In grocery stores today, we can buy fruit from all over the world. A century ago, farm products were local, and a thriving orchard business had begun in the Animas Valley at Hermosa under stunning red canyon cliffs.
Some of those fruit trees still stand, as does the historic Fisher house, which is a testament to early agriculture, the first brewery on the Western Slope and to a Texas family that has been a steward of the land.
For decades, the descendants of Herman Schulz have kept up the old, white, two-story Victorian-era house with its graceful wrap-around porch and distinctive gingerbread-style woodwork in the eaves. Since their father bought the 50-acre property in 1956 on County Road 202, Sunny Branch, Jeanne Hejl and Susan Scheffer have shared the house and gardens with children, grandchildren and quite a few bears that have a taste for fruit and the occasional meat loaf.
On the back porch, “bears came through the screen door so many times that we had to board it up,” Susan says. “They’ve torn up the screens and gone in to see what they could find. So we’ve had to put up plywood. This year, the bears are scarce. They’re all in town.”
With senior water rights from the Pomona Ditch, the property became known as the Pomona Orchards – home to apricots, apples, plums, cherries, pears and an ice house that still stands. Doug Branch says, “When the ditch runs red, it’s rained (in the mountains), then the water is red, red, red.” Specialists have visited the property looking for heirloom fruit trees and found an apple called a winter banana because it’s yellow. That tree has been grafted with hopes of preserving its rare fruit.
HHHThe Texas descendants of Herman Schulz come north to Hermosa in the summer to cool off when it is over 100 degrees near Houston. But the family of Charles Fisher, which bought the original homestead and built the house in 1892, came south to the valley from Silverton to warm up. Originally from Germany, Fisher opened the first brewery on the Western Slope in Howardsville and had a successful ice business, selling 1,000 tons by 1889. Five years earlier he had married another German immigrant, Emilie Topf.
“It appears that the Fishers followed the lead of a number of wealthy Silvertonites who purchased farms and ranches at the lower and warmer elevations in the fertile Animas Valley,” says Jill Seyfarth, historian and cultural resources specialist. “They bought this property and built a grand house, but this house was not their primary residence.”
The couple had two children, and tragically, Emilie died at 42. Devastated, Fisher sold out and moved to Denver, yet perhaps his family’s spirits still linger. A bedroom on the second floor may have ghosts. The three sisters tell me, “They just give you a feeling. The ghosts. A friendly and motherly presence.” Though it is annoying when the closet door opens in the middle of the night for no reason.
In 1900, Edgar and Nettie Buchanan bought the property. He was a Silverton lawyer, county attorney and investor in the Golden Fleece Mine. She was on the Durango library board. They established themselves in the Animas Valley, and his obituary in the Durango Democrat noted, “Mr. Buchanan’s law practice in Durango was wide and varied. He was an expert on irrigation litigation, and due to his judgment in the priority of water rights, his advice was eagerly sought.”
Later, the Hicks family owned the property and cultivated a truck farm and the Pomona Orchards, selling fruit near the county road. In the apple shed, an original wooden apple press lies in pieces. On the shed’s wooden walls, names and telephone numbers of fruit customers are penciled in. A hand-painted sign promotes cherries.
HHHWhen the Schulz family bought the property 60 years ago, the house was empty, but previous families had heated with coal “and left us a lot of coal dust.” Old wallpaper was falling off the walls. Eventually, the Texas family felt the need for a second bathroom because “for a long time, we dealt with 15 people and one bathroom.” The sisters remember their father “loved it up here. We came up to Durango to ride the train, and the next day, Dad said, ‘Let’s go look at property.’” He was in the abstract and title real estate business in Fort Bend County. Though he bought and sold Texas property, once he purchased this Hermosa acreage, it has remained in the family ever since.
The wide expansive front porch faces east. Sunny Branch says, “We sit out on the porch to get warm in the morning and cool in the afternoon. You get your daily dose of vitamin D.” The house has four bedrooms, no air conditioning and remains virtually untouched with original woodwork, flooring, plastering and windows without screens, so they’ve had to purchase modern half-screens to help with ventilation.
An outhouse tilts gently back toward Hermosa Cliffs. An old rusty paint can on a post shows repeated hits from a BB gun. The grounds are neatly cut and trimmed with various colorful flower patches and tall pine trees to the east of the house. “Most all the kids and grandkids come up in the summer. The place is so popular they have to put their names on the calendar to get available dates,” says Sunny, who is proud that four generations of her family have now benefited from her father’s foresight to buy a Colorado retreat far from the Texas heat.
As we sit on the front porch, I ask Doug Branch for another bear story. He launches in: “This tree right behind me is an apricot tree, and it’s the most delicious fruit you’ve ever had. And these girls (meaning the retired sisters sitting on the porch) make the best jelly from those apricots. Well, it’s the middle of the night and dark and we hear noises outside the house. I get up and there’s a bear in the tree. I found a long stick and I poked that bear. Then I saw its huge face. That was a very big bear. I ran back in the house and the bear dropped out of the tree, but something was still moving in those branches. Turns out that was a big mother bear who left three cubs up there still eating apricots.”
I had to ask about the meat loaf, too. “Sunny and I used to come up here in April,” Doug says. “She’d come over to the big house (which is what they call the historic Fisher house), and she’d put a meat loaf in the oven. We were staying next door in the cabin. So she came over to the back porch to check on the meat loaf, and there was a bear standing by the back door trying to do the same thing.” He laughs. We all laugh.
HHHMemories linger in an old house. Time ticks away. The family has certain annual rituals. They cross the valley to the Bar D Wranglers for dinner and cowboy music. On the upstairs balcony, there are stories of children locking other kids out on the porch. “We finally fixed the screen door. Grandkids would lock each other out and then poke holes in the screen door to undo the latch and get back in,” Jeanne says.
Each year, there’s another project of sanding and repainting. Fixing things. But mostly it’s sitting on the porch, talking, reading, soaking up the sweet scents of a Colorado summer. Sharing time with family. Seeing grandkids grow. Watching clouds scuttle across the sky. Wondering if it’ll rain in the afternoon and whether there’s a bear in the fruit trees or on the back porch.
Andrew Gulliford is an historian and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at [email protected].