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An Interview with John Rozman

Ranching is a way of life here in Gunnison County, and the Rozman family has been a part of that tradition since the early days. John and Marilyn Rozman sat down with Dr. Duane Vandenbusch and Ashley O'Hara from the Crested Butte Museum for an interview as part of an oral history exhibit this past year. Bluebird was fortunate to feature their story and the history of the Rozman Ranch in this Winter's edition of Bluebird Days Magazine. Read the full article to learn more about the legacy of the Rozman Ranch, including their conservation efforts and heritage from ranching, to skiing and mining.

Ranching with the Rozmans

By Ashley O'Hara

Driving into town on Highway 135, you will notice several signature Crested Butte vistas. A few miles past Jack’s Cabin and Round Mountain, the panoramic view of Paradise Valley reveals itself and provokes a smile. Vast amounts of protected open spaces are a result of generations of heritage, hard work and conservation. The car in front of you is stopped ahead, and there seems to be a traffic jam on both sides of the 135 corridor. People are confused because I-70 is so far away - so what is happening? A local ranch is herding cattle on horseback from Jack’s Cabin to northern pastures up Brush Creek. These days, ranchers must maneuver through traffic when moving cattle around the valley.

As you drive north on the highway, you will notice a charming historic cabin on the west side of the road. Behind that dilapidated cabin is Whetstone Mountain, which tops at over 12,000 feet. Sitting on the hillside below, next to the Slate River is the home of John Jr. and Marilyn Rozman. John is a rancher, husband, father and conservationist. His parents John Sr. and Mary raised him and his two brothers, Rudy and the late Richard Rozman on this ranch where his late grandfather Martin Rozman homesteaded with his wife Anna Rozman-Rozich and their children. The Rozman family helped build the main cabin in 1914, which is lived in by John and Marilyn to this day. Realizing just how complicated and rewarding it is to live in Crested Butte, John continues ranching and preserving his family’s land through any adversity.

In early May of 2022, Dr. Duane Vandenbushe and I headed from the Crested Butte Museum on Elk Avenue to the Rozman Ranch to record an oral history. Duane, a retired history professor from Western Colorado University, has a long-standing relationship with John and Marilyn, and I credit that friendship for the opportunity to interview them both with Duane. John introduced himself with a strong handshake and a kind smile alongside his lovely wife Marilyn, who was grinning ear to ear and eagerly greeted us. Feelings of nostalgia came over me from a time long gone as I peeked around the buildings and felt like I was about to get a sneak peek into what life was really like in Crested Butte prior to today’s modern world.

Walking up to the main garage, I noticed that the buildings around the ranch were historically weathered but tidy and well kept. Ranch equipment and supplies seemed to be intentionally placed around several small buildings. Inside the garage where John’s “mancave” resides, many of the walls have older photos of the people they loved and who loved them. Lastly, there was a small desk with a printer and computer, which reminds us that everyone, even a rancher, needs to access the outside world from time to time.

Martin Rozman Sr. immigrated to the United States in the 1890s from Yugoslavia. Martin became a miner for the Floresta Mine (anthracite coal) which was 11 miles west of Crested Butte. He was also a blacksmith and ended up with a ranch when he patented 160 acres, which was possible through the Homestead Act of 1862. After an arranged marriage with his young wife Anna Bujak (who immigrated from Yugoslavia when she was 17 years old), they raised their children on the ranch completely self-sustaining, often hunting and fishing for their calories and growing the little food they could. Ranching in the Gunnison Valley dates back to the late 1890s when people brought cattle into the valley and started to raise hay.

Following Martin’s untimely passing due to complications with pneumonia in 1925, the question became who would take over and run the ranch. Anna’s son, Martin Jr. helped her with the ranch for a time following the death of his father. Eventually, the ranch started to fall into disarray and Anna asked Johns’ father, John Sr., to run the ranch. Originally apprehensive, he obliged and rejuvenated the ranch into a sustainable operation once again. Anna’s hope was that the ranch was to stay in the family, and thus when John was old enough and ready, he took over the Rozman Ranch.

Below Whetstone Mountain, the ground is rocky and the topsoil can be difficult to raise any agricultural sustenance, even the much needed hay. So why did Martin Sr. desire this parcel? John responded proudly that Martin was always asked, “Why here, not Jack’s Cabin where there is good ground?” John expressed that his grandfather said, “I just want a piece of ground to raise my family.” This simply stated purpose may very well be the foundation for the Rozmans keeping this land in their family for over 120 years. Finding their own place in the world and having their feet land there every day made it possible for their family to work, play and create a life with each other.

