Moffat County, Colorado: The Story of Two Families

Part I Pre-Homesteading

On or about November 20, 2015, Michael Warner Kiser died in his home of a heart attack. He was 65. His death marked the end of a century of Kiser/Barrick family history in Moffat County. This is the story of those families.

Early Northwestern Colorado
To understand northwestern Colorado it is important to know the context of the political and cultural history that shaped its destiny. Until 1847, northwestern Colorado was part of northeastern Mexico. In that year the Mexican Government signed the Treaty of Hidalgo Guadalupe at gunpoint after losing the Mexican American War. Colorado did not become a State until 1876 and Moffat County did not exist until 1911. 

In 1847, Mexico was forced to relinquish all of Northern Mexico to the United States.

In 1847, Mexico was forced to relinquish all of northern Mexico to the United States, including what would become northwestern Colorado.

While Native Americans, primarily the Ute Indians, thrived in northwestern Colorado, the opinions of early European explorers in the late 1700s and 1800s about the value of the area were not kind. In 1844, John C. Fremont said the country was nearly worthless. In 1869, John Wesley Powell came to the same conclusion, holding out that with massive irrigation the area might produce crops, but there wasn’t enough water.

In the 1860s gold had been discovered in the mountain creeks west of Denver and men fanned out into the Rockies. In 1865, a group of men found small quantities of gold around an extinct volcano in northwestern Colorado. The primary discoverer, Joseph Hahn was apparently betrayed by one of his partners who left him and another man in the field while he allegedly was off to get supplies. He never returned and Hahn died in an attempt to reach civilization in April of 1867. The extinct volcano was named Hahn’s Peak in honor of him.

Hahn's Peak and the town after the Gold Rush

Hahn’s Peak and the town 40 years after the gold rush

Mining continued to expand in the late 1860s in northwestern Colorado, but the lack of significant ore deposits and lack of access to and from the area brought an end to the fickle growth created by prospectors.

Farther west in the high desert of northwestern Colorado, Native Americans, primarily the Utes, maintained their traditional nomadic lifestyle; however, some western Europeans sought to retrain the indigenous people and make them adopt the western culture. The effort created conflict between the Native Americans and the caucasian invaders. In 1879, a minor incident of shoving an agent, Nathan Meeker, led to him requesting troops to be sent to the area. Ultimately, both sides lost control of the situation and a U.S. Army detachment was attacked resulting in 50 men wounded or killed. An outcry for ‘justice’ led to the 1881 relocation of all Ute Indians from their Colorado lands into Utah. This opened the door for Congress to declare the vacated lands open to homesteading in 1882.

As the Utes were moved out, the cattle ranchers moved in. This created a pressing need for better transportation to the area to ship cattle to Denver; however, a centralized gathering point had to be established to move cattle in and out of the area and many of the existing towns lacked the geographic qualifications needed as a cattle and transportation center.

In the late 1880s, the founding of Steamboat Springs created a target for those who sought to create a transportation link to northwestern Colorado. It also had the benefit of being near the Oak Creek area where new coal deposits were discovered.

Almost simultaneously, the inflow of homesteaders coming from the Denver side of the Rocky Mountains created the need to build roads and rail lines over the high altitudes and steep terrain of the Continental Divide, but the challenges would take years.


The railroad challenge was to build a mountain railway that would access all points west.

It would not be until 1909, that the railroad would reach to Steamboat Springs, and almost overnight Steamboat Springs became the largest cattle transportation center in the country. Had the railroad ended in Steamboat Springs, the town might have become twice as large and hindered the growth of any other communities in northwestern Colorado, but the plan for the railroad had never been to end in a community just on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

Knowing the railroad was coming farther west, William H. Tucker established a townsite about 40 miles west of Steamboat Springs. One of his primary financial backers was Reverend William Bayard Craig, and so he named the town Craig. The first census of Craig in 1910 was only 392 people; however, with the completion of the railroad to Craig in 1913, the town would triple in size. By the 1920 census, the population had increased to 1,297 with the county at over 10,000 people.

Population growth of northwestern Colorado

Population growth of northwestern Colorado

In 1911, the State legislature created Moffat County by carving out the western two-thirds of Routt County and made the three-year-old town of Craig the new county seat. Growth in Steamboat Springs flatlined for decades after Craig and Moffat County were established and even with the development of one of the nation’s premier ski areas in 1963, Steamboat Springs remained Craig’s junior until the late 1990s.

