Grand women helped build county’s history
March 15, 2019
Grand County has a rich history of homesteaders, rule-breakers and pioneers dating back to before a formal Grand County even existed. Their stories remain an integral part of the county through street signs, museums and in the namesakes of parks, buildings and businesses.
For Women's History Month, celebrated throughout the month of March, Sky-Hi News is highlighting the stories of a few of the women who have left their mark on Grand County's history and exploring how their legacies are still relevant today.
Kittie and Annie Harbison
Two such women are Kittie and Annie Harbison, who settled in Grand Lake in 1896 and started the first commercial dairy farm in the area. According to Dave Lively, a historian based in Grand Lake who gives presentations on the Harbison family, the sisters walked with their family over Berthoud Pass to homestead on 320 acres near what is now Columbine Lake following the Panic of 1893.
The sisters turned their single cow and calf into an entire dairy farm and expanded their sales to include ice carved from Grand Lake to help customers chill the milk. Though the Harbisons never made a fortune, the dairy farm stayed open for 58 years, including through attempts from Rocky Mountain National Park to buy their property.
"They were one of the earliest homesteaders in the Kawuneeche Valley (…) and they stayed true to what they homesteaded for longer than anybody in the Kawuneeche Valley," Lively said.
Eventually, the sisters sold 54 acres of their property to the park for the development of Trail Ridge Road. Ultimately, after Kittie and Annie died 10 days apart in 1938, a close family friend inherited the farm and continued operations for years before selling the land to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Unfortunately, the Harbisons farm was not deemed historically significant at the time and the buildings were burned down for fire department practice. Eventually, the park recognized the contributions of the sisters by naming the area where their ranch sat the Harbison Meadows.
"They are one of the many, many stories of the people who were in Rocky Mountain National Park before it was Rocky," Lively said. "This was an ordinary family and I think they led an extraordinary life."
Lively said interest in the Harbisons' story continues to grow because it gives us insight into what the average life looked like during this time and as rare female homesteaders it's an unusual story.
"All of the programs that I do, it's about the people," he said. "I can tell you about some of the historic buildings in Granby or Grand Lake or Fraser or Winter Park or Sulphur or Kremmling, but none of them are historically significant without talking about the people that were in them."
Another female pioneer making a name for herself in Grand County during the early 1900s was Dr. Susan Anderson, better known as Doc Susie. Anderson studied medicine and received a degree from the University of Michigan, unusual for a woman at the time.
She moved to Fraser when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, hoping the mountain air would help heal her. After she recovered from her illness, she practiced medicine in Grand County for almost 50 years.
Anderson was known to go to any lengths for her patients, including snowshoeing through a snowstorm to treat a child with pneumonia or taking a four-year-old boy to Denver for surgery to treat appendicitis. For decades, she was Fraser's only physician and she served as County Coroner.
Though Anderson died in 1960, her house still stands in Fraser and her tools are on display at the Cozens Ranch Museum in Fraser. The town also named Doc Susie Avenue in her honor.
A more modern example of Grand County's pioneering women is Emily Warner, namesake of the Emily Warner Field Aviation Museum and the first female commercial airline pilot. Penny Hamilton, director of the museum, said Warner, a Granby resident of 25 years, broke the glass cockpit when she was hired as a pilot by Frontier in 1973.
"People believed that passengers would not fly with women," Hamilton said. "And Emily, when you think about women in the day, was like why can't I?"
Originally from a poor family, Warner's interest in flying began in her teens when she had the chance to tour the cockpit of a plane. The pilot encouraged her to take flying lessons, which she did while working as a sales associate. After raking up more than 7,000 hours in the air, she passed Frontier's simulation exam to become a pilot with flying colors.
Warner didn't stop at being a pilot and instead continued to make room for women in the air industry by becoming the first female captain and flying the first flight with an entirely female crew. Hamilton said her story continues to inspire to this day.
"People will fly in just to put (the Emily Warner Field) in their logbooks," she said. "Five to six percent of all pilots are women, you ask them who is Emily Howell Warner and they know immediately."
While her trailblazing legacy includes historic accomplishments for Grand County, such as the expansion of the Granby Airport and the development of Ouray Ranch, Hamilton said her story resonates across the country.
"It was historic for Grand County, historic for Colorado and historic for the nation," she said. "How many other people from Grand County, other than our Olympians, have a national stage?"