Holzwarth Historic Site in Rocky Mountains National Park

This historical site is dedicated to a family of German immigrants, who had the courage, the determination and the perseverance to homestead in the harsh environment of the Rockies.

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It was a balmy summer afternoon, when a few cars, one after another, parked next to log cabins of Holzwarth’s Trout Lodge in the beautiful Kawuneeche Valley. The stillness, which was filled by the sounds of birds’ chirping in a meadow and the bubbling water of the Colorado River, was broken by the rumbling sounds of car engines. Then the engines stopped and cheerful voices and laughter of tired travelers pouring out of the cars filled the air.

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Johnnie Jr. was arranging the newly made table and chairs in one of the cabins, when he heard his Mom’s voice: “Johnnie, help Papa meet our guest and show them around.”
Sophia, aka Mama, was busy in the kitchen cooking food for hungry guests from Denver, who had just arrived.
Johnnie helped guests by carrying their luggage to their designated cabins, while Papa and his buddies exchanged hugs, handshakes and the latest news. There will be lots of stories about the good old days around the campfire that night.

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Papa had a slew of thrilling stories about his first years in America. John Holzwarth emigrated from Germany to America in 1878, when he was 14 years old. His parents wanted him to avoid been enlisted during the Franco-Prussian war. His father was a baker at a royal court. John’s passage was paid for by a businessman, who ran a bakery in St. Luis, where John became an apprentice. However the baker abused him. He patted him with a hot paddle and John did not have any socks or shoes. After a few months he ran away and headed south.
In one of the saloons he witnessed a fight, where a few men were murdered. He was caught by the perpetrators because he witnessed their treachery, but he escaped.
Then he joined a family of cattle rustlers, who drove stolen horses from the east coast across the plains. He could barely speak any English and he lied about his cowboy skills just to get a job. After a while he was told to break horses, and he tried but he was thrown off. So the old man who was the head of the rustlers taught him how to break broncos. Later John and the rustlers were attacked by Indians and had to protect the herd and themselves. John was given a gun that could barely shoot. Later in his life, John became known as one of the best bronco riders in Grand County Colorado.
After the shootout with the Indians, he decided to leave the rustlers and walked 10-15 miles to a camp of Mexican sheepherders, where he was hired as a cook. He had to shoot and butcher a sheep every day to cook their meal. The Mexicans taught him how to cook. He also became a sharp shooter and became fluent in Spanish. It was there, in the camp, that he met Billy the Kid, who came there occasionally because he knew the foreman. Billy the Kid practiced his shooting skills by throwing a can in the air and shooting it with his revolver. John worked in the camp for about one year and then went to Texas and joined the Texas Rangers.
Once, he was chopping wood in a gulley to load it onto a pack of burros for the rangers’ camp and he was surrounded by six Comanche warriors on horseback. The Comanche warriors scared him almost to death by drawing their axes, but they spared his life. Another time he was sent with twelve rangers to pursue Geronimo and his warriors. The rangers came across a cabin and they found a miner, whose head was bashed in with his hammer. Four other men were butchered and burned alive. Later, they found a Mexican family who were mutilated and hanged inside their cabin. Finally, the rangers caught up with Geronimo’s gang and had a running fight with the Indians. They raced and shot at each other for about 10 miles in a prairie. The rangers’ horses were faster and they got away. However, one of the rangers was wounded in the shoulder and John got a flesh wound in the leg. The wounded ranger was loaded onto a wagon and driven to the nearest doctor 300 miles away. He was unconscious most of the time. John had his wound treated with salted water and a bandage. He was crippled for two weeks and then got well. John was riding with Texas ranges for three months and is listed in the Cowboys Hall of Fame for his service.
After leaving the rangers, John drove cattle with an old Indian for six months. The Indian hoped that John would marry one of his daughters. Once they came across a mound of dirt with a buzzard on the top of it. They dug the dirt and found the bodies of two men. One man had a knife stabbed in his chest and a checkbook from New York. John took the knife but had to throw it away because it stunk. He also spent 90 days with the Indian’s tribe, where he learned how to kill and tan buffalo.
After he left the old Indian, John was hired by John Jenkins to break horses and help on his ranch. Jenkins was one of the richest cattleman in the area, with a total of 80,000 cattle. John also was hired to bury men, who were shot during the Lincoln County war, but he had never participated in or had been a cause of those hostilities.
Somehow, a letter from Germany got caught up with John, from which he learned that his brother, David, was working as a stage couch driver between Georgetown Colorado and Hot Sulphur Springs Colorado. In 1881 he bought a horse, rode to Granby Colorado and took a job as a stage couch driver. He worked all summer and often wondered why he did not get killed.
John homesteaded Stillwater Ranch near Granby in 1883. He moved to Denver in 1891, when the silver panic started.

