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. Continue reading
That’s not a philosophic question – it’s the raison d’ etre for The Agonist.
In February 1874, Colorado prospectors Alfred Packer, George Noon, Frank Miller, Israel Swan, James Humphreys and Shannon Bell left the Uncompahgre for Saguache, intending to go by way of the Ute Agency on Los Pinos. Packer appeared at the Agency alone, insisting that his companions had abandoned him while he was ill.
Suspicions were aroused when he displayed money he had not had before and property belonging to his companions. Confronted, he told a story of privation, murder and cannibalism. After confessing, Packer was jailed but managed to escape.
Some few people have noted that November 11 was originally designated Armistice Day, and commemorated peace, not the glorification of war and warriors. It was that way when I was younger and was observed in a solemn mood; sober, thoughtful sadness. People wept – grown men, in a day when men wept seldom and never publicly. My grandmother never failed to observe every Armistice Day, crying softly, although our family lost no one in two World Wars.
The Mountain Man was engaged in building fence across the Rio Grande at the Lower Ranch. At this specific time he was being assisted by ‘Vic’ Miller, a lad of around eighteen years and one of the group known to us as ‘the boys’, who periodically helped us with the hay harvest, usually starting as sulky-rake operators in the days when teams were in order.
It was just past the middle of June, and a belated spring with cold nights and cool days had slowed the melting of the snow in the high country. Now the weather had turned warmer and summer had arrived suddenly and unheralded. Down came in wild recklessness the deep snows of December and January, swelling the old Rio Grande to astounding proportions, to big for its bridges, and causing doubt whether it would be contained within its legal banks.
Ray and Vic started out as usual in a spring wagon drawn by the husky bays – Strip and Baldy- with tools for the job and lunch bucket, as it was too far to return for the noon meal at the ranch house.
Upon arrival at their usual fording place at the river, Ray remarked: “She’s up and will really be rolling by this evening if it is as warm today as it was yesterday; but we’ll not worry about that little thing now.” Across they went, as usual, the horses churning the water as they negotiated the polished, mobile river boulders, the spray flying high and raining down on beasts and men.
It was hot in the sun and cool in the shade throughout the day; but the fence work went on in normal fashion and with satisfaction to the two workmen. Good men enjoy building a good fence, I’ve noted in my long career.
Quitting time came with the sun low in the sky, and soon its rays would be shut off by the mountain that looms high at that part of our ranch. By the time the team had been hitched to the wagon and they were ready to go, a little breeze laden with a bit of leftover winter chill came up, and both fellows put on their jackets.
When they reached the ford, I think even Ray was surprised at the extent the river had risen since morning. He voiced this to Vic and expressed a bit of doubt as to the feasibility of making a crossing. “But it is a hell of a way to the bridge and around that way!” Vic agreed that it “Shore is!”
Ray decided if Vic was willing, to try to cross. I suppose youth had something to do with it, but Ray was ever the sort to take a chance and would always rather be killed by a single blow than hacked to pieces with a table knife any day. Vic was of similar persuasion.
So they made preparations. The fence-building tools were wired together and the whole to the wagon seat. Vic held the big galvanized pail which held their lunch utensils, including a quart-sized thermos bottle – a Stanley, one of the first steel-jacketed unbreakables.
The climbed in and seated themselves and were off down the bank and into the water. Naturally, they expected water to come into the wagon and to have to draw their feet up and brace themselves against the dashboard. But they were not mid-stream – the horses swimming with heads high – when Ray knew the score. He shouted to Vic: “This outfit is gonna flip and we’ll have to jump.” Then: “Jump, boy! Just as far as you can!”
Jump they did, just as the current picked the wagon up like a cracker box and turned it over. Ray caught a glimpse of Vic in mid-air, his coat fanning out and above his head and the lunch pail making a parabola.
The horses drew the wagon and Ray on out onto the bank. He turned to look, and there was Vic swimming like a duck but being borne by the current back to the shore from which they’d come. Yelling above the tumult of the waters Ray admonished him. “Come back here!. I’m not going to make another trip over there for you!” Vic managed to turn and swam out. Ray, giving him a hand up the bank, said: “Kid, I never thought to ask you if you could swim when I told you to jump!” Vic replied: “I didn’t know – I never tried before!”
They drove home and regaled us with the story of their adventures. I recall one special attribute of the whole affair: one lone dry spot about the size of a silver dollar on the back of the collar of Ray’s blue chambray shirt. How or why it was there I’ll never understand, for even their hair was dripping!
When I expressed horror at what might have happened to them, they would only look at each other and laugh. Well, as the Mountain Man so often said: “You only live once, but if you go at it right, once is enough!”
h/t Mabel Steele Wright
We never learned what became of the pail and the thermos bottle. Perhaps some little brown boy picked them up at Brownsville, Texas!
h/t Mabel Steele Wright
In 1916, Mabel Steele went to teach school at the ripe old age of 18, in extremely rural Colorado. The community consisted of three families who made their living raising trout for restaurants in Denver. She had to learn to maintain disciple when some of the students were bigger than she was.
I suspect it was an eye-opener to a very self-confident, albeit naive young woman.
One of Mabel’s fond memories of that time is:
My uncle Ray and his two brothers, Wallace and Warren owned a ranch in the upper Rio Grande Valley in Colorado.
Pump in the front yard, outhouse in back. Ice cut from winter lakes & stored in ice-house to cool ice-boxes in the summer.
This was pre-REA, so they had their own generator and shut it off at 11pm – after that it was kerosene lanterns or darkness.
The phone was party-line and hand-cranked. Folks used to have concerts, each playing piano/fiddle/harmonica/accordion/whatever.
Music online before the Internet!