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Summit County pioneers: Karl and Jean Knorr

By Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz
Special to the Summit Daily News
Jean and Karl Knorr on their ranch.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

A ranch in the valley of the Lower Blue, halfway between Silverthorne and Kremmling, is perhaps the last place on earth anyone would expect to find a zebra, lion, gazelle or 16-foot, striped blue marlin. Nevertheless, these exotic creatures were gathered in the den of Karl and Jean Knorr’s ranch home as if to share the tales of adventurous travel in faraway lands. The Knorr’s collected a vast number of wild game trophies as testimony to their passion for hunting and fishing and their many trips to places like Alaska, Africa, Costa Rica, Canada and Mexico.

Jean killed her first deer with her grandfather in Boulder when she was 18, turning one of life’s necessities into a sport that she and her husband long enjoed. Despite their apparent wanderlust and restless spirit, the Knorrs said there was nothing better than coming home — home to the Colorado ranch that was always the stable arm to their life’s ever-swiveling protractor.

After growing up in Boulder and Longmont, Jean moved to the mountains and was teaching at Lakeside School when she met Karl. A photography buff, he had come to present a color slideshow to the children.

“When a young schoolmarm showed up in the county, she usually didn’t get away,” Karl said while laughing.

The community hall of the Lakeside precinct was often the setting for all sorts of community purposes, such as elections, funerals and dances. It was at one of those dances when Karl and Jean began the courtship that resulted in their eventual marriage.

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“We got together quite a bit in the winter with a piano and a fiddle and have ourselves a pretty good stomp,” Karl said.

Karl fondly remembered that he and other part-time musicians would end up traveling from Grand Lake to Fairplay to play for the dances that were held almost every Saturday night. Jean explained that the women would make all the sandwiches, cakes and coffee for these social occasions and all the children would end up falling asleep on the benches in the cookhouse.

The Knorrs would attest that being “home on the range” involves an abundance of vigor, self-reliance and common sense. It was a lot of hard work, sweat and determination with little financial return. Nevertheless, Karl said he liked every aspect of growing up on a ranch.

Left: Karl Knorr at age 21. Right: Jean Knorr at Lakeside school in Heeney.
Courtesy the Knorr family

“I grew up in a community of hunters, trappers and cowboys,” he said. “I liked it all.”

Karl’s maternal grandfather, Judge William Guyselman, arrived in Breckenridge around 1880 and soon after acquired land along the Blue River. Karl’s father came from Germany when he was 18 rather than complete his two years of required military service. He and his brother mined around Montezuma and Breckenridge. He built the building that later became the Knorr House outdoor recreation store in Breckenridge as a place for them to live. After awhile, they opened a saloon called the Knorr Brothers’ Pioneer Saloon and operated it in the 1880s and 1890s until Karl’s dad sold his portion to his brother in order to pursue ranching. He then married Judge Guyselman’s daughter and moved to the current ranch in 1902.

In the early part of the century, there were many ranches up and down the river until the Green Mountain Reservoir came along. The town of Heeney first emerged as a construction camp for all the Reservoir workers, then turned into a town in the mid-1940s. Much of the Knorrs’ original ranch was displaced by the reservoir, which was built over three summers from 1940 to 1942.

“We moved as many buildings as we could,” Karl said, but the Green Mountain Reservoir provided no benefit that he could see to the cattle or ranching business.

“The ranch people kept on ranching, but it was quite a disruption,” Karl explained. “We had to get out of there and start over. It was like a gopher scrambling to high ground when you try to drown him out.”

George, left, and Karl Knorr circa 1916.
Courtesy the Knorr family

Karl had two brothers: Ted, who was 10 years older, and George, just a year and a half older. He and George were inseparable. They went to grade school at Lakeside in the summertime for the first eight grades in the mid-1920s because traveling in the winter months was so difficult.

“Most of the country kids skied because that was a good way to get around,” Karl said. “Either you got around on skis or webs (snowshoes), or on horses, but it was pretty tough to travel on foot in the snow.”

After Karl and George graduated high school in 1930, they returned to the ranch. Karl said they both expected to return only to earn enough money for college, but then their father died, and the opportunity arose to purchase Mount Powell Ranch “dirt cheap.” It was during the Great Depression, and both of them knew the ranch was worth much more than they paid.

“We were fortunate to start when we did,” Karl said.

 The ranch started small, but after adding to the land through various acquisitions, it eventually became so large that it was too much work for Karl and his brother to handle alone. At one time, the Knorr brothers had about 10,000 acres and wintered as many as 700-800 cows. Karl explained that when he was a child, they would ship their cattle to Denver after a “good ol’ cattle drive” to either Kremmling or Dillon, where they would load them on a train. They also had about 35-40 draft horses and a few saddle horses. Karl recalls one time when his brother injured his ankle while they were breaking foals and couldn’t work for a few days.

“I had more than 500 head of cattle to feed with just a pitchfork — just a team of horses, a sled and a pitchfork,” Karl said.

Left: Karl Knorr and his early Northland touring skis. Right: Jean Knorr and old cook stove.
Left: Courtesy the Knorr family. Right: Courtesy Bob Winsett.

Karl explained how Dillon Reservoir had as much to do with tourism as anything else. About this time, Alpine skiing began to emerge in the county, as well, but the effects of the ski business were gradual. Karl grew up skiing. He was influenced by the old Norwegian jumpers such as Carl Howelsen, the Haugen brothers and the Prestruds. He and his friends would jump at Slate Creek Ranch and Dillon. They also did plenty of cross-country skiing, as much for sport as for transportation.

“When we were kids, one guy would get up on the saddle horse and throw the end of the rope to the other guy, who would be pulled from behind on skis,” Karl remembered. He stopped skiing at age 82 but only because he injured himself when he didn’t make a turn skijouring on sheer ice.

Into the early 2000s, Karl and Jean still owned 2,200 acres. Looking back, even in the shadow of their many travel souvenirs, it is life in Summit County that seemed to hold the fondest memories for Karl.

“I had a happy childhood,” he said. “Kids nowadays, they get all sorts of toys. We had very few. But we didn’t need many. We had a good time with the stuff we had. We had skis, horses, cattle, dogs and cats.”

Editor’s note: Karl Knorr died in November 2007. Jean Knorr died five weeks later in December.

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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