‘Cowboy’ Jim Crowley recollects his 100 years in Fryingpan Valley and Basalt

Jim Crowley was raised on a ranch in the Fryingpan Valley. The 100-year-old was happiest when working cattle, he said. This picture was for the book, 'I Remember a Horse ...' about Roaring Fork Valley cowboys.
Lois Harlamert-Teegarden/courtesy photo

When you live to be 100 years of age, you better have some darn good stories to tell, and “Cowboy” Jim Crowley has just that.

Crowley, who will mark a century Oct. 29, was born in Glenwood Springs in 1918 and raised on a ranch in the Fryingpan Valley that partially remains in the family. Given his experiences and his tenure, Crowley was dubbed the “Father of the Fryingpan” years ago by Earl Elmont, author of “Basalt and the Frying Pan,” a book rich with the history of the special place.

Crowley said his mom’s family came to Aspen from Pratt, Kansas, roughly 125 years ago and she ended up teaching school in Thomasville. His dad came from Medford, Missouri, and he was working on a ranch up the valley. They met, married and leased ranchland before buying it. Jim spent his entire childhood working on the ranch.

“It was always a joy to move the cattle up to the high country. The high country was around Woods Lake,” he said, referring to a stunningly beautiful area near Lime Park.

“I think (Fryingpan Valley) one of the prettiest places in the country.” — Jim Crowley, who turns 100 on Oct. 29

“I never was without a horse,” Crowley recalled. “Pal” was his first loyal steed.

He went to a one-room school in Meredith, which eventually was moved to Thomasville. The building remains in service as a Methodist Church.

While ranching was his true love, Crowley learned to be more than a cowboy. His dad contracted out to the county to maintain 20 miles of road from Ruedi to the Carlton Tunnel at the Continental Divide. He initially used a four-horse team pulling a grader before moving on to motorized equipment. Jim learned how to be a heavy-equipment operator by helping his dad on the ranch and with other jobs. It was a skill that proved useful throughout his life.

He was hired to help build Snowmass Ski Area, carving parking lots and building pads and sculpting ski runs.

“Everything that required a bulldozer, we did it,” he said.

He worked for a mining company in Climax and went up to Wyoming for a bit, but his love of the Fryingpan Valley brought him home despite the good pay.

“My heart was at the ranch and it still is,” Crowley said.

He’s never found a place that matches the Fryingpan in his travels. Unlike some valley natives who were bitter over the creation of Ruedi Reservoir, Crowley thinks it was a great addition to the valley.

“I think it’s one of the prettiest places in the country,” Crowley said. “The Crystal (Valley) is close but it’s not as pretty.”

Crowley was hired to manage a number of ranches in the region for wealthy owners. One of his favorite gigs was on the Diamond G in the Fryingpan (not to be confused with the Diamond J), which he considered a favorite job.

Intermixed with time on the ranches, he and his wife, Eulalia, leased the Fryingpan Inn at Basalt in the late 1950s and early ’60s, operating a restaurant and bar as well as the inn.

He told Anita Witt for her book, “I Remember a Horse …,” that his wife cooked, he bartended and his two oldest girls helped serve customers and wash dishes. They let the lease lapse after five years.

“It was a 24-hour per day job,” he recalled.

He bought the building across Midland Avenue and created the Midland Bar and Cafe, a legendary watering hole that was frequented by workers on Ruedi Reservoir as well as local ranchers and workers.

Doug McLain, a barber next door, would appear occasionally with his band.

“We filled it every Saturday night,” Crowley said. “I must have had it four years.”

Cowboy’s grandson, Cody Crowley, a student at Virginia Tech, said he has a favorite story of that era from his grandfather, who he calls Paca.

“Paca often tells the story of walking home one night at about 2:30 in the morning after closing the Midland when a couple of robbers dressed in dark jackets and ski masks tried to jump him and steal his cash box,” Cody wrote in an email. “Now, he wasn’t about to let that happen because he carried his ‘High Standard’ .22 pistol under his belt just for that reason.

“When they started after him, he dropped the money box and pulled out his gun and said, ‘You boys best get the hell out of here before I have to use this thing.’ He says they scattered damn fast to get out of there and didn’t stop running ‘til they were out of sight,” Cody wrote.

He noted that his grandpa still has his health and his mind remains sharp, which quickly becomes apparent when talking to the century man. Crowley said he survived breaking his neck twice. Once was when the Rocky Mountain Gas company office in Glenwood Springs blew up Dec. 17, 1985, killing 12 people and injuring 15 others.

“It was tough to get over,” he said, referring to both his injuries and the loss of colleagues and friends.

He broke his neck a second time when he was delivering clothing to a charitable organization and fell down an unmarked and unlit stairwell. He bounced back both times.

Cowboy was forced by health reasons to move to a lower elevation, so he and his longtime girlfriend relocated a few years ago to Grand Junction. He returns to the Fryingpan ranch as often as possible. His kids — Lea Vasten, Frankie Straight, Betty Ortell and Jimmy Jr. — all have homes there.

The family wanted to celebrate his approaching birthday at the ranch during the summer since it’s been such an important part of his life. About 150 friends stopped by the Fryingpan house July 8.

“Remarkably, he was able to greet and reminisce with every single person that attended,” Cody said. “My favorite part of the party was listening to some of his friends and family tell stories about him. These stories ranged from embarrassing, funny stories to meaningful, emotional stories that warmed my heart.”

Doug McLain, who started his singing career at the Midland so many years ago, teamed with Crowley to sing “Before You Blow the Match Out.”

“It was fabulous,” Crowley said of the party.

When you’re turning 100, you are entitled to hold multiple parties. An encore will be held at 3 p.m., Oct. 27, at the Golden Corral restaurant in Grand Junction. Jim said everybody is welcome, even if they helped him celebrate the last time.