Trail Historian Eric Swab shares the history of Monument Nursery

History of the Monument Nursery
by Eric Swab

By the mid-19th Century the U. S. Government owned much of the forested land in the west. Over the years these forests had been devastated by wild fires, and by logging for the railroads, mining and the building industries. The government was beginning to realize that something needed to be done to protect this resource, this “green gold”, that was so important to the growth of the country.

In 1903, the U.S. Forest Service, then known has the Bureau of Forestry, sent a reconnaissance party of 7 forestry students from Cornell, Yale and the University of Iowa, headed by Wesley H. Gardner and assisted by Allen S. Peck to study fire damage, natural reproduction and planting problems in what we now know as the Pike National Forest. They found that between 1848 and 1853 and again in 1880 wildfires had ravaged the region. They determined that 40 square miles of trees were not reproducing in a normal manner; that nature was working so slowly and that the area would have to be planted by man. They recommended the establishment of nurseries to provide the tree stock for this reforestation.

The next year, 1904, Forest agents T.J. Taylor and Clyde Leavitt were sent out to locate sites that would be suitable for tree nurseries. The first nurseries were established in 1904 at sites recommended by Taylor and Leavitt in the communities of Rosemont and Clyde, on the south slopes of Pike Peak. Both of these sites were located on the Short Line railroad, now know as the Gold Camp Road. Later that same year, a third nursery was established in the Bear Creek drainage at Jones Park. The Rosemont and Clyde nurseries operated for only 2 years, but the Forest Service continued their efforts at Bear Creek until 1909.

All three of these nurseries failed because of short growing seasons, poor soils. When Professor J.W. Toumey, head of the Yale School of Forestry, came west to assess the product of these nurseries. He commented, “I wonder what fool picked those places for a nursery, the soil won’t even grow weeds, let alone trees.”

At the same time the Bureau of Forestry was considering establishing small nurseries in each Ranger District. Frank Sherwin, the Ranger at Palmer Lake, suggested a site at the base of Mount Herman. In a report to Washington, J.F. Kummel cited the following advantages: the land is part of the National Forest, more space available for planting, better soil, longer growing season, close to the railroad, providing inexpensive transport of seedlings and the ability to grow food products to support the nursery staff. There were also disadvantages, violent winds and inadequate water supply.


The site was accepted and in 1906 and was named the “Mount Herman Ranger Nursery” A few months later the name was changed to “Mount Herman Planting Station”, then in January of 1909 the name was changed for the last time to the Monument Nursery.


In January of 1907, operations began under the supervision of J.F. Kummel, and S.B. Detwiler with Walter Schrader, as assistant. Walter Schrader was made Head Nurseryman in charge of the operations at the nursery.


The first work performed at the new nursery was the construction of a barn for the horses, the fencing of 480 acres that had been allotted for the nursery and the erection of tents to house the men. In 1908 the tents were replaced by 5 small log cabins. A mess hall and tool shed were also built that year. An office and new barn were added in 1909 and a weather station was built. Before that temperature was checked at the thermometer at the local grocery store, rainfall was measured by how much water collected in a wash boiler. Wind direction was checked by the wet finger method. In 1910 a house was built for the head Ranger. The first log office was replaced with a frame building in 1922.


The problem of the winds was mitigated by the construction of lath fences around the seed beds. Later shelter belt trees were planted as wind breaks. These trees can still be seen on the site.


The water problem was first solved by piping it from nearby springs. Over the life of the nursery a complex water system was developed consisting of approximately 7 miles of underground water pipelines, 6 reservoirs, 3 storage ponds, 4 natural springs, 4 wells and 1 diversion dam. The total water storage capacity of 300,000 gallons was developed.


While this initial construction was going on, about 3 acres of land was plowed and harrowed to lie fallow in preparation for the seed beds. The first plantings were carried out in the valley south of the current headquarters of the Wildland Fire Fighters. This planting area became known as the Mt. Herman Division. The seeds were planted by hand and the beds covered with mulch of scrub oak leaves. When the sprouts began to appear, the mulch was cleared and lath was laid on the overhead frame for shade. 260,000 seedlings sprouted in 1907, representing a germination rate of 96%, far superior to the dismal record at the 3 nurseries on Pikes Peak.


35,000 of those seedlings were transplanted into hardening beds where they were spaced 3 inches apart to give them room to grow.

In 1909 5,000 White fir seedlings were packed in slat crates and sent to Iowa, marking the first shipment of trees from the new nursery.

