Tony Vagneur: Brotherly love and brouhahas make for family strong legacy
There aren’t many left who remember them, a group of men who basically owned most of Woody Creek for damned near 100 years. Their dad, Jeremie, was one of the original settlers in that canyon and the ambiance suited his five sons so well they all stuck around.
It’s not what you think — they didn’t watch each other’s backs like you might think; they didn’t give favors because of blood — no, they were all solidly independent and at various times had feuds between themselves that could have turned deadly had they not been family. In a conversation with my cousin Wayne many years ago, I mentioned that we ought to have a family reunion celebrating those 100 years.
“Tony, it’s not a good idea. We’d have to hire private security to keep order.”
OK, never mind.
On the other hand, they stuck together as a group of northern Italians would be expected to; a couple of them born in Italy, the others born here, and an outsider didn’t stand much chance beating them out of a grain of wheat, or a fresh nickel, either one.
These men were my grandfather and his brothers, five stalwart souls who have, for the majority of my life, been the stuff of legend and myth, not so much because of the things they did but rather just because they were pioneers, settlers and my ancestors.
James, the oldest, used to put up ski troops from Camp Hale (Pando) on various weekends, particularly a certain Pfc. Charles Dwitis and his buddies whom he would bring this way on furloughs. They always arrived by train, but sometimes uncle Jim and his wife, Eura Layton Vagneur, would drive them back to camp. By my reckoning, that’s as close as anyone in my family got to serving at Camp Hale, but still closer than I had previously imagined and it makes me feel good to know that my family had a small part in it all.
Jim’s ranch was called the “Sunnyside,” known for the past 60 years as Aspen Valley Ranch. Somehow, Sunnyside seems a more apt description, given its location, but naming a ranch is no easy task. Uncle Jim was always an enigma to me as I barely knew him, but somehow was one of my favorites, and I think it was the silver hair and raspy voice that did it.
There was Dellore, the next-born, kind of the odd man out it seemed, with a longish nose, a mischievous countenance, a penchant for wearing different-shaped hats and who, in a family of pranksters, was king of jesters. He chewed cigars from the top down until they disappeared, without ever lighting them. When I was little, the older men would give me a sip of their beer if I badgered them about it — Dellore would give me the whole can.
He and my grandfather had battles involving guns, but never aimed directly at each other. Dellore owned what is now the White Star ranch on lower McLean Flats; never plowed his very long driveway in the winter; married his sweetheart Molly MacDonald, a nurse at Citizen’s Hospital; never had children and died in 1956 from loneliness and a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It was my grandfather, Ben, who’d had the unsettled relationship with Dellore, who stopped to check on him and found Dellore’s lifeless body on the back porch. In the end, they did stick together.
Louis, whom I never knew, the third-born, has more surviving male progeny in the valley than any of the other families, names you’d recognize if I spelled them out. Louis was the politician, serving as Pitkin County commissioner from 1928 to 1936 and various shifts on the Woody Creek school board. He also was a big gun in the Democratic party. He sold his ranch eons ago to his sons I believe, and he and his wife, Mary McMurdo Vagneur, moved to Aspen and lived in the little white Victorian house, now home to White House Pizza.
You are correct, there were five brothers mentioned and I’ve only covered three. The other two were my grandfather, Ben, and Sullivan (Sylvain) Vagneur, the two who were closest in age and who looked almost as though they could be twins.
After my grandfather died, I would sometimes ride the cattle range with Sullivan, and in many respects he was like my granddad in that regard, as well, like never putting on our slickers until we were already wet.
The truth is, I’ve told a million stories about my granddad, Gramps, and Sullivan’s day is coming. In any case, hopefully you’ve seen a bit of your past while looking at some of my long-ago ancestors.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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