Ranching started in South Park in 1860 when some intrepid entrepreneurs discovered that they could make more money by feeding miners than by doing the mining. Due to the high altitude and prolonged cold that makes the growing season exceptionally short, ranching is the dominant agricultural use in South Park. Prominent ranchers included Sam Hartsel, the original homesteader of Hartsel Springs Ranch, and the Hall family, which homesteaded and has owned the Salt Works Ranch since 1862. Other early ranches were the Prince, Stubbs, and Guiraud ranches. Other longtime ranching families include the Arthurs and Chalmers. Even after the arrival of the railroad, South Park experienced fall cattle drives as many ranchers preferred to send their livestock to market than to try to provide for them during the long and blustery winters.
In South Park a rancher could not rely on just any stock. Hardy animals that could tolerate the colder climate and high altitude were essential for success. Realizing the difficulty of raising cattle in South Park, several ranchers converted mostly or entirely to sheep. At one point there were more sheep raised in South Park than cattle. Despite altitude and weather, the South Park basin is relatively fertile and historically supported short-stemmed native grasses that were exceptionally protein rich. South Park became well known for its high quality hay that contained unusually high concentrations of protein (up to 23 percent in some cases). With the arrival of the Denver, South Park & Pacific railroad at Jefferson in the north and the Colorado Midland railroad at Hartsel in the south, hay production became a significant agricultural product. The reputation of the quality of the hay spread as far as Europe and was purchased to feed the horses of British royalty and the stallions of the Russian Czar. The introduction of non-native seed and the purchase of water by Front Range communities has reduced the ability to grow hay in South Park for export. Today, hay is generally produced only to feed stock on local ranches.
Although all of the ranches in South Park were started by independent ranchers, a division between company ranches and independent ranches eventually developed. Hartsel Springs Ranch, for instance, turned into a company ranch after owner Sam Hartsel sold the ranch in 1908. Later, the meat packing firm Swift and Company, owned the ranch from 1916 until its sale in 1944 to a Texas-based company, McDannald, which acquired more land, growing the ranch to its ultimate size of more than 200,000 acres. Hartsel Springs Ranch was perhaps the first and certainly the largest company ranch in South Park. Salt Works Ranch, on the other hand, has remained an independent ranch, continuously owned and operated by descendants of the Hall family. In addition to raising cattle, the Halls produced salt, one of the first industries in the state, by boiling away the water of the ranch’s salt springs. Charles Hall was less of a rancher than a businessman and the success of the ranch as a cattle operation came from the hands of his son-in-law, Thomas McQuaid. McQuaid is credited with growing the ranch to more than 80,000 acres, equivalent in size to Hartsel Springs Ranch under Sam Hartsel. Although the operation has decreased in modern times, the Salt Works Ranch still produces cattle and is one of the few ranches in Colorado to be owned and operated by five generations of the same family.
The prime period for homesteading in South Park ran from the first arrival of ranchers in 1861 until around 1925, with the Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1916 having expanded the available acreage. As some of the first established year-round residents, ranchers found themselves responding to the needs of travelers and hosting people on a ranch became a frequent event early on in South Park. Hospitality became a small revenue stream for ranchers and connected them to the outside world. Ranches offered room, board, and stables for travelers long before more formal lodging was available in the surrounding communities. Today, ranches continue as centers of both hospitality and agriculture, with some hosting hunters and fishermen and those seeking to experience the lifestyle of the plainsman through guest ranching.