Initially less than one acre of the 560 acres set aside for the nursery was cultivated. Each year new plots were plowed and prepared for planting seed and for transplanting seedlings. After a lull around World War I, cultivated acreage increased until 50 acres of seed beds were in production, requiring 200 men for their care at the peak of the nursery’s production. In 1930 the Forest Service purchased the 400-acre Monument Ranch owned by the Hagen family. This allowed for expansion of planting into the valley north of the Mount Herman Division. This new area became known as the Rock Division, named for Monument Rock adjacent to the area.


New building construction paralleled the increases in cultivated area. This included a frame cottage for the nurserymen and another for the ranger in 1910, a cold storage building in 1913, a concrete manure vat, a road to town both in 1915, the cold storage building was converted to a garage and a scientifically advanced chicken house was built in 1916 and in 1920 a shed was constructed for the storage of tools and equipment.


After the purchase of the Hagen property, The Rock Division was considered a more desirable area and all the new construction was focused in that area.

During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corp or CCC had a great impact on the development of the nursery. Initially the men were housed in the old buildings at the Mt. Herman Division. By 1935 the CCC workforce had increased to 60 people and temporary barracks were put up at the east end of nursery grounds.


From 1934 to 1942 all the new construction work and water improvements were carried out by the CCC boys.


One of the most interesting buildings constructed by the CCC workmen was a residence for the Schrader family in 1939. The Regional Forester at that time was rather fond of the Schraders. He asked Mrs. Schrader to make up a floor plan for her dream house. This unique residence was built on the ridge overlooking the Rock Division. Over $50,000 in material alone were put into the structure (?). The residence includes solid oak floor, redwood siding, ¾ inch plaster walls and special cut stone from Montana used for the foundation, patio and fireplace. There was even a single car attached garage. The Schraders moved into their new residence in 1940.


Tree production reached a peak of 6,143,000 in 1939. When the U.S. got into World War II there was a dramatic slump in production. The CCC workforce was called to serve in the Army. In 1943 the nursery had to plow under 3,346,000 trees for lack of a market. A severe drought in 1950 led to discussions of closure. In 1958 the future of the nursery came up again. This time the decision was to expand operations, however, no new planting areas were established, there was only minor expansion of the existing planting areas. In the early 1960s it was determined that the nursery could not be operated at a profit. In 1963 cold dry winds swept down from the mountains drying out and killing the small seedling, raising production costs even further. The 1,400 acre Monument Nursery was formally closed June 30th 1965. The Forest Service moved its production of nursery stock for reforestation to Mount Sopris, Colorado.

An important feature of the nursery that still exists, is the Memorial Grove. It was established on June 10, 1920 to honor Forest Service employees of Region 2 who lost their lives in World War I and those who died thereafter. A Blue spruce was planted for each deceased employee. Thirty trees were planted at this first ceremony on May 21, 1921 and on May 30, 1942, the grove had 68 trees. The planting of trees has since been replaced by the placement of a plaque.


Nursery Practices

So far we have explored the physical development of the nursery. Some of the practices carried out at the nursery are also interesting.


Seed Production

The process of seed production begins with the gathering of cones, usually from the area where reforestation is to take place. Some early failures of reforesting were caused by planting seedlings grown from seed gathered from a different location.


Heat and even fire in the case of some species is required to release the seeds from their cones. In the early days of the nursery the cones were spread out on tarps on the ground so that the sun would heat the cones. Once the cones had release as many seed as possible the cones were tumbled to persuade the remaining seeds to drop out. This process had obvious control problems caused by the weather. The scientists at the Fremont Experimental Forest on Pikes Peak experimented with a seed kiln that would extract seeds from their cones. Cones were placed on screen shelves in this kiln and heat was applied from a gasoline fired burner at the bottom. As the seeds were released they fell through the screen into a bin below the selves. The scientists found that for a given species the right temperature and duration of heat would efficiently extract seeds without damage.


This process was scaled up for the Monument Nursery in 1936 with the building of the seed extractory building. This three story building is now the headquarters of the Wildland Firefighters. The cones were delivered to the third floor where they were cleaned then dropped through a hopper to the second floor where they were heated, releasing most of the seeds. Then both the seeds and cones were dropped to the first floor where the cones were tumbled to release the remaining seeds and the seeds were de-winged. Seeds were then stored at about 40°F until sowing season.


Soil Preparation

Soil preparation was a very important step in the process. Between each tree growing cycle the soil was plowed, disked and floated eliminating any large clumps. The field is then sown to peas and when they flowered the field is spread with barnyard manure and again plowed and disked and allowed to lay fallow until it is time to plant. This process usually kept the weeds to a minimum.