Before the school bell rang in the morning, the Rozman brothers had responsibilities to attend to on the ranch, oftentimes through snowstorms and bitterly cold temperatures. John is now much older and seated comfortably in his garage, he respectfully acknowledges that “kids were a commodity; everybody worked.” It is clear that John, even at such a young age, took a keen understanding of how much motivation, integrity and perseverance it took to care for the land that he holds dear to his heart. The mood was lightened when Duane asked John if he milked their dairy cows himself. John smiled and raised his voice, “damn right, by hand, you had to be home in the evening, and before you went to school, you milked the cows.” Marilyn interjects proudly to inform us that “when John was 12, he would get in the power wagon and drive through the ranch and milk.” John is a byproduct of the Rozman’s legacy of diligence and hard work, as well as their desire to assiduously conserve the land that they worked so hard to procure since those first few acres.

Marilyn grew up in Crested Butte as her father was a “developer, manager and superintendent of the Keystone Mine.” As they tried to remember how they met, Marilyn was refreshed with the notion that John was shoveling the roof at her home. He knocked on the door one day and she opened the door, and the rest was history. They raised their three sons at the base of Whetstone just as John Sr. and Mary had done, and Martin and Anna did before them. Marilyn recalls moving into the main homestead that was built in 1914 and having no running water. They would go into town to take a bath at Johns’ parents’ house. Life was nothing like an episode of the hit TV show Yellowstone. John mentions that life on the ranch sometimes means going without, expending endless energy to take care of the animals and dig out irrigation ditches during the snow and rain. John said, “Nature dictates when I’m going to irrigate” and not much has changed since those early days when the train track ran down the side of Highway 135. Currently, if you drive by their ranch on any given day, you might see John out in the ditches with friends and family helping him with a shovel and pitch to keep the ditches working properly for the betterment and survival of the ranch.

Even through all of the hard work, trials and tribulations, there is a reason why folks are still holding onto their ranches in the high country. Owning almost 500 acres of open space grants its keepers and protectors access to endless adventures. Crested Butte locals have always waited impatiently for winter in the high country. Dreaming about powder days with their loved ones, most get excited just thinking about the fact that they can strap on some wooden sticks and go as fast as they can down a snowy slope, wherever that may be.

Sven Wiik, former ski coach for Western State College from 1949 to 1953, felt that the Rozman Ranch was an exceptional location for skiing. Sven’s motivation was driven by the idea that his athletes had a safe and practical location to practice ski jumping. Sven Wiik, John Sr. and Mary Rozman established an esteemed friendship and a communal goal to do just that. The Rozman Ski Hill was in operation from 1949 to 1960. John Jr. remembers that his father was not pleased with how they wanted to build the foundation for the main jump, so he and his brothers Richard and Rudy constructed it themselves, advised by their father. They worked for 50 dollars and built the jump and two rope tows. As John talks about the ranch and the ski hill, he reflects “it’s a way of life, a lot of hard work.” The Rozmans are proud that their ranch provided this exhilarating activity for the community.

The Rozman family has accrued almost 500 acres since 1904. Even when times were tight financially, John recalls that “Gramma Rozich” would buy up land where the gravel pit is today for a dollar an acre, because that was all she could afford at the time, even borrowing money when necessary. Ensuing those purchases, she also acquired land for $2.50 an acre from the United States Forest Service in 1933. John has spent his entire life tending to the animals, digging in the ditches, raising his own family, and alongside Marilyn, teaching their children hard work while enjoying the open space through skiing and hunting together. Throughout it all, they believe this land is worth preserving and protecting.

In Crested Butte, much like everywhere else, people come and go, society molds to development, and technology creates faster change often. The Rozmans have adapted to many transitions in Crested Butte since they took over the ranch from John’s parents. In between the depressions, economic recessions, climate change, population boom and bust, and the tourism bubble, they never felt sour towards all the transitions and changes that were happening around them. They saw life get busier and more complicated as they were growing up in Crested Butte themselves. They still fondly remember when only 250 people remained in town after the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company closed the Big Mine in 1952, and when the Crested Butte ski area opened in the early 1960s. John smirks and silently reminds us that life changes, and all we can do is protect our heritage, hard work and open spaces.

As I reflect on the day in May, sitting with Dr. Vandenbushe and the Rozmans, asking questions, observing and listening to stories of over four generations of Rozman heritage, I felt fortunate to be there. I can’t help but feel drawn to the history of ranching in Gunnison Country because of people like John and Marilyn. It isn’t so much the allure of ranch life, such as running cattle on horseback and the American West idealism, as it is their dedication to the legacy of the family ranch, their perseverance through difficult times and their willingness to find joy.

Much of the Rozman Ranch is protected by a conservancy. The Crested Butte Land Trust has been working alongside the family in hopes of protecting these open spaces acre by acre. John not only thinks of his own family’s needs, but also the needs of the community. He truly feels it is in everyone’s best interest to have places where there are no buildings, rather meadows and fields of cattle, uncluttered streams, and no street signs. As of today, the 467-acre ranch is forever protected by these modern covenants. To learn more about the history of the Rozman Ranch and other original immigrant families that came to this valley, please visit the Crested Butte Museum.

View Bluebird Days Volume 10 here.