In Denver, he worked as a foreman for the Tivoli Brewing Company. One of his friends, who also worked at the brewery, introduced him to his sister, Sophia. She also came from Germany, to work as a domestic servant for the Gates family. John and Sophia got married in 1894 and had five children. At the same time they ran a small saloon and a boarding house in Denver before the WWI. In 1916 prohibition put a halt on their business, but the family of German immigrants was not discouraged.

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John Holzwarth took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and claimed 160 acres in Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of the Rockies. He always dreamed of being the owner of a cattle ranch and ride horses. Mama dreamed about a country inn. She was from the Black Forest region of Germany and the Rockies reminded her about her home. In 1917 John built the first cabin and Sophia and Johnnie, their youngest son, joined him. Jonnie was 14 years old at the time.

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There is a log cabin in Kawuneeche Valley, which was built in 1902 by the first homesteader Joseph Fleshut. This cabin is the first cabin that visitors see when entering the historic site. Initially, the cabin was built on the bank of the Colorado River. However, the Colorado River changed its course to the west and is closer to the foothills of the mountains. Life was not easy for Joseph. He had to rely on his fishing and hunting skills. However, he could not pay his property taxes and abandoned his homestead by 1911. In 1918 John Holzwarth bought the abandoned 160 acres, which were next to his property, for $ 2,000.

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Johnnie helped his father build Mama’s cabin when he was 15. He also helped his father build new cabins, a shed, and an icehouse. Later he made a pipeline to Mama’s kitchen from the local spring.

Johnnie went fishing and hunting every day to bring fresh trout and meat to Mama’s kitchen and he had his fishing pole always ready over the kitchen door.

One weekend Papa’s friends from came Denver to go fishing and brought a jug of moonshine. They spent all weekend talking and drinking but did not go fishing. On a Sunday afternoon they started worrying about not having any fish to bring home. Papa asked Johnnie to go and catch some fish. Johnnie spent two hours fishing in the river and brought them about 60 fish. However, the guests had a fight over the fish because they could not agree how to divide them. Johnnie was upset. He went and complained to Mama about how they do all the work and get nothing for it. They decided to charge all guests $ 2.00 per day or $ 11.00 per week with meals included and announced it to Papa. Of course, Papa roared that his friends will always stay for free, but he was outnumbered. It was the beginning of the Holzwarth Trout Lodge business.

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Mama cooked delicious meals influenced by German cuisine three times a day and served guests. The menu consisted of trout, deer, beef or elk roast spiced with herbs. Mama also prepared boiled potatoes, vegetable soups, biscuits, and baked goods. Mama used German recipes such as liver dumplings, spaetzels and sauerbraten with rabbits and baked her famous sourdough bread. For Christmas she baked Hutzelbrot, pear bread with rye, nuts, citrus, and raisins. Holzwarths also raised pigs and chickens and had their own bacon, ham, sausage, smoked sheep meat, and eggs. They also had a few cows and made cheese, butter and curd. Later they charged guests $ 1.50 per meal.

Papa John was a big connoisseur of whisky and made two quarts twice a month from raisins, prunes, or apples. He also made Kirschwasser from cherries. He aged it in charred oak caskets, which he put high on the trees. When wind swayed the trees the whisky in barrels was aged.
Papa was a big strong man, 5 feet10 inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. Once he made a bet that he could carry a 250 pounds beer barrel for a block and he won the bet.
Papa John Holzwarth had a gift of telling stories and he said that “some of them were true.” Guests used to sit around a campfire on his dude ranch and took turns telling their stories vying to impress listeners. These talks around the campfire could stretch well after midnight, and were spiced by locally made whisky.

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In 1919 Papa was injured in a wagon accident involving two broncs. He was crippled by the injury and had to use a cane to walk. Johnnie Jr. became in charge of many endeavors that Papa could not do anymore. However, Papa decided to pursue a taxidermy business, which became his new hobby and a source of income. He studied by correspondence and graduated from the Northwest School of taxidermy with a diploma. Inside of the taxidermy shop, where Papa used to work, there is a full body of a deer, deer heads and antlers, the horns of a bighorn sheep, tools, equipment, bells for cattle, saddles, and other ranching tools.

