Cowboy Folk Cabins
Comfort. Function. Craftsmanship.
Allowing nature and natural ambiance to speak for themselves. Filling a space with relics and necessities of yesteryear, omitting unnecessary ornamentation. These were the intentions of Vince Kontny when restoring two historic bunkhouses and building a line cabin on his two southwestern Colorado ranches.
Raised in Colorado ranch country, Kontny appreciates his family’s pioneer heritage. After serving as chief executive officer for a global construction company, he returned to his roots, purchasing two historic ranches near Ridgway, Colorado, and bringing them back to their original rustic charm and purpose. His idea was to have a place where friends and family could gather, ride horses and work cattle. He also established conservation easements on the properties to protect them into perpetuity (see “Last Dollar Legacy” in the July 2005 Western Horseman, and “Picking Up the Pieces” in the April 2008 issue).
As are all the structures on the ranches, the two bunkhouses on Last Dollar Ranch and the line cabin on Centennial Ranch are models of Kontny’s passion, palette and perspective. Hidden in the hush of mountain meadows, sheltered by spectacular snow-capped peaks, the cabins are an escape from today’s fast-paced society and a visual divergence from the modern, cookie-cutter housing developments popping up nearby.
Examples of traditional architecture, construction and design, the cabins aren’t primitive for the sake of being primitive. Their authenticity and utility appeal to a traditional cowboy’s lifestyle.
Homesteaded in 1901 by brothers Andrew Boyd and Johnson Ezekiel Collins, the 400-acre Last Dollar Ranch has been home to several ranch families. From 1946 to 1989, when Kontny purchased it, the ranch was dormant, the buildings and fenceposts decomposing back into the soil. Seeking a ranch to share with his family and friends, and raise horses and cattle to help sustain the venture, Kontny worked with friend Duane Beamer to restore the buildings and manage the livestock operation.
The small bunkhouse was Johnson Collins’ original homestead. In the 1920s, the cabin was relocated about a half-mile to its present location and used as a chicken coop. When Kontny began restoration on the ranch, the bunkhouse was filled with waste, mud and stagnant water. The structure had no foundation, so its logs were sinking into the ground, and the roof had caved in. Acquaintances advised Kontny to burn it and the other structures and start over. Instead, he and Beamer arranged to have the buildings jacked up and moved to the side so that concrete foundations could be constructed.
They also replaced three courses of rotting logs with salvaged logs from other buildings. A weathered pine flooring was constructed and six inches of insulation added between the barn-wood ceiling boards and the cedar shakes on the roof. The result was a cozy, one-room guest cabin in which visitors could step back in time.
“My vision wasn’t to add electricity or modern conveniences,” Kontny says. “I just wanted a beautiful bunkhouse you can hang a lantern inside and generate enough heat in a wood stove to make it through the night.”
The exterior of the cabin is a mix of logs and rough timber. The cedar-shingled roof and entry blends in with the architecture. Guests enter the cabin through a weathered screen-and-barnwood door. The old-fashioned black iron, lever-style door latch was hand-forged by Howard McCall of Stoneywall Forge in Greenville, South Carolina. Kontny chose an arrowhead pattern for the ironwork to match all the handcrafted hardware on the ranch.
Sticking to the true purpose of a bunkhouse—shelter for relaxing and sleeping—the cabin has room for only the necessities. An antique stove from a railroad caboose serves as a heat source or to warm up water for washing or heating a can of soup. Sunlight filters through two, four-pane windows. A small table and two chairs are nestled in a corner. Along the back wall are handmade bunkbeds, covered with colorful wool blankets from Hudson’s Bay Co.
“The history and authenticity of the blankets fascinated me,” Kontny says. “They were made in England, and their history traces to the 1800s in Canada, where they were called point blankets. Trappers traded them with natives, and the number of points determined a blanket’s value in beaver skins. A three-point blanket was worth three beaver skins.”
Adjacent to the bunkhouse is the guest cabin. During the ranch’s heyday, this building served as a woodshed. As with the bunkhouse, Kontny and his crew moved the dilapidated shack, laid a foundation and repaired the existing structure, adding windows so it could serve as a guest house. Today, the cabin represents the melding of two distinct eras, offering the best of modern conveniences and the charm of a simpler time.
