Homestead Lifestyle In A Tiny House At Camp Hurni | Estes Valley Spotlight
Part 1 of 2
By: Michelle Hurni
Certain homesteads stand out when people think of Estes Park. MacGregor Ranch (founded 1873) is now in a successful charitable trust. The 160-acre McGraw Ranch (settled in 1884) couldn’t make it in farming so it became a dude ranch before the National Park Service converted it to a research facility.
Those may be the most well-known homesteads from the late 1800s, but a lot of stories have gone untold of those hardy settlers. In 1876, John W. Sibley came west to the Colorado Territory and staked out 120 acres on the hillside above what is now Mary’s Lake. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the original deed, incorrectly calling Colorado a “Territory” even though it had become The Centennial State the month prior. Sibley took down some Douglas Fir and built himself a one room log cabin in a picturesque spot on his property, The Mummy lurking out the front door.
Fast forward 142 years to that same log cabin. It’s dilapidated, with holes in the roof and broken windows. It had worn out numerous owners, included a real estate mogul from Denver, multiple female owners, and a Minister. It spent 55 years in the heart of the most recent family, who made it into a tree farm, selling lodgepole pine for fence posts. In the 1990s, the property shrunk to 45 acres.
It may not be 1876, but when we purchased the property, we felt the homesteading pull. The cabin was lonely and forlorn. We were told it was a tear down. The negatives were loud. No power. No water. Bad forest service style road. But there were glimmers of hope. We had receipts from for a septic tank and cistern from 1962. The previous owner had documentation from an Act of Congress back to 1902 for the access road. And the spring, high on the property in an Aspen and raspberry grove, was adjudicated in the Greeley Water Court, providing plentiful water.
We are nothing if not traditional and our goal was to restore the cabin and keep the integrity of the property. The cabin pulled at my heartstrings from my months spent at Philmont Scout Ranch, NM. We didn’t want a massive new house, although George’s first reaction was “I can’t live with you in 800 square feet!” We prefer our square footage outside, with pine needles and pine cones, not inside, filled with stuff.
The original log cabin was 15’ x 18’. It had been added onto in the 1920s, bringing the total square footage to just over 800. A local artistic carpenter, Justin Riedesel, fell into our laps and kept our vision of the past alive as we gutted the cabin.
After four months of sweat equity, setbacks and tears, we moved in. There was still snow on the ground, but at least it wasn’t blowing through holes in the chinking any longer. The outhouse was grandfathered in and perfectly acceptable until the plumbing was finished by Dan Ertl. Walking through the woods to the outhouse in the early mornings, with our dogs as guardians, became a ritual we embraced.
There was no electricity, but candles and oil lamps provided plenty of light. When the sun went down, so did we, exhausted from clearing downed trees and maintaining the tree farm status. Our bodies got into a peaceful rhythm with no alarm clocks and nine solid hours of sleep. The best part? With no TV, we learned how to embrace conversations again.
After pulling up 1950s linoleum flooring, we found the original pine floors had never been sanded. They now glow. The windows were replaced with replicas of the old, with MacGregor barn beams supporting the new sills. The bathroom and kitchen renovated to include a blast from the past. We purchased a refurbished Chambers gas stove from the 1950s, a replica refrigerator, and an old farm sink. The entire cabin was spray foamed for not only insulation, but structural integrity so it didn’t quake like an Aspen.
One of the key buzzwords of the 21st century is “tiny house living” but that really dates back to the original settlers. They did it out of necessity, but we embrace it. Although 800 square feet is considered large by “tiny house” standards, there are still adaptations.
Our sailing background came to the forefront in the design. On a sailboat, there is minimal room and everything has its place. It’s the same with a tiny house. Justin made a hole in the floor into the wine cellar. Local artisan Rene Archambault built a bench to holds pots and pans. The hickory bed is multipurpose: large drawers underneath, and our two Bernese Mountain Dogs find it perfect for their napping needs while overseeing their domain.
Going back to the original homestead spirit of the property, we have less of everything. A few flannel shirts, a single knife performing multiple functions, no electric appliances, and no TV. To run electric lines to the cabin would have been a massive expense, so we decided to stay off grid. Check out those tribulations in Offgrid Living on the Homestead, part 2 of 2.
We may not have the same hardships of John Sibley, but we can channel his spirit as we curl up with a book in front of the fire in our little cabin, ready to embrace winter like those rugged homesteaders before us. We are just one in a line of caretakers of this old homestead, but we hope to keep it “Camp Hurni” for generations to come.