Nottingham Ranch sale marks last stand for ranching clan that homesteaded Vail Valley

BURNS — As rain clouds cast a chromatic hue across her lush pastures, rolling as far as the eye can see, Susan Nottingham shrugs her shoulders and sighs.

“Absolutely gut-wrenching. So anguishing. Just a very, very difficult decision,” she says, kicking the dirt with a well-worn boot.

It was before dawn on a cold spring morning in May when Nottingham, freshly 65, called her childhood friend Ed Swinford, a former schoolteacher turned real estate broker.

“She said, ‘It’s time.’ I could tell the emotion in her voice and what she was feeling just to get those words to come out,” says Swinford, his hand resting on his friend’s shoulder.

“I’m just not finding a lot of purpose here anymore,” Nottingham says. “There’s just no more reason for me to keep this going.”

Ranching is in Nottingham’s blood. The Nottingham clan homesteaded the Vail Valley, shepherding sheep along the banks of the Eagle River long before the pastures would sprout resort mega-mansions in Beaver Creek and superstores in Avon.

Now, it’s time for the last of her brood to cede their ranching roots. She is selling the family’s 20,000-acre spread along the Colorado River. The green meadows — stippled with 1,200 head of cattle and another 1,000 yearlings bound for market — rolling from the dark timber of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area’s basalt-columned Dome Peak. The cliff-pocked terrain along Cabin Creek and the Colorado River. The sagebrush high desert, the deep canyons. Elk, bears, wildcats. Homes, barns, corrals, tractors, trucks and trailers. Enough water to slake a city.

The price: $100 million.

  • Rancher Susan Nottingham sits on a ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Rancher Susan Nottingham sits on a fence near the large iconic barn at Nottingham Ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns, Colorado. The Nottingham family is well known in the Vail Valley as the family that homesteaded the area many years ago. Now the family is selling their final parcel in the valley, a 19,500-acre spread along the Colorado River called the Nottingham Ranch.

  • This is the living room inside ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    This is the living room inside the home of Susan Nottingham on the Nottingham Ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

  • This is the living room inside ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    This is the living room inside the home of Susan Nottingham on the Nottingham Ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

  • Susan Nottingham adjusts the portraits of ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Susan Nottingham adjusts the portraits of her two brothers inside her home on the Nottingham Ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

  • Susan Nottingham drives her truck through ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Susan Nottingham drives her truck through her land, with Dome Peak in the background, while her faithful border collie Izzy rides on top of an ATV in the bed of the truck at her ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

  • A hawk hunts from a fence ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    A hawk hunts from a fence post on the Nottingham Ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

  • A skull of a steer hangs ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    A skull of a steer hangs on the outside of one of the many ranch buildings on the Nottingham Ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

  • Susan Nottingham pets one of her ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Susan Nottingham pets one of her many horses on her ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

  • Ranch dogs Cheyenne, left, and Ozo, ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Ranch dogs Cheyenne, left, and Ozo, right, ride in the back of ranch hand Ruben Jaramillo's work truck at the Nottingham ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

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Before you start conjuring Mike Meyers, ring-festooned pinkie at the corner of his mouth, realize Nottingham is no Dr. Evil. Far from it. She is asking $5,000 an acre in one of the nation’s priciest regions. But still, such a staggering sum.

“I do look at that number and I think ‘Oh, my gosh. How did I end up here?’ My dad made some smart decisions. He was an incredible business mind,” she says. “The price is reflective of how hard my dad worked.”

A little more than three years ago, William Emmet Nottingham Jr. was tinkering in one of the ranch’s many shops when he laid down to take a nap. He never woke. He was 86 and a legend of the Vail Valley.

In 2004, he told The Denver Post, in a story about lifelong ranchers eschewing big-dollar deals that would make them instant millionaires many times over: “We are used to working and we are used to ranching. We aren’t going to retire. We are going to work until we die.”

Which is exactly what he did.

Susan labored the land alongside her dad all her life. She says their souls were connected. It hasn’t been the same without him.

Susan Nottingham walks in lush pastures ...
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Susan Nottingham walks in lush pastures with her dog Izzy by her side at Nottingham Ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

“I enjoy every day. Almost,” Nottingham says of workdays that always begin well before sunrise and typically end at dusk. “Everything I do is fun, in a way, but it’s a huge responsibility and it’s not a great one to carry alone.”

With her mom, Neva, living in Grand Junction, there is no one left to run the ranch. Her older brothers, Randy and Steve, were killed in an avalanche while snowmobiling up Vail Pass in 1987.

“There’s no one to take it from me when I’m gone,” she says.

Nottingham’s decision to sell comes as the market for so-called legacy properties heats up after a prolonged lull during the economic decline and a shorter respite during last year’s tumultuous election.

While the highest of the high-end market might not be sizzling like it did in the early aughts, when amenity-seeking business folk parked millions in acreage that could never return the investment with cattle or hay production, the trophy-ranch buyer appears back on the prowl.

A 265-acre ranch outside Jackson, Wyo., sold for an undisclosed sum this year after listing for $53 million. A year earlier, a nearly 1,900-acre ranch outside Jackson sold for $27.5 million after listing for $100 million.

