Each month, BizWest asks a business leader to participate in a question and answer feature to help shed light on a business topic, an industry or add insight to a field of endeavor. This month, managing editor Ken Amundson posed questions to Susan Jessup, long-time owner and operator of Sylvan Dale Ranch located near the mouth of the Big Thompson Canyon west of Loveland. Jessup’s family has begun the transition from one generation of leadership to the next.
BizWest: Sylvan Dale operates in a special Colorado niche of the hospitality industry — the guest ranch business. What aspect of that business has been the most beneficial over your tenure with the ranch.
Susan Jessup: A guest ranch provides a destination vacation option for people seeking wholesome outdoor adventures with the nostalgia of the western lifestyle. The cowboy is a national icon representing a part of our West that draws people to the experience. Horses are central. The fact that we raise our horses at Sylvan Dale adds an authentic dimension to the horse experience. Guests participate in hands-on gentling the foals and grooming the mares. Brides and grooms ride to their ceremonies on horseback and business visitors discover horses to be amazing teachers of trust, respect, and responsibility. Riding adventures in the arena and on the trail offer our guests the opportunity to become a partner with their horse. There is no guest ranch without horses!
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BizWest: What’s been your favorite activity and why?
Jessup: When I get a chance to mount up and ride, I am liberated. There is something about sitting a saddle and feeling the connection with the horse and the land that is magical. Add moving cows down the trail and it just doesn’t get any better than that! However, other responsibilities often take precedence and then I live such experiences vicariously through our guests! I am most fulfilled when I have the opportunity to tell the story of Sylvan Dale. It is the story of two people who shared a dream and made it come true through hard work, perseverance, and some seemingly insurmountable odds. It inspires others and their response inspires me!
BizWest: We know Sylvan Dale is in a leadership transition right now, but tell us briefly about its ownership history.
Jessup: To begin at the beginning — geologically the Sylvan Dale Valley was formed during the rise of the Rocky Mountains 60 million years ago! A thousand years ago Folsom people inhabited a rock shelter “cave” in what we now call “Echo Rock.” Ute and Arapaho tribes set up their tipis in the valley in the 1600s. William Alexander, a Scotsman, settled in the area with his family in the 1860s and logged the nearby hillsides. The Alexanders provided shelter for famous English traveler Isabella Bird and made a failed attempt to guide her to Estes Park, which had just been discovered and “claimed” by the Earl of Dunraven.
In the early 1900s, Frend Neville ran cattle in the valley and in 1916 — like many other ranchers of his day — built a lodge and cabins to welcome visitors from the East. Neville’s ranch was later purchased by Cotner College, a Christian school in Nebraska, as a summer campus for its students. During the Great Depression, Reverend Weldon, president of the college, tried to make a go of Sylvan Dale as a boys and girls camp. It was during that time that Maurice Jessup, a college student from Kansas, came to work and fell in love — with Sylvan Dale. “Reverend Weldon, I just love this place! Someday, I’m going to buy Sylvan Dale.” Eleven years later, in 1946, his dream became a reality. The Jessup family has been creating memorable experiences for guests from near and far for more than 70 years.
BizWest: And tell us about the current transition with your stepdaughter Laura. When will this happen and what, if anything, will change?
Jessup: Now, in 2020, Sylvan Dale Ranch has become a legacy. It’s future lies in the hands of The Heart-J Center for Experiential Education, a non-profit providing hands-on learning for all ages. It combines the two loves of Maurice and Mayme Jessup — Sylvan Dale and education.
The Heart-J Center is the designated successor organization to this family-held legacy. You can learn more about the Heart J Center and the programs it offers on its website: www.heartjcenter.org.
BizWest: To what do you attribute the longevity of the ranch, given that it has fought natural disasters and changing economies throughout its tenure?
Jessup: The longevity of the Ranch hinges on a long-held philosophy: “Don’t worry about what you don’t have. Know where you are going and start going there.” This philosophy guided my parents through the original 125-acre purchase and subsequent land purchases that increased the Ranch at one time to 5,000 acres, through economic down turns and two major floods. I have tested my Dad’s philosophy many times and found it to work. We are still here! The joy that comes from providing transformational experiences for others is the icing on the cake.