My mother, Betty (Steele) Wallace, wore many hats over the years – reporter, Clerk of the County Court, columnist & de facto editor, high school English teacher and author. Born on a small ranch in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, of pioneer stock and into a world of ranching, mining and timbering, she had a deep understanding and keen appreciation of those who migrated to the area and built the communities. Some of those communities faded into ghost towns, some continue to prosper. The people who built that part of Colorado are long gone, but Betty had known a good many of them, went to school with their children and knew every family in the Gunnison Valley – their history, virtues, faults and quirks. For several years, she wrote a weekly column in the Gunnison News-Champion, telling the stories of the area’s early citizens. She called it her ‘pioneer series’ – interviews of the original settlers or their children; ranchers, saloonkeepers, miners, storekeepers, prostitutes, preachers and politicians.
One of the people she interviewed and wrote about was her mother, Cynthia (Weed) Steele. This is mother’s column on my grandmother, published in the News-Champion, April 6th, 1950.
To one, who, just past ten years of age was making bread, cooking and doing household chores in earnest when her contemporaries were still playing at those activities, the West could offer little to daunt Cynthia Weed. She was just 20 when she came to Colorado to begin nearly sixty years of residence in Lake Fork and Gunnison country, years which dated almost from her marriage 57 years ago to Charles Steele, himself a pioneer of a still earlier day in the West. “I first came to Salida and Villa Grove to join my sisters, Effie (Mrs. Meskinen, now of Portland, OR) and Lillie (Mrs. Ben Dyer of Columbus OH), who had written me of the better wages paid in the West”, Mrs. Steele related.
A frequent visitor at the Dyer home, Steele was a handsome blonde man of rugged and towering charm, and the shy little miss from Ohio was soon persuaded to join him in establishing a home on his ranch near Lake City, which he had homesteaded. On New Years Day 1893, they were wed at Lake City. Altho younger by half than her husband, Mrs. Steele brot to her new life here, maturity and courage nurtured by early independence.
Mrs. Steele was born May 29, 1872 in Gallia County, Ohio, the daughter of William B and Josephine Weed. Hers was a large family, there being four sisters older and one younger than herself, and later three half-sisters and a half-brother.
“Mother died when my sister Mary was just a baby and I couldn’t have been more than three. When my oldest sister married and left home and father remarried, the increasing needs a new family arriving made it necessary for me to go out and work for my keep”.
The little girl went to the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Sannar and there worked just “to earn my board and keep”. The Sannars were Virginians who had moved to Ohio at the close of the Civil War. They were themselves abolitionists and did not have any slaves, but did not hesitate to keep a “hired girl” at no pay.
“They really were good to me, in accordance with the standards of the time,” Mrs. Steele admonishes critics gently. “True, I did not have a penny on my own, recreation was rare and a teasing daughter of the family at times made my life miserable, but I never thought of myself as abused”.
“There was lots to do on the farm and I did it, and kept things neat and clean in the house. When I had the flu I worked right on thru it, altho I got so weak I could hardly rub out clothes on the board.”
“When I was 18, I went out to make my first money, 75 cents a week at a neighboring farm. A dollar was the most ever paid for farm help, back there, and I thot I was getting fair pay. However, when my sisters wrote me from Colorado of the fine wages paid out there, I decided to join them, going out by train in the summer of 1892.”
It was well that Mrs. Steele had been used to going ahead under her own power in earlier life, for the demands made on her on the isolated ranch were heavy. She bore eight children in 20 years, meanwhile tending garden, chickens and all the work that went with “housekeeping”.
“We always raised all our own food,” she explained. “But after Mr. Steele suffered a stroke which left him bedfast for the remaining eight years of his life, I went into truck gardening during the summer months before [cattle] shipping time”.
At a time when truck gardening had not yet been commercialized, Mrs. Steele’s fresh mountain-grown vegetables drew instant patronage from Lake City residents and its summer visitors and she had more than she could do to supply the demand.
