Fraser: Dwight Eisenhower’s summer playground
Steve Sumrall and
Grand County Historical Association
At the Taste of History Champagne Brunch and Social, the Grand County Historical Association will offer guided tours of President Eisenhower’s summer playground at Byers Peak Ranch.
Join us on Saturday, Sept. 12 ,for the Taste of History Champagne Brunch fundraiser, and purchase tickets ($40 – $50) online at http://www.grandcountyhistory.org.
According to Charles Clayton, President Dwight Eisenhower is probably Fraser’s — if not Grand County’s — most famous visitor. From 1948 to 1955, and possibly as early as 1938, Eisenhower visited the Fraser Valley many times. During the early years of his presidency, from 1953-55, Eisenhower visited 26 days. He always stayed at one of the cabins on the 3,800 acre Byers Peak Ranch along St. Louis Creek, owned by his friends, Aksel Nielsen and Carl Norgren.
For decades prior to his presidency (1953-1961), Eisenhower was quite familiar with Colorado. Then an up and coming military man, Ike married Mamie Doud in 1916 at her family home at 750 Lafayette Street in Denver, now a National Historic Register site. Ike was 25 and Mamie aged 19 then. Denver became their home base while on active military duty throughout the world.
Research by Fraser historian Steve Sumrall shows that it was through Mamie’s father, John Doud, that “Ike” became acquainted with the Fraser Valley. Mr. Doud’s bookkeeper and financial advisor was young Aksel Nielsen. At the Doud home, Aksel met Ike probably circa 1925. Their friendship grew as they shared a passion for the great outdoors and fishing. Aksel introduced Ike to the Rocky Mountains as early as 1938, a trip which may have brought the future president to Byers Peak Ranch and Fraser’s famed fishing creeks.
At the time, Aksel Nielsen, along with business partner Carl Norgren, began purchasing land in the Fraser Valley. They had a deep appreciation for Byers Peak Ranch for Boys, founded and operated by Jessie Arnold from 1932 to 1939. Their children attended the summer camp that for a few weeks each year even allowed girls. Norgren’s daughter, Gene, the future Mrs. Walter Koelbel, was a camp counselor. Arnold built the many log cabins that still exist on the property.
When the camp went into default, Norgren and Nielsen stepped in and purchased the 160 acre Byers Peak Ranch in 1939. As part of the business and philanthropy corps of Denver, Nielsen and Norgren were involved with the National Western Stock Show and the gentlemanly occupation of cattle ranching. They purchased lands surrounding the Byers Peak Ranch for Boys, including Frank Carlsen’s property that had once belonged to the Gaskill’s.
By the mid-1950s, the two investors owned over 3,800 acres including a 3-mile stretch of St. Louis Creek — prime trout fishing waters. Their goal was to turn the land from a youth summer camp into a working cattle ranch, with a little fishing on the side. They urged their friend Eisenhower to visit their new ranch.
Growing up the third of seven brothers in Abilene, Kansas, Dwight Eisenhower loved to fish and hunt. Aksel realized that fishing at St. Louis Creek would be the salve that his buddy Ike craved as World War II loomed in the distance. Certainly after the war, when Eisenhower returned a true hero, Byers Peak Ranch offered the private escape for one of the leaders of the Free World.
Correspondence about visits to Byers Peak Ranch shows that in June 1943, Aksel addressed then Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I have gone up to the ranch, cleaned out the cabin and have everything ready for you … you can go up there and hide and nobody need know where you are … you may do a little fishing.”
Writing from the Supreme Headquarters of Allied Powers Europe on April 3, 1952, and prior to his election as president, Ike wrote to Aksel, “In spite of the rush of events and some of the complicated possibilities, I do hope that you and I may be able to pick up a few rainbow at Saint Louis Creek.” (These letters and others are on display at Cozens Ranch Museum, Grand County Historical Association, in Fraser.)
A few months later, upon receiving the Republican nomination for president in Chicago, Eisenhower picked the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver as his campaign headquarters. He was then off to Byers Peak Ranch to get to know his young running mate, Richard Nixon, plan their campaign strategy, and to fish and cook.
In his autobiography, Mandate for Change, 1963, Dwight Eisenhower explained, “In the Fraser area, which I started to visit just after World War II, Aksel and I like to stay for several days at a time. The gatherings were always a small group of men, and I … always the cook … In simpler pre-presidential years, this meant cooking at the most, for three or four. But once I started traveling with Secret Service men, signal detachments, and staff assistants, our simple fishing expeditions became as elaborate as troop movements.”
In August 1954, President Eisenhower invited former President Herbert Hoover to Byers Peak Ranch for a working vacation. Ike wrote to Hoover, “as to fishing: My own choice is to go over the Berthoud Pass to Fraser. The altitude of my friend’s little ranch there is under nine thousand feet. There is a small stream on which we catch ten and twelve inchers, and of course there is always the chance for the occasional big fellow of something on the order of sixteen or seventeen inches. I assure you that you don’t need to be especially terrified at the prospect of living on my cooking for a couple of days. My culinary reputation is pretty good … It is a grand place to loaf and we will have absolutely no one with us except my great friend who owns the place … I cannot tell you how delighted I am at the prospect of the two of us having a period together in such a quiet retreat,” wrote Eisenhower.
Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s last trip to Byers Peak Ranch was a year later, in September 1955. Aksel built a new cabin for Ike, now an older president at age 65. Wrote Aksel,“We moved into the new house up at Fraser … I will tell you that is has a beautiful Youngstown kitchen in which you can practice your culinary arts. It has a nice dining section off the living room where you can feed your guests. It has a beautiful living room overlooking the Continental Divide and Byers Peak. … It has St. Louis creek where it always was but we have built a pond just off the corral … “
Replied Ike, “I can’t wait until we get into the new house at Fraser. I suppose I shall be expected to produce something superlative on that beautiful new kitchen of yours.” Ike and his team visited the new cabin twice, and for the last time on Sept. 23, 1955 when they headed east, back to Denver over Berthoud Pass.
The next day, on Sept. 24, Eisenhower’s life-changing heart attack occurred after a day of golf in Denver. It permanently ended Ike’s retreats to Byers Peak Ranch. Due to Fraser’s high altitude, doctors insisted that Eisenhower’s summer playground move East for the remainder of his presidency, and life.
Today, a visit to Byers Peak Ranch, down a private dirt road, reveals a mix of refurbished structures along with many historic, log cabins. The “modern” 1955 modular house, with Ike’s fancy kitchen, is next door to the Gail Delaney property. Ike and Aksel’s first log cabins are further up the road, with one labeled, “Ike’s Cabin.”
Join us at the Taste of History Champagne Brunch and Social on Saturday, Sept. 12, from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., to experience the glory of Byers Peak Ranch and with guided tours of the Eisenhower Cabins. For tickets, go to http://www.grandcountyhistory.org.
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