Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: From Breckenridge shady lady to Ranchlands cowgirl |

Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: From Breckenridge shady lady to Ranchlands cowgirl

After seeing a decline in business, May Nicholson, early Breckenridge’s most colorful madam, bought a ranch in what is now known as Silverthorne.
Courtesy Mary Ellen Gililand |

Editor’s note: This tale comes from Mary Ellen Gilliland’s humorous local history, “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods.” The book captures the high-spirited antics of shysters and shady ladies, swindlers and rogues of 1800s Summit County mine camps. Old-timers interviewed by Gilliland provided most of the book’s savory stories.

After 1910 when gold began to play out, Summit County miners either left the county or homesteaded ranches along the Blue River north of today’s Silverthorne.

Where did Breckenridge’s most successful madam go? She followed the homesteaders down the Blue and became a cowgirl. Even cowgirls need to eat, so she started her own business, the Mayfair Guernsey Dairy.

May Nicholson, early Breckenridge’s most colorful madam, witnessed a decline in clientele at her house of ill repute, The Blue Goose. Undaunted by the end of an era, she marched into the local bank and demanded her considerable savings. This she plunked down to purchase a ranch just below old Judge Silverthorn’s Blue River placer claim, the core of today’s town of Silverthorne.

Now those rolling green hills along the river are golf fairways, part of The Raven Golf Club at Three Peaks. May’s dairy barn remains there as a quaint reminder of the past.


Denver’s Thomas Cooper, in an interview with the author, explained that he was a young survey crew member when he first met May Nicholson on her ranch in 1935. She exuded the independent spirit of the western ranch woman.

“May was some sight,” Cooper remembers. “She sat slender on her horse, ramrod straight. Her hair was a brilliant carrot red. If you looked closely, however, you could notice the white roots of hair next to her scalp. She wore glasses with silver frames. This was no spring chicken!” Cooper’s wife, Jane, later corrected May’s hair color to “shock-orange.”

A smart business woman, May went from milking traveling salesmen and errant husbands to milking cows. She delivered the milk to customers on nearby ranches and all the way to Breckenridge. Herding dairy cows and hoisting milk cans wasn’t easy. “She worked like a dog,” Cooper says.

“May kept her new dark blue Buick sedan in one of her old log barns. She regularly delivered milk from 5-gallon cans stacked on the rear seat. Once I ran into a new ranch owner in the Gore who asked me what I knew about May.

“I called her up and asked if she could deliver milk to my house,” he said. “She told me, ‘Sure, I’ll be happy to add you to my route. But here’s one thing you’ve got to know. I used to run a whore house in Breckenridge. If that means a damn thing to ya, just forget it!‘“

May sold milk out of the Buick’s back seat till 1942, when her age forced her to abandon the Breckenridge route. Her milk then sold only at the Breckenridge Grocery.


A talented horsewoman, May took a lead spot in the Kingdom of Breckenridge’s No Man’s Land parade, “either alone on her pacing horse or in the carriage of honor,” Cooper recalls. Even in her elderly years when she had to move back to Breckenridge, May continued to train horses. “She had a teeter-totter in her backyard, and around age 80 still taught the horses to do tricks on it,” Cooper says.

May would have been a natural to guide the 1930s male tourist groups who took her dude ranch horse trips to the Willow Lakes high in the Gore Range. But a personal flaw caused her to need someone else to do the job. “She swore too much,” Cooper lamented. Her raw language ran off even the toughest male guests. Because the Gore at that time was wild and untraveled, May needed a guide who knew the wilderness.

A teenager back in 1935, Tom Cooper fit the bill. He explained:

“In 1935 my summer job on a surveying crew in the Gore Range involved running survey lines into May’s ranch, so I looked her up for permission. My two summers on the survey job created in me a love for the Gore Range that lasts to this day. I’ll bet even now I can lead you to unknown lakes still filled with large trout and to lost mines that may still be rich in gold and silver ore.

“That knowledge led to a summer job with May. She had about a dozen good trail horses. Was I wrangler enough to take parties of dudes up to the Willows? After some coaching on the finer points, May let me loose overnight with about six of her dude guests. We made it but I insisted that everyone walk his horse through the steep and narrow parts of the high trails.”

When young Tom planned to marry his sweetheart, Jane, he brought her to meet May. She signaled him an enthusiastic “thumbs up.” He remembers being pleased.

“I thought a great deal of May because she was honest and sensitive,” Cooper says. “She was a real lady.”

“A real tough lady,” his wife Jane corrected.

Mary Ellen Gilliland’s “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” has captured the colorful gold rush. She details the misbehavior of history’s miscreants in her “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods” and recounts the story of the region’s first town in Breckenridge. Gilliland is also the author of the popular guide,”The Summit Hiker.” All are available from The Next Page Bookstore or online at

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