Homestead Way of life in a tiny home at Camp Hurni | Estes Valley Highlight
Part 1 of 2
By: Michelle Hurni
Certain homesteads stand out when people think of Estes Park. MacGregor Ranch (founded 1873) is now part of a successful charitable trust. The 160-acre McGraw Ranch (settled in 1884) failed to make it into agriculture, so it became a dude ranch before the National Park Service converted it into a research facility.
These are perhaps the most famous late 19th century homesteads, but many stories of these rugged settlers have not been told. In 1876, John W. Sibley came west into the Colorado Territory and staked 120 acres of hillside above present-day Mary’s Lake. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the original charter, mistakenly calling Colorado a “territory” even though it had become Centennial State the month before. Sibley took off a Douglas fir and built a one-room log cabin in a picturesque spot on his property. The mummy was lurking out the front door.
Living room before renovation.
Fast forward 142 years to the same log cabin. It’s dilapidated, with holes in the roof and broken windows. It had worn out numerous owners, including a Denver real estate mogul, several female owners, and a minister. It spent 55 years in the heart of the youngest family who turned it into a tree farm and sold lodgepole pine for fence posts. In the 1990s the property shrank to 45 hectares.
Renovated living room
It may not be 1876, but when we bought the property we felt the pull of the homestead. The hut was lonely and deserted. We were told it was a demolition. The negatives were loud. No energy. No water. Bad forest road. But there were glimmers of hope. We had receipts for a septic tank and cistern from 1962. The previous owner had records from a 1902 law of Congress for the access road. And the source, high up on the property in an aspen and raspberry grove, was decided in the Greeley Water Court and provided plenty of water.
We’re nothing if not traditional and our goal has been to restore the cabin and preserve the integrity of the property. I loved the cabin from my months at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. We didn’t want a massive new house, although George’s first reaction was: “I can’t live with you in 800 square meters!” We prefer our square footage outside, with pine needles and pine cones, not inside, filled with things.
The original log cabin was 15 ‘x 18’. It was added in the 1920s, bringing the total area to just over 800 square feet. A local carpenter, Justin Riedesel, fell into our laps and kept our vision of the past alive as we gutted the cabin.
After four months of sweat, setbacks and tears, we moved in. There was still snow on the ground, but at least it was no longer blowing through holes in the crack. The outbuilding was grandfather’s and perfectly acceptable until Dan Ertl completed the installation. Walking through the forest to the outhouse with our dogs as guards in the early morning became a ritual that we hugged.
There was no electricity, but candles and oil lamps provided plenty of light. As the sun went down, we were also exhausted from clearing fallen trees and maintaining tree farm status. Our bodies got into a peaceful rhythm with no alarm clock and nine hours of sleep. The best part? Without a television we learned to resume conversations.
After pulling up the linoleum floor from the 1950s, we discovered that the original pine floors had never been sanded. They shine now. The windows were replaced with replicas of the old ones, with MacGregor barn girders supporting the new sills. The bathroom and kitchen have been remodeled to accommodate a blast from the past. We bought a refurbished 1950s Chambers gas range, replica refrigerator, and old kitchen sink. The entire cabin has been spray foamed not just for insulation, but structural integrity so it doesn’t shake like an aspen.
One of the most important buzzwords of the 21st century is “tiny house life,” but that really goes back to the original settlers. You did it out of necessity, but we accept it. Although 800 square feet is considered large by “tiny home” standards, there is still customization going on.
Our sailing background was in the foreground in the design. There is little space on a sailboat and everything has its place. It is the same with a tiny house. Justin bored a hole in the floor of the wine cellar. The local craftsman Rene Archambault built a bench for pots and pans. The hickory bed is versatile: large drawers underneath, and our two Bernese Mountain Dogs find it perfect for their napping needs while monitoring their domain.
Back to the original homestead spirit of the property, we have less of everything. A couple of flannel shirts, a single multi-function knife, no electronics, and no television. Laying electrical lines to the cabin would have been an enormous effort, so we decided to stay disconnected from the power grid. Check out these difficulties in Offgrid Living on the Homestead, Part 2 of 2.
We may not have the same needs as John Sibley, but we can channel his mind as we curl up with a book in front of the fire in our little cabin, ready to hug the winter like the rugged home dwellers ahead of us. We are only one of a number of caretakers at this old homestead, but we hope that we can keep Camp Hurni for generations to come.