Water and Work Ranching life in post-war Aspen
October 19, 2005
“I just bought a ranch,” my father announced as we stared at him in astonishment. It was late August 1949 and, after spending most of the summer on a ranch in Wyoming, we were taking a detour through Aspen en route to our home in Manhasset, N.Y. My father had gone off to Jim Moore’s for a haircut that morning while we rode horses at Jack Ray’s stable at the base of Little Nell. At that time, Moore was the only barber in Aspen. He was also the only real estate agent. His barber’s chair was in one corner of Tomkins Hardware store.During the haircut, a woman named Emily Barrailler came in and began talking to Moore about selling her small ranch on Highway 82 about a mile east of Aspen. She, her husband and his brother raised cattle and grew a variety of crops like hay, potatoes, rhubarb. They also made wine on occasion.After Moore finished the haircut, my father asked if he could visit the ranch. Within hours, Mrs. Barrailler had accepted his offer of $80 per acre, an offer that was considered extravagant at the time.We moved from New York to Colorado the following summer, my mother and father, my sisters, Sandy and Dinah, and me. Two themes immediately began to dominate our lives: water and work.
Although my father had no real ranching experience, he had plenty of ideas, including draining certain fields to produce more hay. So for $1 a week, my first job was to empty a beaver pond that would in turn drain the field above it. This seemed like a good deal. Yank out the beaver dam, let the pond and the field above it drain, and rake in $1 a week for the rest of the summer. Little did I know that beavers rebuild their dams every night!The other drainage project was the swamp (now wetlands) about a half-mile from our house. We worked fanatically to complete a ditch from it to the Roaring Fork, repeatedly getting our tractor stuck, fighting mosquitoes, cursing the thick, gooey mud. The Barraillers watched, bemused, and occasionally pulled the tractor out with their team of horses. What they knew – and my father refused to recognize – was that the swamp was the same level as the river. It wouldn’t drain, no matter how deep the ditch was.The Barraillers had constructed a series of lateral ditches along both the north and south sides of the valley. One even crossed a rock slope in a series of wooden flumes. Another job of mine was to keep these ditches running. (Years later my father brought in someone with a bulldozer to improve the ditch on the north side of the valley, but it never ran as well as it did under the Barrailler system.)In the course of cleaning these ditches, I found a series of survey stakes. Then we learned of the plan to build a huge dam across the valley to store water that could then be diverted back to the Denver area. This was part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas project. My father and other Aspenites fought it for years, finally defeating it with the able help of then-Congressman Wayne Aspinall.That first summer my father criticized the barns in the area, saying, “Look at the slope of that roof. It’s so steep that all that space is wasted.” He then built a barn with a low-pitched roof that collapsed in the first snowstorm.Water quality wasn’t an issue then. We routinely drank out of the river, even when we had cattle. In town, however, it was a different matter. I went to the public school for seventh and eighth grades and remember the water fountain in the hall next to the principal’s office. It would run all day, the water curling around the little white bowl. By afternoon, there would usually be a small sandbar in the bowl.
Work was also a given. After the beaver dam job and keeping the irrigation ditches flowing came fence building, driving the tractor, putting up hay and clearing willows with a used Oliver bulldozer we bought from Jim Hayes. The tracks kept coming loose so that if you wanted to drive it any distance, you had to go in reverse. Bill Tagert was so impressed by the work we were doing that he sold us Tagert’s Lake up the valley.In the fall, school would shut down and we would all – boys and girls – go pick potatoes for farmers like Rene Duroux and Stanley Natal. This was brutal work, bending over, digging the potatoes out of the just-tilled soil with your fingers, filling a wire basket and then dumping it into a burlap sack. The fastest picker was Gay Anderson, an eighth-grader.Farming and ranching took a cooperative effort all up and down the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. When I was 14, I herded cattle and drove a hay-stacker as far away as DeBeque, managing to last a week without tipping the tractor over. Most every summer, we would cut hay for Danny Barry, who managed the Paepcke property west of Aspen. Other jobs included wrangling horses for Marsh Barnard, hauling rocks for Pat Hemann and working at a number of town jobs like Tom Sardy’s lumberyard, building the St. Moritz Motel, erecting a cyclone fence around the sewer plant for Verlin Ringle, cutting aspen trees for fence rails up on the Highlands Ski Area.The people I worked with?Danny Barry, of course. Wayne and Clyde Vagneur, who pastured their cattle on our ranch many summers. (Did they ever know that I’d go out in the evenings and practice roping on their calves?) PeeWee McKinnon, an ex-jockey who worked on our ranch and taught me to rope.
There was Freddy Fisher, who had a small mountain of old metal behind his shop on Main Street. He would grunt and complain and throw pieces of metal in the air but he was always able to find the right part for our tractor and bulldozer. Teddy Armstrong and Medill Barnes would help me saddle my sister Sandy’s 4-H steer, Buster, so that we could practice “bull” riding. Paul Wirth taught me to love the mountains. There was careful, meticulous Ernst Martens, from whom I learned so much.Clyde Clymer was always ready to weld together some broken part. Junior Smith took turns with me driving the bulldozer and clearing willows. Pat Hemann, our neighbor. The Pattersons would help put up Danny’s hay. Ikey Mogan did odd jobs for us and then moved to Grand Junction, where he got himself convicted for first-degree murder. Years later I visited him in Canon City where he was wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt, living in Warden Patterson’s home as a trustee and selling his jewelry. (He whispered to me that he made more money than the Warden.)There was Frank “Sparky” Sparovic, who once dynamited a drainage ditch for us. Unfortunately the earth went soaring straight up in the air and came right back down in the hole we were trying to enlarge. Bob Craig worked on the ranch the summer he returned from K-2. Jack McTarnahan helped us with a huge vegetable garden. And Sam Stapleton, from whom we’d buy oats for $1 a hundred-pound bag. The Healys sold us our first horse, Tony.A man in a small wooden shop along the river would sharpen the cutter bar for our hay mower. I never knew his name, don’t know if he even spoke English and never saw anything of him but a pale, angular face with dark eyes staring at me from behind a mass of machinery.There was fun, too – riding broncs with Newt and Bob Klusmire and getting into scrapes with Sheriff Lorain Herwick and Night Marshall Jack Ray.Water and work. That was what defined those early days. That and the extraordinary people who were so much a part of my growing up.Former Aspenite Morgan Smith can be reached at email@example.com