Created in 1874, Rio Grande County emerged as a supply center for the mining rushes to the San Juan Mountains. Del Norte quickly claimed the county seat, although Monte Vista ultimately became the larger town. The eastern half of the county is level agricultural land watered by the river for which it is named, while the western half is montane forests, mostly within the Rio Grande National Forest. The Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for birders, who flock there in March looking for whooping cranes among the thousands of migratory sandhill cranes.
Hispanic farmers and ranchers first settled the county, but most of their architecture is gone, except for a few remnants such as a venerable jacal at Haywood, 5 miles northwest of Monte Vista. After the 1870s influx of Anglo miners, mining and agriculture blossomed. Mining has declined since 1900, although a major gold and silver mine was worked at Summitville until 1992. Agriculture remains the mainstay in a county known for its production of barley, hay, potatoes, oats, lettuce, and live-stock. From an 1880 population of 1,944 the county has grown steadily to a current count of around 11,000, of whom roughly 2,000 live in Del Norte and 5,000 in Monte Vista.
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