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Ranching the Capitol Creek Valley
Capitoll Creek
Photo by Pete McBride John and Laurie McBride purchased their 2,300-acre Capitol Creek Ranch in 1979, and called it Lost Marbles Ranch because friends thought they were crazy for buying property so far up the Capitol Creek drainage.

The Capitol Creek Valley has remained rural and remote, with limited development over many years, because of two ranches and two families, John and Laurie McBride and Steve and Molly Child.

The Child family arrived in 1961 when Bob and Tee Child moved their family from Denver to the Capitol Creek Valley in Old Snowmass, where they bought a 1,500-acre cattle ranch at the base of Haystack Mountain.

“I was 13 when we moved to the ranch,” explains Steve Child, a current Pitkin County commissioner and one of Bob and Tee’s six children. “And like my dad, I have the same land ethic. We are temporary stewards of the land. We are caretakers, and it’s important to have a minimal impact. This land rightfully belongs to the Ute Indians. Somebody else will take care of this land in the future.”

After the Utes, several hardy ranchers homesteaded the land of the Capitol Creek Valley. According to local historian/writer Tony Vagneur, one of the first men in Ute City (Aspen) was Henry Staats, and he homesteaded the land that is now the 4,000-acre St. Benedict’s Monastery. Fred Light was another Capitol Creek homesteader, who arrived around 1880. Later there came the McCabe Ranch in East Sopris Creek (where Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn reside) and the Walt Wieben Ranch, which had the valley’s largest sheep operation.

Steve and the rest of Child family worked the family’s cow, calf and yearling operation. It wasn’t a big ranch, usually between 60 and 80 mama cows. They raised grass hay for cattle feed, getting only one cutting per summer, and half of the time it would rain before the hay dried out so they couldn't sell it if they had wanted to.   

“I moved to the ranch when I was 13,” says Steve Child, who is 71 years old. “Virtually my whole life has been taking care of this land. My home is here. I went to school in Basalt. My kids went to school in Basalt.”

When Child moved to their ranch, he counted 20 homes in both Snowmass Creek and the Capitol Creek Valley. Today, there are more than 300 houses, according to the commissioner, who represents District 4 in Pitkin County that encompasses Snowmass Village, Aspen Village and the Snowmass/Capitol Creek valleys. 

After graduating from Stanford University, Child taught elementary school in Basalt and Carbondale for years. And he also drove a school bus for a total of 16 years.

“I really loved teaching to Latino kids or kids with severe special needs,” notes Child.

Child has served on the Board of County Commissioners for six-and-one-half years, and he is considering running one more time when this term of office ends in a year-and-a-half. He explains that he really enjoys being a commissioner, and he feels as if he is still contributing. Maintaining economic sustainability locally and mitigating the effects of climate change are two issues most important to him.

Steve Child
Steve Child is a Pitkin County commissioner and longtime resident of a ranch at the base of Haystack Mountain. - photo by Steve Alldredge
As part of Bob and Tee Child’s estate planning, they put the whole 1,500-acre ranch in a conservation easement. After their passing, 1,330 acres were sold to Los Angeles artist Mark Grotjahn who now owns the original barns, corral and Bob and Tee Child’s house. 

Steve Child lives in a house on the remaining 161 acres of irrigated land and two mesas. Steve and Molly are buying out the Child siblings and they are considering what do with the property in the near-term. Growing rhubarb and raspberries on a couple of acres are two ideas, and they are currently exploring other options. Molly operates a landscaping business where she is assisted by their son, Devon. They also have two other children, Nathan, who works at the Pitkin County Library and Robin, who is a schoolteacher in Alaska.

A fortuitous meeting  

The McBrides arrived in the Capitol Creek Valley a little later than the Child family. After selling fiberglass for Owens Corning Fiberglass in San Francisco, Los Angeles and then Denver, McBride met Bill Janss in Vail while skiing and Janss invited him to come up and snowcat ski Snowmass where Janss was planning a new ski resort in mid-1960s.

John and Laurie moved to Aspen in 1966, renting a furnished five-bedroom home on Pitkin Green for $200 a month, a fact that John still chuckles over. He developed and opened the Aspen Airport Business Center in 1969. 

This was not McBride’s first time in Aspen or the West. Growing up with the ravines, lakes and ponds of Lake Bluff, 30 miles outside of Chicago, he traveled by train to a camp outside of Golden, Colo. when he was 13 and learned the importance of keeping the natural environment as natural as possible. It’s an ethic he has continued to live.

John and Laurie purchased their 2,300-acre Capitol Creek Ranch in 1979, and they called it Lost Marbles Ranch because friends thought they were crazy for buying property so far up the Capitol Creek drainage.

“It’s a nice little valley that’s stayed that way for the locals,” explains McBride. “There aren’t specific moments that are highlights of the ranch. It’s the general sense of a calm natural environment.”

Like the Child family, the McBride family operated a cattle ranch for years. Last year, the McBrides sold their 150 cows to one of their ranch workers, who continues to ranch them on the property.

“It’s a tough game to ranch cows,” notes McBride. “It’s not your best investment. You have to feed a lot of hay. You really got to love it, working with animals.”

The McBrides continue to love their ranch and wish it to remain as natural as possible in the future. In June 2019, they purchased a conservation easement on the ranch and donated it to the Aspen Valley Land Trust. The easement permanently protects wildlife habitat, agricultural land and scenery in the upper Capitol Creek drainage. 

The conservation easement also creates a 5,300-acre corridor of private land within the Capitol Creek drainage that includes the Capitol Creek Ranch, Harvey Ranch and part of the Weiben Ranch. The land borders U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property. 

Why was it important to the McBrides to preserve their ranch indefinitely into the future?

“Because it is the right thing to do for the land,” McBride explains. “The ranch is teeming with wildlife: elk, bear, lion, everything. It would be stupid to turn that all around. And it’s the right thing to do if the family wants to keep it. It can remain a cattle ranch, but they can’t build much on it.”

When they donated the land, Laurie McBride noted: “The easement will make conservation an everlasting reality in our valley.”

The McBrides love for the land extends to water and power. They have used gravity-fed streams and a micro power generator on the sprinklers that water their fields to produce power that they then sell back to Holy Cross Energy. 

John and Laurie McBride continue living on Lost Marbles Ranch, and they continue their local philanthropy. Their children Johnny and Katie live nearby on the old Fred Light Ranch. There should be McBrides living the upper Capitol Creek Valley for years to come.