The growing family of six (two had died of Scarlet Fever at the ages of 8 and 6, in the same week) spurred her to constant effort and there were not enough hours in the day. Her children recall waking at nite to see her mending, patching, sewing after midnite, when she must be up at dawn and in the garden again.
“But the early years on the ranch, while busy, were not so bad,” Mrs. Steele declared. “I did all the sewing for myself and for Lee and Dollie (the two oldest children) all by hand. I got my first sewing machine just before Mabel (the third child) was born. It was a Singer Mr. Steele had picked up second-hand for $5 and it was still sewing when we left it on the ranch 26 years ago, altho not working too well by then.”
“I remember being so pleased by the old machine, and indeed it did help a lot. Before that, I had made even overalls, pants, etc. by hand and that took lots of sewing. Had to cut my own patterns, too and kept Lee dressed in short pants and shirt-waists most of the time. However, as was customary then, we kept all the children – boys and girls – in dresses until they were several years old.”
Of a deeply religious family and somewhat strait-laced, Mrs. Steele’s views became broadened as new experiences presented themselves and rearing of a large family did not leave much opportunity to be too strict and still preserve the sense of humor which made her an excellent mother.
“I never did learn to dance, but the girls all did and I used to take them to school entertainments and dances after Mr. Steele got down. We would drive home under the stars. In wintertime, children would nestle down snug in hay with hot bricks or stones at their feet. The older girls all went to high school in Lake City and all went to school teaching at a tender age, to help lift the notes and mortgage from the ranch after Mr. Steele fell ill”.
“Mabel taught at Hermit when she was 17, under petition of taxpayers in that district, which allowed her to teach when not yet 18. Mary, too, taught, going to Ohio City when 18 and Nell opened her first school when just 16, teaching at home”.
“When there were no other children in the district, we moved the desks to our front room and the teacher lived right with us. The younger children, Herbert, Charles and Betty, of course finished their high school in Gunnison after we moved here in 1923. And in spite of what might be termed lack of privileges in the county schools, all received a good foundation in fundamentals of spelling, arithmetic and grammar that some of my grandchildren still lack. Of course there were shortcomings – no music, little art, and limited social opportunities, so maybe the modern school is still better than our front-room academy”, Mrs. Steele admits with a smile.
Life had its amusing incidents, of course, some of which were not so amusing at the time.
“I can laugh now when I remember the first time I ever shot a gun,” Mrs. Steele said. “A big hawk was perched on a tree in the yard, waiting to swoop down on my chickens. Mr. Steele was gone and there was nobody to defend the flock, so I grabbed up the double-barreled shotgun out of the corner, loaded it and went out. First shot missed the hawk but very nearly finished me. I had no idea a gun would kick and it almost knocked me down. The second shot I held the gun more carefully and this time brot the hawk tumbling out of the tree”.
“Another time I shot a weasel who was pestering the chickens and stealing eggs. He ran under a pile of lumber in the yard, running first here, then there, poking his head up. But he poked his head up just once too often and I let him have it”.
“I still think of my encounter with a skunk. I heard the little dog barking and went out to see what was the matter. On the hillside above the house was a little black-looking animal I took to be a dog. Neighbors frequently went thru our place to get to the range and I thot someone’s dog was trailing thru so I just went back in the house”.
“Our dog kept barking so I went out again, and this time smelled that it was a skunk on the hillside. So I shot at him and he disappeared without being hit. Shortly after lunch, however, I heard a commotion in the chicken house and went down to investigate. There was Mr. Skunk nosing around toward the nests. I opened the door and shot him with the old faithful shotgun”.
“I didn’t dare carry the milk past the chicken house for weeks, but made a circuitous up around the hill from the barn to bring the milk up. I gathered eggs, of course, but just held my breath and dashed in and out as quickly as I could”.
