By Maggie Magoffin
In May 1861, newlyweds George and Sarah Church loaded up an ox cart for their honeymoon journey from Iowa to the gold fields of Colorado. Their mainstay was a stash of homemade flat cakes made of mashed potatoes and plenty of cream and then dried in an oven. Sarah recounts in her diary, “We carried potatoes that lasted us through.”
After traveling alone for their first week, they hooked up with another family near Council Bluffs. However, in spite of the company, Sarah grew weary of the rain and encountering discouraged pioneers returning home, who told them there was no gold and no rain in Colorado. The young couple had encountered so much rain on their journey, Sarah responded, “It would be pleasant to be for awhile where it never rains.” It was not just the bleak rainy days that turned her disposition sour. Back home, the Civil War raged on and brothers fought brothers. She recounts in her diary, “Prices for all farm products were so low they were hardly worth carrying to market. The little state of Iowa and individual banks made paper money so unsafe as they were failing every day, that one hardly felt safe to keep their bills overnight.”
Upon reaching Council Bluffs, Sarah and George departed from the other family and hooked up with a train of freighters, and traveled on with them through Pawnee Indian country. As the wooded land along the Missouri River opened up to the unbroken prairie, other families joined the small delegation, and together they followed the Platte River towards the Rocky Mountains. Sarah recounts how their supply of firewood ran scarce, so they fueled their fires with buffalo chips. “The chips make the most excellent baking fires, keeping an even, uninterrupted heat.”
One evening a group of well-dressed, Pawnee natives, accompanied by a government agent, arrived in camp. The Indians approached the white men and engaged in a rather intense discussion. Sarah observed that the white men seemed genuinely amused by the conversation, and soon George came to her and told her the natives were interested in buying white squaws. One even offered nine ponies and $100 for Sarah. She played along with what seemed to be a harmless and humorous exchange and told George, “You’ll never get a better offer than that. You’d best close the deal.”
The bantering and bartering continued, but at one point, Sarah’s admirer decided he much preferred the golden-haired Mrs. R. to Sarah. It was then that the government agent intervened and explained, “You white men must not talk to these Indians. They are earnest and you may have trouble. A woman was recently shot after her sale was withdrawn.” The next morning, the Pawnees came to watch the wagon train depart and Sarah spotted her admirer from the previous evening. She said, “He had a new red, flannel ban on his straw hat, his beaded moccasins and finest leggings and looked very sad.”
Arriving in Denver in late July, the bustling boomtown, lit with kerosene lamps, was a glaring surprise after the loneliness and quiet of the dark prairie. Sarah writes, “The streets at night look almost bright as Fairy Land.” After refreshing their supplies in Denver, the newlywed couple headed up into the Rockies through Mt. Vernon Canyon and there joined flocks of people seeking precious metals along Clear Creek. They bought a few mining claims, rented a room in a log cabin and beneath the snowy range (St. Mary’s Glacier near Alice) they watched the aspens turn and settled in for the winter. And, by spring, they knew they wanted to stay for good.
Leaving their belongings with a neighbor, they headed back to Iowa to retrieve George’s dairy cattle. Upon arriving home, they were met with a mixed reception. Everyone wanted to hear their stories, but Sarah’s mother balked upon hearing the details of their journey and insisted, “This settles it. You will not go out there again.” Sarah admitted in her writings, “We did not tell her for several days that we had come for a herd of cattle and must start back in May.” But, eventually, her father intervened, saying, “A woman is supposed to go with her husband. I took a young woman of twenty into the wilds of Illinois in 1836. I never thought she would desert me because there were hardships to be endured – and she did not.”
With another team of oxen and fifty cows and calves, Sarah and George returned to Colorado and for a short while settled into another room over Mt. Vernon Canyon. Then they bought a strip of land north of Boulder off of Left Hand Creek. Sarah told how there wasn’t much lumber available for housing or cooking fires, so they moved a log cabin from Boulder to their new ranch. They decorated the house with carpets, curtains, tables and chairs and shelved their library of books. In that cabin, Sarah gave birth to their first child, John Frank Church, but despite the luxuries, the family was unhappy. Sarah grew homesick and there was little water for the cattle. So, one day, during a heavy snowstorm, George went to town to find a buyer for their ranch. Sarah, meanwhile, decided to heat some water with a quick chip fire. She stepped outside for only a moment to fetch the water and during the brief time, the house was suddenly engulfed in fire. She rushed inside, grabbing the baby and anything else she could carry and the retreated from the blazing inferno.
After recuperating from the fire at a neighbor’s home, George and Sarah were unsure where to go next. So, they headed south to Denver for supplies and on the way stopped at a house on Big Dry Creek. Sarah recounted in her diary, “It was five miles from any other house, a great sweep of prairie to the west, not a house until you reach the foothills to the north, open country to the Platte River, and one house until you reach Denver.” She said, “It seemed unwise to go off to the ends of the earth for more till these mining claims are disposed of.” And the rest is history.
The Church’s bought the home and founded Church Ranch, which is still in operation today, although substantially smaller than the 160-acre ranch founded in 1864. Today, great-grandson, Charles Church McKay, oversees and operates the working 5.4 acre farm at Church Ranch headquarters at 10050 Wadsworth Blvd., including 17 structures, and a 140-year-old barn with twin silos. There is now a street from Hwy 36 in Broomfield heading both north and south called Church Ranch Road, and is the center of a bustling shopping center with movie theaters, restaurants, and entertainment. So now you know the rest of the story…
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