Rafter J

A neighborhood built for living.

By Mark Huffman ∙ Photography by Tuck Fauntleroy

When Charles Lewton planned a middle-class subdivision south of Jackson, he heard one thing over and over. “All the local people said that no one would ever live that far out of town,” says Lewton, who’s now eighty. How far was too far in 1978? Farther than Alpine? A longer drive than over the pass to Victor, Idaho? No. People were talking about the road trip to what is now Rafter J Ranch—around 3.5 miles from the Town Square.

There were only about 4,000 people in Jackson at the time, and a mile south of the “Y” intersection (where Albertsons is now) took you beyond civilization. To the west of the highway, where Lewton filed his plat, was Brownie Brown’s cattle ranch.

Few people lived outside of town back then, Lewton recalls, but he anticipated growth. He bought Brown’s 660-acre ranch and divided it for 500 units—332 single-family houses and the remainder for several condo developments. He aimed for full-time residents: “Everyone I dealt with were local folks,” Lewton says. “Every subdivision I started was because of locals. I never thought about anybody from outside moving here to one of my places.”

That was the case for Gary and Karen Hodges, who bought a lot the first year they went on the market. “Charles Lewton just wanted people to be able to own property,” Karen Hodges says. “He gave really good deals and did financing. It’s the only way we could have afforded to own a house here, even back then.”

Lewton moved to Jackson in 1966 from Ten Sleep, Wyoming. (Both Lewton’s and his wife’s grandparents homesteaded ranches in the area.) One of his first projects in Jackson was the High Country Subdivision, a tiny neighborhood of big horse properties just south of Rafter J. Then, in 1971, Lewton and Jackson attorney Floyd King, who was also his partner in developing Rafter J, created The Aspens subdivision off Teton Village Road. Besides developing, Lewton also built houses. He says he completed one for $15,000, “and that included the dirt.”

When Charles Lewton planned a middle-class subdivision south of Jackson, he heard one thing over and over: “All the local people said that no one would ever live that far out of town.”

The low-lying Rafter J land—Flat Creek flows through it—was flat, and if Lewton and King had followed the usual developer’s playbook, they would have laid out streets at right angles. But they didn’t. Lewton knew from the start that “I did not want any straight streets. We wanted to slow traffic and keep it more like a family place.” The result: streets that seem to wander, cul-de-sacs, and branching roads leading to mini-neighborhoods. “We went out and walked through it, and I said, ‘This is where I want my roads to be.’ ”

Working with Lewton and King were hired architects and engineers, including Bob Corbett, who designed some of the original buildings at Teton Village. They brought their own ideas to Lewton. “I said, ‘OK, I want you guys to go out and draw what you think it should be.’ Then we’d meet and then take another week and do it again.”

Along with the meandering street design, Lewton and King decided to keep open space between developed areas. The plat called for 448 acres of development and 194 acres free of homes. Today, that open-space land includes a park and bike paths. Lewton also “put aside the prettiest spot in the project and gave it to the Lord”—that’s the location now of River Crossing Church.

The land was near empty, according to Hodges, director of operations at Jackson Hole Community School. She recalls that her husband, a Lower Valley Energy employee, went with Lewton to see a lot. They had to ford Flat Creek. “It was just a field with a marker in it,” she says. “There wasn’t anything out there.”

Even after the Hodges built, Karen says, “You could see all the way to the highway; there were no other houses or trees in the way—it was wide open.” Rafter J today, thirty-eight years later, doesn’t seem so far away as it did. “This is not a long way out of town by any stretch,” says Kip MacMillan, a resident since 1990 with his wife, Lin, and the head of the homeowners association. “I can get home in ten minutes.”

MacMillan, a retired cop and Snow King employee, thinks Lewton accomplished his goal of creating a place where people who work in the area can live nearby. “It was designed for people to live in,” MacMillan says, “and it worked. It’s a neighborhood, not just a subdivision.” He mentions looking out his window this past winter as he prepared to go out to clear snow, and “somebody was already doing it. It was a neighbor, someone I recognized but didn’t really know.”

While it’s homier than many Jackson Hole residential areas, Rafter J mirrors the local real estate market. When Lewton found buyers for his first lots—he sold most of them himself—he let one go to a friend for $10,000. His high sale was $35,000. He told one buyer to hold onto his lot for five years and that he’d make $20,000 or $30,000. He was right.

Realtor Dan Visosky of Prugh Real Estate had one of only four vacant residential lots in Rafter J on the market this winter. The one-third acre was priced at $375,000. Visosky calls Rafter J “a great place for locals” and a place where even new people “feel like they’re part of the Jackson Hole community.” It’s the same for homes. Houses at Rafter J are mostly unassuming—“These are not mansions,” MacMillan says—but the valley’s desirability has pushed prices up and tightened the market.

Lewton says he paid under $3,000 an acre for the ranch. Hodges recalls that she and her husband bought a lot and built a house for about $100,000. Houses now top $900,000. MacMillan says buying at Rafter J was “the best investment I ever made.” Visosky says that during 2016, only about fifteen properties were sold in Rafter J, and only four homes were on the market in January. People who move in mostly stay. “We find a lot of people do not have any intention of leaving Rafter J,” Visosky says. “It’s very stable.”

What’s In a Name?

One of the things people notice about Rafter J is the street names. It’s typical for developers to come up with names that evoke the past, but they usually stick to the mundane. Not developer Charles Lewton. This grandson of Wyoming ranchers went for names that recalled his history. “Those names were all mine,” he says. “They were all ranch names, things we used on the ranch, where I was born and raised.”

Many are for ranch equipment: There’s Pitch Fork Drive, and Bull Rake, Beaver Slide, Buck Rake, Fresno Drive, and Hay Slide Drive. Others are for cattle and horses: Angus, Hereford, Longhorn, Short Horn, Brahma, Arabian, Percheron, Clydesdale, Appaloosa, Quarter Horse, Pinto, and Colt.
There are drives named for ducks: King Eider, Cinnamon Teal, and American Brandt. There are also Pack Saddle and Stirrup drives, and drives called Bunkhouse, Barb Wire, Cow Camp, Hay Loft, and Saddle. “It was to honor what the West was,” Lewton says, “where those of us who grew up in rural country came from.”

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