Birds, Books & Pies: Rocky Mountain Land Library Expands to Denver

The Rocky Mountain Land Library aims to connect people with natural history from headwaters to plains. A third location at the onetime Puritan Pie Company in Curtis Park offers an urban bookend to its Buffalo Peaks Ranch in South Park.

Words, as the late, great George Carlin once mused, are all we have.

But in the digital epoch, the printed page, that time-tested vehicle for words, is in retrograde.

Flying in the face of this trend: more than 1,500 boxes containing some 35,000 books, generally on the topic of natural history and offshoot subjects, the collection of the Rocky Mountain Land Library

Director and co-founder Jeff Lee came up with the idea for a residential library in the Rockies with his wife and co-worker at the Tattered Cover Book Store, Ann Martin, after a trip to the Gladstone's Library in Wales about 20 years ago.

"Before the trip, we read about this residential library in Wales," says Lee. "What is a residential library in Wales?" They soon found out it was a library on with overnight lodging. People come to study, says Lee, and they "also use it als a jumping-off point for exploring the Welsh countryside."

Returning to Denver, Lee and Martin knew what they had to do. "We came back with this vision," says Lee. "We said, 'Wouldn't it be great to do something like this in Colorado?' We were already amassing natural history books."

As the collection snowballed, Lee and Martin started with a small branch out of a Denver Water building in Waterton Canyon, but needed a larger property to execute their bigger vision.

"We embarked on what turned out to be a statewide search," says Lee. After considering Steamboat Springs, Salida and Woodland Park, the couple narrowed their focus to South Park.

The plan is to renovate about a half-dozen historic structures at the ranch.In 2014, the Rocky Mountain Land Library found a home in the historic Buffalo Peaks Ranch, owned by the City of Aurora, which bought it to offset river frontage lost with its construction of Spinney Mountain Reservoir in the early 1980s. The Land Library signed a 95-year lease on the property.

The plan is to renovate about a half-dozen historic structures at the ranch. Established in 1862, Buffalo Peaks Ranch "is related to the bigger story of water and the West," says Lee. "It was almost the definition of the Land Library: It's not just natural history, it's how do people make a living on the land, what's our relationship to the land."

The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor paid visits as Lee and Martin took on the daunting task of renovating a half-dozen or so historic buildings.

"We're still working on getting one of the buildings up and running," says Lee. "The same thing will happen at the pie factory. It's not going to be a pristine place right away."

Theodore Schultz, the Rocky Mountain Library's Denver-based pro bono architect, says his approach is "one building at a time" at the ranch and in the city. "We're taking the spaces we've been given and letting them evolve," he explains.

The first overnight units and a shared kitchen are set to open in the old ranch cookhouse in summer 2017. "The cookhouse is a microcosm of everything we want to do. It's a nice way to get started," says Schultz. Next up: converting the onetime bunkhouse into something "more like a hostel."

Not that the lack of immediately habitable structures slowed down Lee and Martin: The ranch has already hosted programs covering geology, astronomy, poetry and other subjects as participants camped on the property.

Back in Curtis Park

Built in 1911 (or 1915, depending on who you ask), the old Puritan Pie factory has served as a workshop and warehouse for the Richardson Agency, a property-management firm, for the last half-century.

The Puritan Pie Company in Curtis Park has served as a workshop and warehose for the past 50 years.The Puritan Pie Company in Curtis Park has served as a workshop and warehouse for the past 50 years. "My grandfather traded for that building [the pie factory] in 1966," says Eileen Richardson, whose parents own the building and continue to operate their business in it.

Richardson's partner, Stephen Shoup, saw an article about Lee and Martin looking for a space in the city in Poets & Writers magazine and convinced her parents to offer some space to the Land Library.

"It was aligned with what we love," says Richardson. She's a botanical illustrator, printmaker, and a trained chef, and Shoup works on permaculture projects and edible landscaping.

"I'm into the printed page," she adds. "It's more and more important as things go digital to have places where the printed page is valued and honored. You think differently when you have a book in front of you."

The building itself also has a fitting literary link: Beat legend Neal Cassady spent (and misspent) much of his youth in an apartment just across the street from the factory. His older brother even bootlegged there, and the aroma of the pies masked that of the moonshine.

What's next?

"We're at a really early stage in all of this," says Richardson. "It's going to develop and I really want to work with the neighborhood. Education is paramount in our long-term vision."

"We can start working on those 1,500 boxes of books, and getting them ready for the ranch and the pie factory," says Lee. Urban homesteading books and kid's books will largely go to the pie factory, while more scientific volumes will end up in South Park.

The collection is currently stored pro bono by Acme Distribution in Aurora. "Something about the project grabbed them," says Lee.

It's something that seems to happen a lot. The library has a long list of supporters and volunteers.

"We're just amazed year after year about people stepping forward to be involved with the library," says Lee. "We've been really heartened with the sheer enthusiasm of young people."

The Rocky Mountain Land Library is hosting a fundraising event at the old Puritan Pie Company building (2612 Champa St.), with a silent auction and live music on Thurs. Oct. 20 from 5 to 9 p.m. "We're talking about more than a pie factory," says Lee. "We're talking about the whole headwaters-to-plains network."

That's not all, of course. "There'll be plenty of food and plenty of pie."

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Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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