Colorado ranch land broker Ken Mirr said buyers are circling his listing for a $46 million, 14,000-acre Wasatch Peaks Ranch outside Ogden, Utah, and he is close to landing a buyer for the storied Cielo Vista Ranch, an 83,368-acre property that includes the 14,049-foot Culebra Peak and 18 13,000-foot peaks stretching along 20 miles of the Sangre de Cristo range. He listed Cielo Vista for $105 million. It last sold to a consortium of Texas investors in 2004 for $60 million.  In 2007, a few miles down the San Luis Valley, renowned conservationist Louis Bacon, a hedge fund boss from New York, spent $175 million on the 171,400-acre Trinchera Ranch, marking the largest single-home real estate deal in history at the time. That was before billionaire sports team owner Stan Kroenke last year bought the 511,000-acre Waggoner Ranch in north Texas, which was listed for $725 million.

Last month, Canadian developer Crave Community Co. listed its 4,700 acres atop Battle Mountain above Minturn — an alpine parcel once eyed as a $4 billion gated ski resort community by Florida developer Bobby Ginn, who foundered in the recession — for $19.5 million, about $10 million below the price Ginn paid in 2004.

More of those dizzyingly grand transactions appear on the horizon as a new round of conservation-minded shoppers are scoping large tracts of land they hope to keep for generations, Mirr says.

“These buyers don’t have to buy these properties. They are not thinking about business or income as much as long-term family dynasties and legacies,” Mirr says. “They are the next stewards and they are taking on the responsibility for protecting and preserving these lands.”

Horses graze in the lush fields ...
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Horses graze in the lush fields near the main house on the Nottingham ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

Nottingham isn’t sure what kind of buyer — beyond a billionaire or group of millionaires — might be interested in her ranch, which includes a whopping 100 cubic feet per second of senior water rights, an amount that could serve several thousand homes for a year. (The senior water rights likely are more valuable than the land, Nottingham says, but delivering them anywhere other than the property would require serious legal maneuvering.)

Her father began assembling the ranch above Burns and the Colorado River in the early 1980s. In 1992, the Nottinghams purchased 14,000 acres from the Benton clan, after the family patriarch was killed in a plane crash just above the property. The Nottinghams got $12 million to fund that deal by selling the last remnants of their family homestead along the Eagle River to Swedish shipping magnate Magnus Lindholm, who built a Home Depot and Walmart and has plans for as many as 2,400 homes on the roughly 1,700-acre former sheep ranch in the town of Avon.

While wealthy buyers were raining silly money on sun-bleached ranchers in the early 2000s, the Nottinghams never pondered a sale.

“For some of the old generation of ranchers, I don’t think money means that much to them,” Susan told The Denver Post in 2004. “For me, it’s about family. The best thing I do is work with my dad every day.”

The Nottinghams also never jumped on the conservation-easement bandwagon. They were critical of municipalities offering millions in tax dollars for deals that encumbered historic properties with rules forbidding certain uses and development.

“Conservation easements are bad words in my book. I’m not fond of them because … they give government a toehold to private property. And private property rights are such a blessing and such a wonderful gift and to give them away just makes me sick,” says Nottingham, whose eyes alight when talk turns to land trusts and easement deals.

But she’d gladly sell to a conservation group. While it’s unlikely any publicly funded entity aiming to preserve the land could come up with $100 million, it’s not unthinkable that “10 people with $10 million each” could preserve the working ranch, Swinford says.

Nottingham is not willing, however, to sell the ranch in pieces. She would hate to see a buyer divide it up as well.

“It works so perfectly as a whole,” she says, noting how she never has to buy feed or ship her cattle out to seasonal feeding grounds and is able to keep cattle bound for market in one place, eating the same hay, for their entire life cycle. “It’s such a balanced and perfect operation, it would be sad for any part of it to be taken away. My biggest hope is that the buyer keeps it like it is.”

She’s never been rich. Sure, her family’s land has always been worth a lot, but that never translated into an overabundance of cash in their pockets. Members of her family earned their living by ranching, which means working all day, every day. The list of tasks in the to-do pile never stops growing for a rancher.

Ranch hand Jake Glaser takes the saddle off of his horse Utah after a day of riding on the Nottingham ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Ranch hand Jake Glaser takes the saddle off of his horse Utah after a day of riding on the Nottingham ranch on July 11, 2017 in Burns.

“My employees all say, ‘You are great to work for because you never ask me to do anything you wouldn’t do,’ ” she says. “If I ask them to get down in cow manure, I get down there first.”

The ranch, with its four employees, supports itself and its improvements — including an impressive half-mile pivot irrigation system that ranks as one of the largest in the country — with annual sales of those burger-bound yearlings.

And Nottingham is not planning on getting rich. She is planning “a quiet, simple life somewhere” after giving away the money she makes on the sale of her family’s land. She wants to help kids: children in foster care or struggling with health issues.

“All the money will go to charity. I had the best parents in the world. There are millions of kids out there who don’t have that. Maybe I can make a difference,” she says. “That would make all the hard work more meaningful, would it not?”

Visit nottinghamranch.com for more photos and information about the ranch.

CORRECTION: This file was updated at 4:20 p.m. on July 15, 2017, to correct the name of the Benton family, which sold its ranch after the patriarch was killed in a plane crash.

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