Seed Planting

Once the 6 ½ feet by 50 feet seed beds were prepared, seeds were sown in drills. At first the drills were created by rolling a concrete roller with cleats along the length of the bed. Seeds were sown by hands and covered by drawing fingers through the dirt between the rows and the bed rolled again without cleats. Later this process was mechanized by tractors pulling multiple drills. The seeds of most species were sown in the fall. Englemann spruce seeds were sown in the spring to avoid “damping off”, a decease that kills seeds and seedlings. Once germination occurs in the spring, the mulch of needles and leaves is removed and the beds are protected against birds and rodents by frames covered with hardware cloth. Later shade is provided by covering the frames with slats.



Ample water is crucial to the successful germination and growth of seeds. At first the fields were watered by hand, which proved unsatisfactory, as did flooding. They experimented with overhead sprinklers at various heights and found that placement of the sprinklers at 18 inches above the ground gave the best results.



They found that if the soil was properly prepared there was very little problem with weeds. Still diligence was required to prevent weeds from taking over. Occasionally there would be batch of manure that carried weed seeds that would create a problem, but that problem was eliminated by processing their own manure.



Various forms of mulching were experimented with and it was found that the type and timing depended on the species.



The practice of shading varied over the years and with tree species. In the beginning, a framework tall enough to walk under was built over the beds. Later lower shades were provided. Shade was provided by wooden lath wired together in rolls similar to snow fencing.



Once the seeds germinated and reached the proper age and height, usually after one year, they were transp1anted to separate beds where they were given more room to grow. The process involved placing the seedlings by hand on transplant boards in slots 1” apart, 72 seedlings to a board. The seedlings were held in place by a spring loaded slat. A slit is made in the ground with a wedge-shaped wheel called a trencher. The roots of the trees are dangled into this slit and soil is packed firmly against them with tampers. The slat was released and the board is removed, leaving 72 trees in place with one operation. From 1937 through 1964 this hand transplanting process was replaced by a transplanting machine. In the fall they were covered with a mulch to protect them against the dry winds, which killed a large number of unprotected trees.



In the spring, the trees were dug and sent to the tree packing shed. The first tool used to dig up the transplants was a modified plow. Over time this was replaced with more sophisticated equipment. In the packing shed they were packed in moss and boxes and sent to the cold storage building. When trees were needed, they were shipped to the planting camp. It cost from $2.50 to $3.00 per thousand to produce Douglas fir 2-year old seedlings which did not need to be transplanted. The transplanted trees cost from $7.00 to $10.00 per thousand.


Shipping Seedlings

Many of the seedlings were planted in the Pikes Peak National Forest by CCC workmen under the direction of Everard Keithley. Keithley is credited with planting over 30,000,000 trees. Seedlings were also shipped to planting sites all over Colorado as well as Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska. Nearly 50% of the trees produced were Ponderosa pine, more than a quarter were Douglas fir. Englemann spruce and Lodgepole accounted for less than 10% each. Smaller numbers of Rocky Mountain Juniper, Bristlecone pine, Pinon pine, Blue spruce, Limber pine, Austrian pine were also produced.



There were many obstacles to the successful growing of seedlings, such as Root Rot, Damping Off, Mistletoe, Blister Rust, rodents and frost. The most serious problem was “damping off” and “root rot”. They found that both could be controlled by applying sulphuric acid at the time of spring sowing and aluminum sulphate at the time of fall sowing.


The rodent problem was solved by constructing hardware cloth fences around the seedling plots. In 1935, however, one well protected bed was almost entirely destroyed by field mice. A thorough examination by the nursery staff failed to find any opening in the protective fence. For several days the affair was an annoying mystery until a CCC enrollee solved the case with a very simple explanation: In the course of their work at the nursery, some enrollees had uncovered a nest of field mice, and with misguided humanitarian motives they had placed the entire family of mice inside the rodent-proof enclosure. Fully fed and protected against all enemies the mice had lived very comfortably through the winter.


Walter Schrader

Many individuals were involved in the operations of the Monument Nursery, but none as committed to the success of its operation as the Head Nurseryman, Walter H. Schrader.


