of barns, bunkhouses, and other log structures, including a post office. Many of the buildings originally belonged to homesteaders who had failed or were otherwise driven from their land. Their structures were then dragged to the ranch headquarters. Only the Trujillo house was left in its original setting. Did the ranch owners find it advantageous to station a hand out there? Was the striking beauty of the homestead a factor? Whatever the reason, Pedro’s house remains, today, a singular example of Hispanic homesteading and the last vestige of that historic range war.
Preservation of the Pedro Trujillo Homestead
Our preservation work began in 2006. The back room, which had been destabilizing the rest of the house, was disassembled. Each piece was numbered with a cattle ear-tag. The main structure was leveled on jacks. Windows and doors were boarded over, the roof was patched, and a fence was built to keep the bison away; the Medano Ranch is home to a free-roaming herd of 2,000 bison.
We had hoped to secure donations or write a grant to complete the work, but it proved difficult to interest others in the project, and the grant process looked as if it would take too long. Meanwhile, the house was sitting on jacks in very shifty soil! By 2010, we could wait no longer. The same contractor was engaged to reassemble the back room and reroof it, and the entire structure was placed on a foundation for the first time. The final task was restoring the windows and doors.
This entire project was managed through The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, whose employees signed contracts and kept an eye on the work. Utilizing our private funds offered real advantages. For example, there was no red tape, but there were trade-offs. We regret that an archaeologist wasn’t present to record any relics that turned up when the foundations were dug—although the cultural record would have been mixed since the building was occupied by ranch hands after 1902. We take solace in the fact that the scattered remains of Pedro’s father’s house lie a short distance away. Their excavation should provide a single, coherent story of Hispanic homestead life in the San Luis Valley. Our inability to fund a totally accurate historical restoration, which might have been possible with a larger, externally funded budget, was an additional trade-off. Balanced against this was our desire to move quickly and save what we could.
The preservation of Trujillo Homestead is a different kind of story from those we often hear about that use funding raised through public or private grants. Hopefully, our story will resonate with readers and demonstrate there are other formulas for achieving what is important to us all: the preservation of Colorado’s historic treasures.