In the 1930s, Frisco, along with most of the country, was caught up in the throes of the Great Depression.
“Most of the mining, except for gold dredging, had ended in Summit County and the area was very poor,” said local historian and author Mary Ellen Gilliland. “Frisco population was down to about 33, and there was nothing to be done about it.”
One local resident, however, decided to take matters into his own hands. Bill Thomas, who owned a ranch and dairy farm, hit upon an idea that was a bit odd, but that he felt sure to be successful in boosting the area’s economy.
Thomas’ family had been in Frisco since the 1870s and owned a fair amount of land. It was Thomas’ idea to offer parcels of that land to Denver residents, for free, in order to draw them to the county. He put an ad in the newspaper, wrote letters and eventually invited 100 people from Denver to claim land lots, provided they agreed to build cabins within the year.
“If it wasn’t for Bill Thomas and his family, I’m not sure if Frisco would really be around right now,” said Nancy Anderson, museum coordinator at the Frisco Historic Park and Museum.
While Tomas did help re-populate Frisco, his plan had a personal economic goal, as well, according to Gilliland.
“His ultimate motive, his purpose, was to get customers for his milk because he had dairy cows,” she said. “He felt if people would come and build a cabin that they would buy milk from him. He was pretty desperate.”
Despite the tough times, Thomas’ plan paid off. People came and they built cabins, some of which are still standing today. A handful of the descendants of the original families have also remained.
Judy Anderson’s family was one of those lured to the High Country by Thomas’ lucrative offer. Today, Anderson still calls Summit County home and will be leading the walking tour of historic Bill’s Ranch on Saturday, April 26. The tour is free but requires registration, which can be done beforehand by contacting the Frisco Historic Park and Museum.
Those going on the tour “are going to see a lot of unique properties, old cabins and hear some funny stories that took place around that particular cabin,” Anderson said. “There are probably 10 stops and each one is by a cabin or a group of cabins.”
The cabins don’t look like ones we would build today, she added, and were mainly meant for summer use by their owners.
The Bill’s Ranch area is just south of Frisco Elementary School and includes a lake that bears the same name.
Though some of the cabins have been moved (including Thomas’ original residence, which can now be found off of Frisco Main Street as part of the museum grounds), others are still in their original location.
“I am sure many folks have zipped by Bill’s Ranch on their bikes and wondered about the charming cabins there,” Simone Belz, director of the Frisco museum, stated in a release about the tour. “I doubt that they ever imagine that dairy cows once grazed in this area and that ranches in Summit County used to grow hay in the early 1900s worth well over $100,000 per year. Today, people groan at the idea of growing even a carrot in this climate, yet pioneers like Bill Thomas made their living off of agriculture and eventually even land development. This is such a great tour with rich and interesting stories.”
The tour will take about an hour and a half, and Anderson recommends those participating wear sturdy shoes and bring clothing appropriate for spring.
“Be ready for the weather, spring conditions,” she said. “It’s a little muddy on those dirt roads back there.”
Celebrating the man
In addition to learning about the cabins and their inhabitants, tour participants will learn more about Thomas himself, who was “a total character” and “amusingly eccentric,” according to Gilliland.
It was Thomas’ personality that persuaded many of the Front Rangers to take him up on his free land offer, after he met them and walked them around the property, she said, “and, of course, it was gorgeous.”
The tour will be a good opportunity for anyone interested in learning more about Summit’s unique past, she added.
“It should be an interesting tour of a little pocket of Summit County that has a history different from any other area.”
“Today, people groan at the idea of growing even a carrot in this climate, yet pioneers like Bill Thomas made their living off of agriculture and eventually even land development. This is such a great tour with rich and interesting stories.”
Director, Frisco Historic Park and Museum