Walter was born December 16, 1883 in a log cabin in Valley View, Colorado. At the age of 13 he quit school and began working on the ranch. At age 16 he left home traveling around Colorado picking up ranch work where he could. About 1903 he had drifted to northern Colorado where he came in contact with some successful farmers who stimulated his interest in scientific farming and fruit growing. He heard about a 9 month course offered at the State Agricultural College at Fort Collins. His educational qualifications were not sufficient to meet the entrance requirements, however, he convinced President Barton Ayhlesworth of his sincerity and ability and he was admitted without an examination. During the course he discovered he was interested in horticulture and nursery work. When one of his instructors told him about a summer job opening at the new Bureau of Forestry nursery near Colorado Springs, paying $35 a month, he jumped at the chance.


Schrader and three other prospective “Foresters”, reported for work to Fred W. Besley in Colorado Springs. Pursuant to Besley’s instructions, the four new employees took the Service team and wagon from the livery stable, and started for the Bear Creek nursery. Besley had appointed one of the boys as driver with the title of “Teamster”. This was a position of responsibility and importance in those days and rated ten dollars more a month than the other non-technical jobs. The Teamster was considered “Captain of the Ship”, but the new appointee proved unworthy of the honor. The men stopped for dinner at Jones Park and the Teamster tied his reins to the wagon wheel. This was a poor procedure at best, which Schrader’s observing eyes noted at once. But his protest was squelched by one withering sentence from the driver, who announced to the company at large and to Schrader in particular, “I am the Teamster”. In just a few minutes his pride was deflated, when he made an abrupt move toward the horses’ heads. The startled animals lunged away from him, and broke loose from the wagon in a frenzied stampede down Bear Creek canon toward Colorado City, eight miles away. The four men scattered out in pursuit of the horses, but Schrader used his head as well as his feet, and hiked straight down the trail to the livery stable in Colorado City, where sure enough, he found the horses.


By this time it was well after sundown, but as the horses were not hurt, Schreader mounted one and led the other in search of Besley’s home. With some difficulty he located the nursery chief’s residence, where he made his first report on the activities of his first day in the Forest Service. Besley was so impressed by his new employee during this trial-by runaway, that he gave Schrader a raise of ten dollars a month, and the appointment as Teamster.


When the construction was completed and the first seeding planting done at the Bear Creek, Rosemont and Clyde nurseries, the of work weeding and watering was left to just 4 men, one of who was Walter. A typical day began with breakfast and shortly after daybreak they walked the 4 miles over to Rosemont. After tending the planting bed there they walked the 8 miles up the Cripple Creek Stage road to Clyde where that nursery was weeded, cultivated and watered. Then they made their way back the 12 miles to Bear Creek.


On July 3, 1906 J. F. Kummel, Forest Agent came to the Bear Creek camp. Walter felt Mr. Kummel needed to be initiated into the camp brotherhood. Early next morning Walter prepared 3 sticks of dynamite to explode outside the headquarters building while Mr. Kummel was still asleep. Unfortunately Walter cut the fuse a little too short and while running away from the scene, head bent down, the dynamite exploded sending a barrage of gravel to the closest point on Walter’s body. For several days after the incident Kummel courteously insisted that Walter “have a seat” whenever he entered the room. Schrader would refuse with the excuse that he did not “feel like sitting down just yet.” From that point on Schrader’s energies were focused on nursery work.


On June 15, 1911 Walter married Elizabeth Poley the daughter of the well-known Colorado Springs photographer, Horace S. Poley. Elizabeth had just completed 2 years in the study of Botany at Colorado College. After a honeymoon camping the Schrader’s set up housekeeping at the Monument Nursery. Their 3 children, Walter H. Jr., Frank T. and Elizabeth F. were born at the nursery. In 1907 Walter plowed the first furrow at the nursery. He was soon made the Head Nurseryman and was in charge of the greatest growth and production of the Monument Nursery. With the exception of those first couple years at the Bear Creek Nursery Water Schrader spent his entire 38 year career with the Forest Service at the Monument Nursery. After his retirement at the end of 1943 the mast’s moved next to the Garden of the Gods in Manitou Springs where they lived until Walter died on December 18, 1962.

Current Use

8 usable nursery buildings now exist on the site. They are currently used by the Forest Services’ Monument Helitack, a ten-person wildland fire crew. The Seed Extractory building has been remodeled for their offices. The Tree Packing shed now serves as a classroom used by the Helitack crew and the Forest Service. The vault in the Cold Storage building is used to store historic artifacts that have been collected from government lands. The nursery site is now surrounded on three sides by residential development. The most visible evidence of this tree factory that produced more than 72,000,000 trees during its 58 year history are the buildings and shelter belt trees that still exist in the Rock Division.

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