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Johnnie learned trapping from his friends and it became a substantial source of income during the winter, when the ranch was not in operation. He had 100 miles of traps. In the winter of 1933 he made $ 1000 by selling furs. He trapped and skinned muskrats, beaver, mink, and ermine.
Hunting was good too. He hunted deer and even shot an elk, which was the 7th largest registered elk in the world at that time. The average size of an elk is about 5 feet high at the shoulders and 700 pounds in weight. This elk came on the property by breaking a fence with his large antlers and headed to a haystack. There was a very limited supply of hay. Johnnie saw him when he went to milk his cows and went for a gun. While Johnnie was looking for a good position, the elk charged towards Johnnie and was shot.
He also shot off the antlers of another elk. The elk habitually ate hay stored in the barn. Johnnie also found one of his colts dead and another injured but alive. Johnnie blamed this on the elk. He called his friends and the only park ranger over to help him scare the elk away from his ranch. He prepared a lariat and trapped the elk by his antlers. However the elk was not scared at all. The elk did not leave in spite of the fact that men poked him with a pitchfork and rang a cowbell in his face. He finally ran away when Johnnie shot off both his horns.


Johnnie recalled that the toughest job he had ever had was cutting ice for a lodge at Grand Lake. Ice was cut by a hand saw in 100 pounds blocks and loaded onto a sled, which was pulled by six horses. Workers were paid 5 cents per block. The ice was covered in sawdust and was put into the lodge’s icehouse. The ice lasted all summer. He also brought ice for the Holzwarth’s icehouse.

All furniture on the ranch was made by Papa. The cabins looked cozy and were lovingly decorated with colorful rugs, linens and white curtains by Mama.
In 1923 Johnnie Jr. bought a sawmill for $ 600, and carpentry and construction became easier. He paid for it partly by furs and partly by lumber. Sawing wood brought additional income to the household, especially during winter, when the tourist season was over and the Fall River Road across the Rockies and the Continental Divide was closed due to heavy snow.
Johnnie had a barrel full of whisky, which he made and hid in the woods. Once he went to take some whisky to a dance, but found out that the barrel was empty. A chipmunk chewed off the wooden cork. Johnnie liked to go to dances, which took place at Kremmling or Sulphur Springs. He danced all night long and came back in the morning to take care of his daily chores.
He took guests on horseback riding tours and charged $ 10 a day. He also liked to practice his cowboy’s skills. When the Holzwarths started their business they had only five horses and later their herd grew to about one hundred.
Johnnie had two older sister Julia and Sophia, who lived in Denver. Julia graduated from a school of business with an accounting degree and worked for 50 years for the Hilb Company as a credit manager and treasurer. She never married and worked 15-17 hours a day for 7 days a week. She helped financed the establishment of the Holzwarth Dude Ranch and purchased Hilltop Manor for her sister Sophia. She also paid for her mother’s trip to Germany in 1933. Mama often stayed in winter with Julia in Denver during her last years of life.
Sophia and her husband worked on the ranch every summer during the 1930s and 1940s. They cooked for 50 to 60 guests and took care of guests cabins. Andy also did all the repairs on the ranch. They had two children who also enjoyed spending summers on the ranch.
Johnnie was married to Caroline and they had three children, whom they raised on the ranch.

Later Johnnie bought 800 acres of land in Kawuneeche Valley from small ranchers to add it to his thriving Never Summer Ranch. In 1974 he sold his ranch to the Nature Conservancy for 1.5 million dollars with a condition that the homestead would be kept as a historic site. The homestead was then transferred to the National Park service. He retired and settled in Littleton, but also had a hunting cabin near Springfield. He held this property as a private hunting preserve and also raised race horses there for five years. He and his second wife, Wanda, went to the Kentucky Derby every year and also made hunting trips every fall to his cabin. In 1982 Johnnie was able to shoot 2 birds with one shot. Johnnie died in 1983, but his descendants still live in the Grand Lake area and his family’s legacy was preserved on the historic site and in the memory of the people who knew them.

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When visiting the Howzwarth historical site, visitors get some insight into the life of homesteaders, who settled in the wilderness of the Rockies. Rangers and volunteers are happy to tell stories about these brave and perseverant people, who turned the toughest experience of their lives into a business success. To have a better feeling about the adventurous life on the Never Summer Ranch, visitors can try on a tattered cowboy hat and a buffalo fur coat, supposedly belonged to Papa and Johnnie Holzwarth. It helps you imagine how life was on the remote ranch in the wilderness of Rockies 100 years ago.
In the old tradition of the Holzwarth family, park rangers have storytelling around the campfire with marshmallows during the summer months.

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Resources used.





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