The old double-barreled figured in other episodes too, Mrs.Steele remembers. “We had a mean bull – a shorthorn we dehorned when a young animal. We bot him as a calf from Loel Carr and never had a bit of trouble with him until we dehorned him. Or maybe it was just oneriness cropping up as he aged. Anyway, he was the meanest beast, and doubtless had run afoul of someone on the range, for he bore what was apparently a bullet hole in his jaw, which we had never inflicted”.
“He used to cause all sorts of trouble for us. One evening Nell went to bring the cows in and he started for her horse, Prince. She snapped him with a rope on his first run and he grunted and backed off. He soon began pawing the earth and bellowing again, and this time all Nell could do was get her feet out of the stirrups to avoid being caught under the horse when he fell”.
“She rolled clear, looked around in vain for a convenient tree, then noticed Prince had gotten to his feet again. She called him and the loyal horse came up and stood trembling while she mounted him and lit out for home, without the cows”.
“Sometime later, the cows came in, trailed by the bull, and once we got them in the corral, the critter wouldn’t let any of us in to milk. Finally, I thot of the gun, loaded it with buckshot and kneeled outside the gate. He came toward me, glaring at me thru the poles. I pulled the trigger and the blast hit him square in the nose. He dropped to his knees, got up again, and wandered about dizzily while we herded the cows out to another corral to milk them”.
“In the meantime, I had called a neighbor, Carl Benson, to come to our assistance, for I was afraid the beast would injure one of the girls and the boys were too little to help them. Benson sicced dogs onto the bull, to no avail and finally had to resort to buckshot himself to get the bull back onto the range”.
“Neighbors tried to ship him that Fall, but he was too mean to get into the cattle chute, and when he wound up back in our meadow, we decided to butcher him to get rid of him. He wouldn’t let the men drive him up to the tripod and pulley, but stood and battled them, their dogs and horses, so they had to shoot him down in the field and drag him up”.
Mrs. Steele had other worries too, in rearing her brood, for lions were plentiful in the mountains just back of the ranch, and on occasion when the girls would be late bringing in the cows – sometimes ten or eleven o’clock at night – she worried for fear a lion might jump on their horses.
“Once when the girls were small – Mary about 10 and Nell about 7 – their father let them go out and keep and eye on the cows so they would be easier to find when evening came. The girls took the big dog with them – a giant, strong fellow – and were playing Cowboys and Indians or some such game when the dog raised up and began growling ominously. The girls, one of which was tied up with a rope as a captive, looked up to see what must have been a mountain lion placidly eyeing the group. Maybe curiosity lured him or maybe he would have attacked had the dog not been there, but whatever the big cat’s intentions, the girls ran for home without any urging”.
“We lost cattle sometimes, but never knew whether it was from wild or domesticated thievery. One of our big, two-year-old heifers came in with ‘cat scratches’ on each side of her back and occasionally a mountain lion would venture so close as to leave his tracks thru our dooryard”.
“Once in a while a bear would come down, but we had more trouble with lions on the range than anything else. One evening as I went out in the dusk to toss out the dishwater, I saw a bear ambling past our back fence. He kept going and I didn’t bother him”.
“Weasels used to visit us after eggs and chickens, and we took care of them by gun or trap. Just a couple of years after I went to the ranch, I saw the dog behaving peculiarly one day, looking first to the house, then toward the barnyard, then to the house again. I went out to see what was drawing her attention and found a small animal down in the rut left by a horse’s hoof in the snow and slush. It had apparently injured its back – probably the dog had done it – and couldn’t get out of the deep print”.
“I took a hoe and maneuvered it into a bucket for Mr. Steele to see when he came home. It was the first weasel I had ever seen. A lovely pure-white creature with dark eyes and a fighting spirit. Of course, Dad killed it and we kept the beautiful fur”.
The Steele’s ranchhouse lay on a mesa just above the D&RG railroad line into Lake City. In fact, the line ran thru the lower meadows. In summer months, “bums” frequently called at the kitchen door for a handout. Some were willing to chop a few sticks of wood for a meal, and some were just outright moochers, but none went away hungry. Alone with the children much of the time as Steele hunted or worked the the fields, Mrs. Steele never feared the wayfarers of the ‘rods’.