The combination of a weathered log exterior and cedar-shingled roof blends with the other structures and surroundings. Inside, Kontny emboldened the original details of the cabin and added appropriate elements to enhance convenience and ambiance. An antique potbelly wood stove heats the front room. High wooden shelves, secured with aspen corbels, encircle the room’s perimeter, displaying Kontny’s collection of era-appropriate antiques and crockery.
Kontny intentionally left out a telephone, television and radio so guests would be encouraged to sit around the circa-1860s Irish table for a conversation or game of cards. In the corner of the room, next to the stove, a cowhide-covered chair from the 1930s is the perfect place to read.
Braided rugs, lanterns, railroad-spike coat hooks, and vintage crocks and dishes serve as functional decor. Off this room is a bathroom, small kitchen and mud room with washer and dryer.
Looking up at the gorgeous framework of the cabin, pole rafters and collar ties span the ceiling, giving the cabin an open, expansive feeling. A log stairway with a hand-forged iron handrail leads to the loft, which serves as the bedroom. Navajo rugs and blankets drape over the loft railing, adding color and texture to the quarters.
“I wasn’t looking for expensive things to decorate this cabin,” Kontny says. “It’s a place families can use and enjoy, and not worry about breaking something or taking off their boots.”
Impressive yet simple, the Last Dollar bunkhouses stand as extensions of the striking mountain terrain surrounding them. In 2007, Kontny sold Last Dollar Ranch, but his care and compassion for the ranch structures and his devotion to the cowboy lifestyle linger in the two cozy quarters.
Twenty miles down the road, between Ridgway and Montrose, Colorado, lies Centennial Ranch, where Kontny and his wife, Joan, built their home and a traditional log line cabin with careful attention to historical authenticity and minute aesthetic details.
The ranch was originally settled in 1879 by the Smith family, and Kontny procured it in 1991 in a handshake deal from the third generation of family owners. Historical appeal, as well as sentimental value, played a role in his decision to restore the ranch.
“My dad was a rancher in Julesburg, Colorado,” says Kontny, “and in the 1960s he bought calves from the Smith family that were raised on what’s now Centennial Ranch.”
Kontny restored the old Smith homestead, turning it into a calving barn, and built an extraordinary timber-frame barn noticeable from the road. Much more obscure, but nevertheless inviting, is the line cabin he built when he first purchased the ranch.
“Before our home was built, I needed a place to stay in the winter, when the cattle were being kept on this ranch,” Kontny explains. “So I constructed the line cabin.”
Designed by Ted Moews, an artist who lived nearby, the living quarters are designed to resemble a trapper’s cabin, with a cantilevered front porch, wide overhangs, and logs hand-beveled at the ends with an ax. It evokes a feeling of shelter, safety and comfort, and is infused with subtle touches of history and craftsmanship.
For example, a heavy wooden door with hand-forged iron accents opens into a space that is welcoming, unpretentious and peaceful. The cabin’s massive ponderosa log construction shows a respect for the surrounding pristine landscape.
The unassuming, two-room cabin is situated in a secluded section of the ranch, an area that offers perfect views of dramatic sandstone cliffs and the sweet smell and tranquil sound of the Uncompaghre River that rushes out front. A hand pump outside supplies water for washing and cooking.
A relaxing, worry-free feeling permeates every corner of the cabin. The ponderosa-pine flooring only gains character from heavy boot traffic. Southern window light illuminates the room, and a black iron chandelier can be lowered to light the candles. Designed and forged by Howard McCall, the rustic metal art is adorned with every brand that has represented the ranch through the years.
Marty Moews of Buffalo Forge created the door’s heavy iron hinges in a circle-star design, and with the help of fellow blacksmith Francis Whitaker forged the fireplace doors.
The living room transitions into the kitchen and dining areas. A cast-iron and nickel wood-burning cookstove is the focal point of the space and helps heat the cabin. Aspen-corbel shelving, an old doughboy cabinet, a farmhouse table and butcher block all serve utilitarian purposes and display the antiques that give the cabin character.
Off the large living area is a bunkroom nestled beneath heavy loft logs. The room is decorated with antique European pine furniture and has two mortise-and-tenon beds made from salvaged virgin timber. Quilts hand-stitched by Duane Beamer’s wife, Amy, cover the beds. Light passes through small pane windows by day, and lanterns and hand-forged wall sconces produce a soft glow at night.
Simple shelters for all seasons, the cabins on Last Dollar and Centennial ranches provide a sense of past and present, a connection to the land and livestock, and help kindle traditional ranch values of sharing with friends and family.
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. Send comments on this story to email@example.com.