At age fifty-five, Don Wilson, packed up his family and his three Kansas ranches and, in 1947, moved to the 1867 Colorado state senator Robert Douglas homestead. The thousands of bucolic acres surrounding the homestead, were nestled in the foothills of Pikes Peak, on the northwest side of Colorado Springs. The land was originally owned by William Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs, and is adjacent to Palmer’s Glen Erie home. Don’s daughter and son-in-law Russ and Marian Wolfe, moved to Colorado to help in the ranching operations. Black Angus cows were bred to Hereford bulls. The resulting Black Baldy calves were sold in the Fall. In addition, champion Quarter horses were raised and sold. Don, and his older brother Harry, were responsible for introducing the athletic Quarter horse to the state of Kansas (the Quarter horses were purchased from the King Ranch in Texas) and and to Colorado. While wrangling with cows and horses, Russ and Marian continued to set their hearts on building the Chuckwagon Suppers and Original Western Stage Show business model.
During the summer, people would come out from town to ride horses over the extensive ranch lands with Russ Wolfe ramrodding the outings. Some evenings, the group would be small enough for Marian to invite the riders to share in a "potluck." Russ and Marian decided to make the affair a regular event - a scenic horseback ride followed by a home-cooked meal under the stars around an open camp fire. In 1953, with 11 paying guests, at $3.00 each, the Chuckwagon dream was born.
On the second night, Russ and Marian served 7 people. Russ would bring water to the ranch in a 1937 Dodge pickup truck. There was one picnic table under a lean-to in the event of rain. All the food preparation was done in Russ and Marian's modest home and the pots were washed at the hydrant in their backyard. During the first summer, Russ and Marian fed 1,650 people. They were open two nights a week. By the end of 1963, they were open seven nights a week serving over 125,000 people annually. Russ tells the story that, "In time, there were still twenty horses but four hundred people for dinner. Then there were twenty horses and eight hundred people for dinner, and then twenty horses and one thousand people. We finally just got rid of the horses.” Life on the ranch wasn’t easy in the early days, Russ and Marian had their share of raccoons and skunks in the kitchen, rattlesnakes on the trails, run-away buses, locked keys in cars, bears in trash cans, cows in teepees, torrential rains, and washed out roads.
Visitors and local residents started coming out early to attend Russ and Marian’s Flying W Chuckwagon Suppers and Original Western Stage Show. Over time, Russ and Marian built a Western Village to further bring the Old West to life. The Flying W’s first building was the Trading Post. The logs used to build the Trading Post were recycled from the flag poles used at the National Girl Scout Jamboree that was held in Colorado Springs, on the Ranch, that same year. Russ obtained his Class A Contractors license so he could continue to build the Western Village. He gathered old siding, windows, show cases and a host of items from various places. He knew, in time, they would become part of a building that would tell a story of the old west in design and style. Each and every building at the Flying W Ranch represented western history at its best. The Village Assembly Hall featured some of the most spectacular Southwest Native American architecture in the state of Colorado. When the historic Ute Theater was torn down in Colorado Springs in the 1960's, Russ purchased nearly every piece at auction and preserved that Colorado Springs landmark.
Over time, brick by brick, Russ and Marian built the unique and diverse Western Village. Eventually 29 structures, including the Church, Jail, School House, Taos Pueblo, Printing Press, Kiva, Library, Drug Store, Homestead, Ute Theater, Train Depot, and more were built or transferred to the Red Rock enclave. Navajo rug weavers, rodeos, silversmiths, ranch animals, Dutch-oven biscuits , and other forms of old west demonstrations made the venue peerless.
The main highlight of Russ and Marian's achievements at the Ranch was the introduction of the Flying W Wranglers. Western music was included in their initial vision, following the ride through the ranch and the Chuckwagon meal. From 1953 to 1957, the performers ranged from college students and folk singers to the Sons of the Pioneers. In 1957, the Flying W Wranglers were officially unveiled. Through the years, over 60 individuals have been a part of the Flying W Wranglers with several of them performing for the Ranch for well over 30 years. The Flying W Wranglers are now the second- oldest western performance band in the world. Their three-part-harmonies of time-honored tunes of the open range, high quality instrumentation, and clean bunkhouse humor have delighted over seven million people from around the world. In addition to performing at the Ranch, they performed in USO tours in Vietnam during the war, at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, in London, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The Flying W Wranglers have been staged in local and national television commercials, have performed with several world-class symphonies, have sung in major sporting events, and have won a wide variety of musical awards. Given the deep legacy, for the re-birth of the Ranch post Waldo Canyon fire, over 300 musicians and entertainers were auditioned.
The Waldo Canyon Fire
On June, 26, 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire consumed the Flying W Ranch. Nearly every major media outlet, including the New York Times, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, the Denver Post, Fox News, CNN, and the LA Times, carried the story of the loss of the much beloved Ranch. Local newscasters wept as they told the story. The Ranch had touched the lives and hearts of seven million people from its inception in 1953. Twenty-nine buildings, Old West artifacts collected over several lifetimes, and Ranch homes were gone. Out of the entire western town, only one small building, one teepee, and one wooden cross remained. After the fire, the Wolfe family spent millions of dollars on mitigation efforts, and tirelessly worked to restore the landscape.
Recovery from the Fire –
The Flying W Ranch
Foundation is Born
Following the destruction of the Flying W Ranch and 346 homes within the neighboring community of Mountain Shadows, the Flying W Ranch Foundation was formed.
The Flying W Ranch Foundation is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The purposes of the Foundation are to restore and mitigate the Waldo Canyon burn area, preserve the history of the Old West, and be a blessing to the community.
Work of the Flying W Ranch Foundation includes:
Installing log erosion control structures to stabilize hill slopes and drainages prone to flood events
Planting seed and spreading mulch over acres of burned terrain
Planting saplings to jumpstart the restoration of the forest
Removing noxious weeds
Mastication of burned tree stands
With the help of other non-profit organizations, government agencies and countless volunteers, the Flying W Ranch Foundation is bringing natural beauty back to the hill slopes of Colorado Springs, educating members of our community, as well as insuring safe drinking water.