ASPEN, Colo. — Tucked among the cottonwoods west of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport runway is an improbable collection of vacant buildings — unlikely reminders of the days when potatoes, not luxury jets, dominated the view at the mouth of the Owl Creek Valley.
Airport Ranch, as it's known these days, is part of the airport property, though it's outside the fence that surrounds the secured area. It was largely hidden from public view until the 2011 opening of Radar Road to hikers and mountain bikers as an access route to Sky Mountain Park (which closes for the winter Saturday). Now, passersby get a peek at this all-but-forgotten part of the airport's past.
It's not what one would expect to find on the perimeter of Colorado's fourth busiest airport, but an updated master plan for airport facilities carves out space to keep the old buildings intact.
"Normally, airports buy a chunk of property that was formerly farmland or agricultural property of some sort," said Jim Elwood, aviation director at the airport. "We're sensitive to what was up here — what it meant to the upper valley in terms of its ranching history."
The buildings, including a barn, sagging log structures and a modest house were, for decades, used by generations of the Stapleton family. Later, Lada Vrany, a feisty Czechoslovakian, occupied the site for a half-century, until spring 2008. He died in 2010.
Airport Ranch includes open acreage that is dedicated county open space, but the ranch complex itself adjoins an area identified for the location of a second fixed-base operator at the airport. It's getting attention as a result. The new master plan acknowledges its potential historic significance and the possibility of its consideration for a state or national historic register.
"There's the kind of classic ranch house and compound there. It's in kind of rough shape," said Suzannah Reid, who's often hired to do historic preservation work for the county. She poked around the site during the drafting of the master plan.
Any formal assessment of the site's historic value, according to Elwood, would probably be driven by an application to develop an adjacent fixed-base operation — a business that sells fuel and services private aircraft.
In the meantime, airport personnel continue to clear the site of junk as time allows. Multiple dumpsters full of trash have been hauled out, but much remains. Three abandoned vehicles, their tops caved in, rest side by side in the tall grass. There is a pile of appliances, old tires and other assorted debris at the end of the driveway and much more scattered in and outside of the buildings.
Vrany, an enterprising man who once irrigated pasture and ran cattle on the ranch, later rented out trailers and outbuildings on the property as affordable housing until he ran afoul of the county, which ordered him to halt the practice as the septic system was inadequate.
"There were people living in horse stalls," Elwood recalled. One tenant raised chickens.
Vrany's water supply came straight from Owl Creek, filtered for his use in the old house.
The creek, incidentally, is piped beneath the airport runway, coursing toward its confluence with the Roaring Fork River.
But long before Vrany, all of what is now the airport was once part of the Stapleton family homestead, dating back to 1881. It extended up the Owl Creek Valley and down to the Roaring Fork, taking in what is now the Aspen Business Center and part of West Buttermilk. Homesteader William Stapleton's first home, a log cabin, sat where the existing fixed-base operator is now located, on the east side of the runway, according to his great-grandson, Dave Stapleton. There was a potato cellar there, too, he said.
The elder Stapleton later built the house and outbuildings of Airport Ranch and moved out of the cabin.
Dave was born in Aspen and lived in town with his family, but remembers toiling at the ranch and learning to drive on the expansive potato fields where the runway now sits.
"I drove the truck up and down the potato rows while the potatoes were loaded," he said.
Aspen's first airstrip, he added, was on Stapleton property that is now the site of the business center. A local pilot urged the grading of a landing strip in the Stapletons' hog pasture and took the men who agreed to help for airplane rides so they could see the area from the air, Dave recalled.
The present-day airport property was the subject of several of transactions as it evolved into the privately operated Sardy Field, boasting a dirt airstrip, and eventually the county-owned Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, where future development plans make room for reminders of its past.