Two years after Moffat County was established, the Barrick family came to homestead. Five years after that the first Kiser family would follow them. That would begin a century of intertwining history of these two families that would end with the death of Michael Kiser in 2015.

Part II  Destiny Unfolds

The birth of Moffat County occurred in 1911, and it came with a wave of settlers who had been encouraged to claim homesteads in the county. Most traveled by train with their possessions in an emigrant car. The settlers would then hire wagons to deliver the household goods from the train station to the homestead. The Barrick family used an emigrant car to haul their possessions to northwestern Colorado.

Mervin Edward Barrick

Mervin Edward Barrick

1913-Barrick Family Emigration
The Barrick family came to Moffat County in April of 1913. 41-year-old Mervin E. Barrick filed for a homestead ten miles southwest of Craig. He, his wife, Lucy Elizabeth Spicer, and three boys, Buford (18), George Dean (12), and Floyd (8) rode the train from Boulder to the end of the line at Steamboat Springs. By that Fall, the track would extend to Craig, but now the family had to take the stage to Craig.

The family found life an adventure in the new country. In Craig, they stayed in the Webb Hotel until the wagons with their belongings arrived. Once the wagons had caught up with them they were taken to their new homestead. The family written history gives a bleak description of arriving at their new home:

Lucy Elizabeth Spicer

Lucy Elizabeth Spicer

“We arrived about the middle of the afternoon and unloaded in the sage brush (sic) and grubbed out a place to pitch a tent and a place to cook and sleep until we could build a tent house. We carried our water for a mile for a couple of weeks until we could dig out a spring closer to home.”

The family worked on the track extension near Hayden that summer, with Mervin and Buford working on the grade while Lucy and the two boys prepared and fed a work gang of up to 20 men. The next few years were a mix of working at the Mt. Harris coal mine and continuing to work on the homestead.

1918-Kiser Family Emigration

Earl Leroy Kiser holding his daughter Velma June with his mother Arminda Nixon and his grandmother Anna McFadden

Earl Leroy Kiser holding his daughter Velma June with his mother Arminda Nixon and his grandmother Anna McFadden

Earl Kiser was 24 when he brought his wife, Mabel Warner and two-year-old daughter, Velma June to Craig on April 24, 1918. They traveled by car for a week to get to Craig from Selden, Kansas.

Later Velma June, the eldest daughter recounted the events:

“April 17, Dad, Mother, June, Cecil, and Joe Sulzman started from Selden to Craig in an open Ford. We went to Aunt Orpha’s for dinner, took pictures and started on. We stayed with Uncle Dan Warner that night. We got to Uncle Ted Warner’s for late dinner Thursday and went to Uncle Art Warner’s that night. We left Art’s in a storm which lasted all day….” 

The family traveled through northeast Colorado to Ingleside, located northwest of Fort Collins. From there they headed north, probably on a road that was a predecessor of U.S. Highway 287. The narrative continues:

“…That night we stayed at Ingleside, Colorado. We did our own cooking, and an Indian made our coffee. Monday night we stayed at Hanna, Wyoming; Tuesday night, at Dad, Wyoming, and Wednesday night in Craig at the Armstrong Hotel.”

Their homestead was northwest of Craig, but shortly after arriving, they decided to take land at High Mesa. The next year Vernon Kiser was born at High Mesa making him the first Kiser child to be born in the County.

The family written narrative lists the highlights of 1919:

“1919. We bought Bess and Bell, a gray team, from Mr. Ledford in the spring. Vernon Warner Kiser was born October 17, with Dr. Davenport in attendance and Mrs. Strailey as nurse. Nina Kinley was the first teacher at High Mesa. Raymond Warren Comstock died of diabeted (sic) September 18. We spent Christmas at home. June got a doll and Vernon a rattle (from) grandpa and Grandma Lizzie Kiser.”

1920’s-Barrick and Kiser Families Grow

George Dean and Leona Barrick

George Dean and Leona Barrick

In July of 1920, now 19-year-old George Dean Barrick married 16-year-old Leona Elizabeth Depue in Craig, Colorado. The Depue family had moved to the Moffat County from Weld County, north of Denver, sometime around or just before 1917. Leona was the youngest daughter of seven Depue children, two of whom had died before she was born. Leona’s father, John Wesley Depue, died in Craig in 1917, at the age of 55.

