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Rising from the ashes and flood, historic Flying W Ranch to reopen in a year

May 7, 2017 Updated: May 10, 2017 at 1:41 pm
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Flying W Ranch owner Leigh Ann Wolfe talks things over with general manager Aaron Winter Friday, May 5, 2017, at the Flying W Ranch. Most of the tourist venue was burned to the ground in the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and Wolfe has been fighting to bring it back since. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Leigh Ann Wolfe has been through hell and high water, seeing her family's historic Flying W Ranch and tourist attraction destroyed by the Waldo Canyon inferno in 2012, then inundated by flooding that hit Colorado Springs a year later.

Undaunted, Wolfe now is rebuilding attractions at the ranch where she grew up, planning to reopen on Memorial Day weekend in 2018 with the same starlit chuckwagon suppers and Flying W Wranglers Original Western Stage Shows that have drawn tourists and locals since 1949.

Even the disasters of 2012 and 2013 didn't impede Wolfe's generosity with her neighbors and the city, which was allowed to build 13 huge debris basins on her land to protect the adjacent Alpine Autism Center from further flooding and to prevent flooding in downstream Mountain Shadows, Pinon Valley and other neighborhoods.

She gave the city about 114,000 cubic yards of gravel excavated from those basins, with much of it used to mitigate landslides threatening 10 homes in Rockrimmon.

And the Flying W Ranch Foundation performed more than 65,000 volunteer hours installing log barriers to stabilize slopes and drainages vulnerable to flooding.

"People do not realize the sacrifices Leigh Anne made to protect the citizens of this community," said Tim Mitros, the city's stormwater manager in those years. "If she had not allowed mitigation work to be done on the Flying W, downstream homes would have been flooded."

Now Wolfe looks forward to seeing her 92-year-old father, Russell, open that first show of 2018, which also will feature the bull Waldo, whose pregnant mother was rescued two days after the fire. The cow's udder was burned, so Waldo was bottle-fed quite successfully. He now weighs 2,000 pounds.

"I see the restoration and reopening of the Flying W Ranch as important to our city as the Bancroft Park restoration is for Old Colorado City and the Olympic Museum is for downtown," said Councilman Don Knight, in whose District 1 the ranch sits. "She's a great lady."

Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, echoed the praise for Wolfe, having worked with her extensively on the flood mitigation projects.

"Her perseverance is really admirable," Ekarius said. "A lot of people would have thrown their hands up and walked away. The ranch has a long history in the community, bringing in millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of tourists."

One of the most popular features always has been the Flying W Wranglers. The group is managed by David Bradley, a former member of the renowned Sons of the Pioneers and a yodeler who often appears at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.

"It has been said that to hear this music lifting out of the foothills on a summer evening as the sun sinks is akin to anything the natural world has to offer in its impact on the human spirit," Wolfe said.

The ranch's Old West town, 29 buildings erected by Russell and his late wife, Marian, eventually will be restored as well.

Plans and legal documentation have been completed for a therapeutic riding stable that "can really change lives," Wolfe said, and 600 pines are being planted now that the scorched soil has healed a bit.

More new features will be added to the 1,800-acre working cattle ranch, too, but those are confidential.

Competition could also be on the horizon, as the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation works on a proposal to transform the Norris-Penrose Event Center's indoor arena into a year-round exhibition hall featuring a chuckwagon-style restaurant and western features.

But the rodeo complex on Lower Gold Camp Road would have trouble rivaling the scenery at the Flying W.

Destruction of the ranch's pine forests oddly enhanced the rugged beauty, exposing expansive white-rock ridges and red rock formations akin to those at Garden of the Gods, the ranch's neighbor to the south.

Although the fire was catastrophic, Wolfe said, "the ranch legacy is too deep and too wide not to overcome."

Her grandfather, Don Wilson, bought the homestead in 1947 as a cattle ranch. His daughter Marian and Russell Wolfe were wed and in 1949 started evening horseback rides for guests, followed by a potluck supper.

The Flying W became an official tourist attraction in 1953, with 11 guests paying $3 each to ride horses and eat a home-cooked meal around a campfire.

Over the decades, the spread has become a magnet for families wanting to experience an Old West chuckwagon supper in a mountain setting while hearing the Wranglers' three-part harmonies, interspersed with "clean bunkhouse humor."

And, Wolfe said, "The gospel is always presented."

The weekend before the Waldo Canyon Fire, about 1,400 guests had reservations at the Flying W Ranch, she said.

"We always have this fear that people will be disappointed when we reopen," she said. "We want to make it better. ... We have plans to keep the Old West alive in a way that will make our loyal supporters around the world happy, but also in a way that will excite the younger generation. Now that the channel restoration is being executed in the chuckwagon drainage, we can begin the rebuild.

"The Old West represents such a rich and colorful history that I feel an innate responsibility to steward it and keep it alive."

Said Mitros, "The return of the Flying W chuckwagon dinners and entertainment is a gem to Colorado Springs."

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