The railroad was as convenience for the Steeles in several ways, aside from furnishing transportation to Lake City occasionally. (The family most frequently went the eight miles to town with a team). “Obliging engineers and firemen tossed off our mail every day and one of the children would go down to catch the packet and wave at the smiling trainmen.
“Once, when floods and cloudbursts pocketed the train in our meadow, we kept the whole crew and the passengers over night, bedding people all over the place, including the haymow”, Mrs. Steele recalled.
“Later, about 1921 I think it was, we used the immense trestle, highest in the West as a wagon bridge to the other side of the Lake Fork River after floods had wiped out all the bridges between us and town.”.
“I drove the team across the high bridge, which still had shale filler between the ties, but I made the children get out and walk across. One of the mares was a little skittish about crossing the span, but she made it, and before the bridges were back in, was quite used to the awesome catwalk”.
“Also, while the bridges were still out, we decided to try fording the river with a load of vegetables for town sale. My son went across first on the big stallion, to test the depth of the water and we decided we could make it. The long-legged animal had either made the river look lower or we missed the shallowest part. Anyway, we got into trouble almost immediately and when the lap robe slid off and wrapped tightly around the wheel, the fording very nearly ended in disaster”.
“I urged the horses to their utmost and by dint of pulling and struggling, they finally reached the opposite bank, after water had surged thru the wagon, sweeping sacks of fresh peas, lettuce, carrots, etc. downstream out of the wagonbed. Our dog, taught to retrieve sticks tossed in the water, tried nobly to salvage the floating products, only to have the paper sacks tear apart in his mouth. Poor hound was completely mystified and kept on trying until we called him out – the only amusing spectacle about the episode. When we came back from town later in the day, we went around by the High Bridge to cross”.
“Shortly after the adaptation of the trestle to team use, whether to protect their ties and rails or to protect disaster to future teamsters, the D&RG knocked the planking out between the rails and let the gravel fall thru to the river. Ultimately, the immense bridge was sold to Gunnison County and torn down, following abandonment of the Lake City line”.
Strenuous tho the early years at the ranch were, the later ones were burdened by the loss of manpower, for in 1915, Steele, who was then a Democratic County Commissioner for Hinsdale County suffered a stroke while in Denver at Stock Show time. His companions brot him back to the ranch and Mrs. Steele added his care – for he was almost completely helpless – to the long list of her responsibilities.
“Herbert was only 8, Charles 5 and Betty 2 when Steele was stricken. We managed to operate the ranch and pay off the notes and mortgage accumulated on it. The girls all taught and sent money home. I sold vegetables and beef and the boys helped more and more as they grew older,” Mrs. Steele explained.
However, they could not keep on forever, working as she had since childhood without the hard-driven mechanism finally reaching a breaking point. So in 1923, when it became apparent that only a quick operation could prolong Mrs. Steele’s life, the family moved to Gunnison, buying a home there.
Mrs. Steele, nearing 78 is still active, having a large share in rearing her grandchildren and currently keeping house for her son Charles. Herbert lives in Prosser WA with his family [later moved to Alaska], Mabel (Mrs. Ray Wright) lives in Creede and Mary (Mrs. Hugh Monson) lives on a ranch South of Gunnison. Nell died more than 20 years ago. Mrs. Steele has thirteen grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.
Reared in a generation that believed man should always be the unquestioned lord and master of the household, when women were often little more than chattels, nevertheless it was Mrs. Steele who impressed and shaped the lives of her children. Meek but unyielding to circumstance, her faith carried her thru hardships without wavering from Lincoln-like honesty.
Her household and outdoor tasks left little time for social graces – none for card-playing, learning how to crochet, knit or acquire hobbies. Limited by health to less arduous housekeeping, she is still spry and able to look after a quiet household. On the side, she babysits with her grandchildren on occasion, always finding mending or patching to do as she sits, for her hands are never idle. She obviously does not regret having devoted her life to a family.