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Summit County pioneers: Gail and Grady Culbreath

By Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz
Special to the Summit Daily News
Grady and Gail Culbreath on their ranch in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

SUMMIT COUNTY — First there was the land — the dirt, pastures and vast openness of the upper Blue, acres upon acres just south of Heeney. Then there was the Culbreaths, the salt of the earth and one of the bedrock families of Summit County. The two blended well together, a partnership of quiet respect and subtle boundaries, exemplifying a symbiotic relationship of hard work and bountiful resources. 

Grady Culbreath’s grandfather came to Grand County at the turn of the century from Switzerland where he had been a dairy farmer.  He owned the Engel Brother’s Exchange Bank in Breckenridge. Grady’s mother and father grew up in Breckenridge. In 1929, she and Grady’s father purchased the ranch in the Lower Blue and raised their three children, Grady, Gertrude and George, in the same house Grady and his wife, Gail, live today. 

When Grady was a child, the 63 counties in Colorado were numbered according to population. Denver, for instance, was given number 1 and Summit County was so sparsely populated that it was assigned number 61. As an established family in the County, Grady’s parents acquired the first license plate issued: 61-1. Later, the 61s were changed to ZL before the state discontinued county-coded license plates in 2000.

When Grady and his brother and sister were young, there were at least five different schoolhouses scattered along the countryside between Dillon and Kremmling to accommodate all the ranch children.

Grady attended first grade in a one-room school house that today would be located at the bottom of Green Mountain Reservoir. Green Mountain was part of the Thompson Reservoir Project that began in 1940 and was filled in 1946 or 1947 to help the growers in Grand Junction. While the dam was being built, there were approximately 30 to 40 of the workers’ children enrolled in the school in Heeney. Grady’s parents rented five cabins on their property to house the dam workers and also sold many of them milk and eggs.

Gail Byers junior class photo, left, and Grady’s junior class photo, right.
Courtesy Culbreath family

In those days, it wasn’t unusual for many children who lived down the Blue to temporarily live with other families in order to be closer to school and avoid the long commutes. After first grade, Grady attended Lakeside in Heeney, then Dillon, where he had his first classes with his future wife Gail Byers. They then went to high school in Breckenridge, graduated in 1953 and were married three years later.

Grady laughed, recalling how he met Gail and said, “A hunter once asked me, ‘Where did you find her?’ I just replied, ‘Oh, in the third grade.’” 

Gail, also a Summit County native, was born in Breckenridge. Her grandparents owned a ranch just beyond the gravel pit near Maryland Creek. Her parents lived in the old town of Tiger when she was born, where a lot of cattle were summered and tended by a “pool rider.” Grady thought that there must have been about 1,000 cows in the ranchers’ “pool” between Dillon and Kremmling.

At one point, the Byers owned the Tenderfoot Ranch, which is now covered by the Dillon Reservoir. It was a 2,000-acre parcel including Corinthian Hills, that the City of Denver purchased for around $200 per acre to build Lake Dillon. Her father built one of the two Water Board houses that still stand.

Gail’s family moved to the town of Pando by Camp Hale where they ran a dairy. They delivered milk to Red Cliff and Leadville. Ranchers would put cream in five gallon cans out by their mail boxes to be picked up and sold by dairies like the Byers’. It was a large part of life on the Blue River in Summit County. Gail remembers how the tops would pop off the milk bottles when winter temperatures dropped below freezing. Grady’s father also delivered milk around Breckenridge for Meadow Gold for many years.

While hard work often consumed much of a rancher’s life, there were also many opportunities to gather with friends and neighbors and have fun. “The Fourth of July was bigger than Christmas,” explained Grady. On the Fourth, there were rodeos with all the festivities and celebrations. Gail’s family furnished bucking stock for the Dillon Rodeo.

Gail at work on the ranch in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

“Everybody competed,” said Grady. “The girls would barrel race and we’d ride bucking horses, cows and calves.” His brother George became a good saddle bronc and bareback rider and went on to win the collegiate competition in the region in 1960. Grady’s grandson Clay enjoyed riding bulls and won three belt buckles in competitions in the summer of 1998.

In the early part of the century, there were two types of people in Summit County — ranchers and miners. At one point or another, Grady found himself wearing both hats. There was a time when many of the ranchers purchased Mexican longhorn cattle with the vision that this would be the new trend of the future. Then the meat market crashed and a lot of the ranchers went out of business. According to Grady, the crash “broke some pretty strong old ranch families on the Blue.” His grandfather offered support where he could by loaning many people money during the hard times and was never repaid.

Life as a miner wasn’t much easier. When Grady’s mother lived in Breckenridge, she often talked about 400 or more miners coming into town from the Wellington and other mines after a shift for some fun. However, when the gold market took a dive during the Great Depression, it all changed. Many mines either closed or reduced staff accordingly as demand dropped. Grady and George both worked in the Wellington Mine during Christmas and spring breaks while they were in school to earn extra money. Once mining died out, Breckenridge turned into little more than a ghost town.

Grady and Gail moving cattle on the Otter Creek Ranch in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

In 1960, Grady and George had the opportunity to purchase the ranch from his father. That same year, Grady began a dual career as an outfitter, which he continued to do for the next 15-20 years. Gail kept busy raising five children and often cooked for the hunters that were allowed to lease the ranch for hunting. 

“Ranching is all I ever wanted to do,” said Grady.

Grady on the ranch with Gail in the background in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

In 1999, they had 500-600 cattle during the summer as well as some they pasture for other ranchers. Additional revenue continues to come from hunters. In the past, as needed, the Culbreaths have sold parcels of land to help fund college for their children.

“Fortunately, we learned pretty early on that you don’t just sell the whole thing (the ranch), but maybe you peel off what you have to and stay in for the rest of the ride,” Grady explained.

“Before the ski areas were built, the concept of people buying second homes in the mountains was a foreign one,” said Grady. The boom of the ski business directly impacted the appreciation of their land and helped the Culbreaths stay in business over the years. In the 1980s, after witnessing this growth of the sleepy lower Blue they once knew, the Culbreaths put some of their 1,200 acres into a conservation easement to prevent future development.

“When you see your land’s original value per acre now being valued about the same per foot in a single lifetime, then you know you’ve seen a lot of changes,” said Grady in 1999, in disbelief at the continuous rise in land values throughout the county. “Of course, these values really mean nothing to us. We don’t plan to sell, so they really don’t matter. Quite frankly, the only reason we are still able to live here is because we were here.”

Editor’s note: Gail and Grady Culbreath still live on their ranch in Otter Creek.

This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at SummitDaily.com/news/history.


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