Swett Ranch Restoration
Ashley National Forest, Utah, 2003
by Mel Bashore, PIT Volunteer
In early September 2003, 15 PIT volunteers showed up at Swett Ranch—triple the number that organizers expected. Organizers were used to “no-shows,” so in 2003, they decided to overbook. However, that year, the pattern broke. People came from Washington, Oregon, California, Illinois, South Dakota, Colorado, and Texas. My wife and I were the only home-state attendees. And, oh yes, there was Izzy, a PIT legend who claims to be homeless, moving from PIT project to PIT project. The plan for this year’s project was to replace an aging dairy barn roof. A crew of a dozen hard-working prisoners sporting green Daggett County Jail T-shirts had been prepping the barn for our assault.
On Day 1 when we were having lunch at the ranch house and making introductions, we could hear the prison crew ripping off old roof boards and trying to square up the sides of the barn. We took a walking tour of the century-old homestead ranch situated on the south side and hundreds of feet above beautiful Flaming Gorge reservoir in northeastern Utah. Oscar Swett liked to situate his ranch outbuildings at some distance from each other. Nonetheless, we were intrigued with the remnants of an early ranger station and enthralled with the story of early-day Ranger Bill Green, who in 1917 disappeared and was never found. His horse and canoe were found tethered on the banks of Green River just north of the ranch. On the heels of hearing about this mystery, we visited puzzling and intriguing prehistoric Anasazi and Fremont sites.
On Day 2, we began and almost finished work on the barn. With the large number of PIT volunteers and prison crew, it was not without frustrations and a few heated confrontations. Everybody wanted a piece of the action. Some experienced volunteer carpenters voiced impassioned (and sometimes conflicting) opinions about how the building should be reconstructed. That’s when Tex, wielding the voice of reason, entered the fray. He raised his voice and punctuated his sentences with a few carefully chosen words to make it perfectly clear how the barn was going to be restored and who the boss was of this ragtag outfit. Tex Leflet is head carpenter honcho (official title) for the Ashley NF. He directed all of the restoration work conducted on Swett Ranch. He’s good, and he’s real funny. After the rafters were pulled back into a semblance of straightness, collar ties affixed, and new roof boards nailed on, the barn started to look pretty dang good.
On Day 3, Byron and Tex divided us into small groups to work on various ranch projects. The prison crew dug a diversion ditch above the root cellar. Some of the PIT crew finished the barn roof. The old walk-in root cellar, dug in to a north-facing slope, became the focus of some serious attention by the remainder of both the prison and PIT crews. It was the third root cellar built by the Swetts (earlier ones had deteriorated) and featured double doors that formed an airlock to help keep the cellar an even, cool temperature. When rain put a damper on our work, many toured the Flaming Gorge Dam, while others drove to the Ute Fire Tower, Sheep Creek geologic feature, or an impressive petroglyph site near Vernal.
Before leaving us, the prison crew distributed their classy green Daggett County Jail T-shirts to each of the PIT crew for a group photo. The PIT crew put them on backwards so it would show the jail identification on the front (and so you could tell us apart). Camaraderie among the FS, the prison crew, and the volunteers was very gratifying, and the experience was a first for the prison crew, who said they had never been permitted to work with outside civilians before.
On Day 4, the weather improved, and we went back to work putting up stringer and framing for a wood interior wall and building a solid, cemented rock wall. We stopped short of finishing to get ready for the evening Dutch oven dinner. For some, it was their first taste of Dutch oven cooking. On our final day, we finished off the root cellar walls and did all the odds and ends to clean up the place. My wife, Karen, and daughter Sarah and I gave watercolors of ranch scenes we had done during the week to Tex, Byron, Nan (FS volunteer coordinator), and to our new prison pals, Big Dog, Rudy Roo, Steve, Valdez, and Chris. We told them that next year we hoped to see them there as PIT volunteers rather than wearing their prison greens. Julie (from northern California) expressed our sentiments exactly when she sorrowfully screamed, “I don’t want to leave!”