George Dean and Leona Barrick had their first child in 1921, George Dean, Jr. In 1924, Frances Elizabeth was born, followed by three more daughters, Virginia Dale (1928), Lucy Mildred (1934), and Gladys Faye (1939). All the children were born in Craig.

Mabel Alta Kiser

Mabel Alta Kiser

Earl and Mabel Kiser would have two more sons, Loren Dale (1922) and Hubert Leroy (1925). They were both born in Craig. Vernon attended the High Mesa School until 1933 when he graduated from grade school. The next Fall he began attending High School in Craig; however, transportation to and from school was enough of an issue to warrant mentioning in the family history:

Vernon drove our Ford part of the time and part time went with Byrl. Vernon played football, was right guard, No. 27.”

1936 Craig High School football team

1936 Craig High School football team

193o’s – End of Homesteading
By the 1930’s Moffat County was changing. In the 1920s the cattlemen had literally fought battles against sheepherders and settlers under the belief that the land they had used for grazing belonged to them. At one point the Colorado State Militia had to be called in to restore the peace between the cattlemen and sheepherders. By 1920, they had lost the battle over ownership of the land and the cattle ranching industry faded dramatically.

Homesteading peaked in Moffat County and was fading in the 1920s. By 1934, the government had shut down programs encouraging settlers to come to the area. Many of those who had homesteaded gave up their land and either left or moved into Craig. In 1920, 25% of county citizens lived in Craig. By 1930, that percentage had increased to almost 30%, and by 1940, almost 42% of Moffat County’s population lived in Craig.

Percent of Moffat County population living in Craig

Percent of Moffat County population living in Craig

This trend of living in town might not have surprised early explorers who expressed doubts that people could live off the land in the high desert of northwestern Colorado. It is also possible the Great Depression and Dust Bowl played a role in moving into town where job opportunities were more likely.

Part III  Another Radiator Springs

1940’s-Kiser/Barrick Merger
By 1939, both the Barrick and Kiser family had established themselves in Moffat County. The original two families had lived in northwestern Colorado for over two decades and the children born there were now old enough to start their own families. Vernon, the oldest son of the Kiser family and Frances, the eldest daughter of the Barrick family married on October 29, 1939. Both were first-generation natives of Moffat County.

Vernon and Frances Kiser

Vernon and Frances Kiser

To support themselves, Vernon took jobs wherever he could in the 1940s. He and Frances moved several times around northwestern Colorado to be where the work took them. World War II had little impact on Vernon and Frances as he had broken his arm as a child and it failed to heal properly, making him ineligible for military service.

His disqualification to join the military was a blessing as he became a father in 1945. Kenneth Clyde was born on July 10, and by that time Vernon had settled into a career as a heavy equipment operator. In 1949, Vernon began working for Henderson Construction where he would remain for the next 22 years.

However, World War II did have an impact on other members of the Kiser and Barrick family. Vernon’s brothers, Loren and Hubert Kiser and, the brother of Frances, George Jr. and two of her brothers-in-law, Lewis Hurlburt and Ed Annon served in the military during the war. All survived the war, but they, and their families, all relocated outside of Moffat County after they returned.

1950-70 The Hahn’s Peak Years
Vernon’s work with Henderson Construction was primarily part of a long term contract with W. A. Bowes consulting company, based in Steamboat Springs. Henderson Construction was responsible for building and maintaining unpaved roads for mining and drilling exploration and research on and near Hahn’s Peak. Almost all of the roads on Hahn’s Peak were carved out by Vernon.  

Hahn's Peak - Roads by Vernon Kiser

Hahn’s Peak – Roads by Vernon Kiser

Vernon and Frances had three more boys during his tenure with Henderson Construction. Michael Warner was born in 1950, Roy Dean was born in 1953, and Paul Alan was born in 1957.

Because Hahn’s Peak was about an hour and a half from Craig, Vernon lived in a trailer house at the base of the Hahn’s Peak during the week. During the summer when school was out the family would join their Dad and live at the camp for the summer. Once a week Frances and the boys would come into town to wash clothes, shop, and maintain the yard at the house, then head back to Hahn’s Peak.

1960-80 677 Colorado Street
Much of the Barrick family had moved out of Moffat County during the 1940s and ’50s; however, the Vernon and Frances built a home at 677 Colorado Street in Craig, and from 1958 until 1978, that house was the anchor of the Kiser family. All their boys attended school in Craig, played sports, and graduated from Moffat County High School while living in that house.

The Kiser Family in 1957

The Kiser Family in 1957 at the new house, 677 Colorado Street

Henderson Construction closed its doors in 1972, and eventually Vernon took a job at the Moffat County Road Department where he moved up to the Assistant Road Supervisor. By 1976, all of their boys had graduated and left Craig, so Vernon and Frances decided to move to Great Divide and manage one of the county’s remote road maintenance stations.

Of their four boys, Mike Kiser was the only one who returned to northwest Colorado to stay. He was a helicopter mechanic for the Army and was stationed in Germany. After his tour of duty, he worked a couple of years as a mechanic for the City of Sandy, Utah. Mike married a woman he met in Utah and they moved back to Craig. In 1975, they had a daughter, Carey.

In Craig, he took a job with the Moffat County Road Department and later became a member of Craig’s volunteer fire department. Unfortunately, while Mike was in his 30’s he was stricken with a hereditary autoimmune disorder that put him in the hospital for weeks at a time and he had to stop working. Eventually, Mike moved out to Maybell where he lived for the rest of his life.

1980’s to 2015-End of an Era
Craig’s story is similar to the story of Radiator Springs in Disney’s fictional town in the animated movie Cars, Craig is the town that saw its glory days when U.S. Highway 40 was the best route between Denver and Salt Lake City. Once Interstates 70 and 80 were built, Craig became more isolated even though the two-lane highway is the shortest route between the two major cities.

For a person graduating from Moffat County High School, Craig’s career opportunities are limited and the community can’t absorb 100 new job seekers every June. A diploma for many graduates is an order to work for the family business, a signal to scramble to find a local job, or a ticket to pack and leave northwestern Colorado.

Since the Barrick family emigrated to Moffat County in 1913, at least 24 Kiser/Barrick family members lived in northwestern Colorado. By 1990 there were only five members living in the county. The rest left the area for military service, college, better jobs, or just to discover other places. 

As of 1990, the family members still living in Moffat County were Vernon and Frances Kiser, Mike Kiser, Virginia Barrick Hurlburt (sister of Frances,) and George Dean Jr. (brother of Frances.) Vernon had retired from the Road Department and he and Frances purchased a small ranch on the Yampa River west of Maybell. Mike Kiser and Frances’ sister, Virginia Hurlbert, also moved out to Maybell. The five survivors of the Kiser/Barrick family were all natives of Moffat County.

For several years Vernon and Frances enjoyed the return to life on a ranch until Vernon began having health problems. Vernon, the first child of the Kiser/Barrick clan to be born in Moffat County, died at Craig Memorial Hospital in 1996. He was 77. Virginia died in Maybell in 2004. She was 76. George Dean Jr. died in Craig two years later. He was 84. Frances, the last of the first generation of homesteader’s children died at her home in Maybell in 2008. She was also 84.

Michael Warner Kiser 1950-2015

Michael Warner Kiser 1950-2015

After his mother’s death, Mike Kiser remained at the home west of Maybell. He had been married twice, but he had been single for most of the last half of his life. Although he lived with chronic pain, he had been feeling healthier lately. Local people had seen him taking long walks near his home on Highway 318. He had been out shopping on Thursday, November 19, 2015, but apparently, he came home and suffered a heart attack sometime during the next 48 hours. His brother, Roy, tried to call him on the weekend and when he couldn’t get ahold of Mike he asked the Moffat County Sheriff’s Department to check up on him. They found his body in his home.

The Kiser/Barrick family line in Moffat County

The Kiser/Barrick family line in Moffat County

Mike’s passing ended a century of the Kiser/Barrick family in Moffat County. The Kisers and the Barricks that were born and raised in northwestern Colorado weren’t really noteworthy. None of them ran for political office, none of them were high-profile citizens, and rarely did you see their names in the local papers. They attended the local schools, worked at local jobs, were involved in sports in high school, and they quietly raised families.

This July the Kiser and Barrick families will come together at Hahn’s Peak to say goodbye to Mike, and say goodbye to our home in northwestern Colorado.