Tony Vagneur: Water rights weren’t thicker than blood, but it was close for Gramps |

Tony Vagneur: Water rights weren’t thicker than blood, but it was close for Gramps

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

There are things we wonder about, and as we get older, maybe we think we’re closer to an answer, but then, in the final analysis, does it really matter?

Of my grandfather’s four children, my dad and one of his sisters stayed on the ranch. The other two girls married and moved away, one to Denver, the other to Glenwood Springs. The daughter who stayed lived with her husband in my grandfather’s house, her husband becoming a ranch employee. An untenable situation after a while, I’d reckon, and when an adjacent ranch, at the mouth of Collins Creek, came up for sale, they bought it and moved out.

It was 1955 or so, a year or two after Gramps and I had established our summer tradition of riding together, keeping an eye on the cattle in Collins Creek, and we’d occasionally stop by the new spread, for whatever reason, and I never questioned it. It was out of our way, but not that far, and there were my cousins to play with, sheds and barns to explore, and it never did any good to complain.

You might think it was because Gramps wanted to visit with his daughter a bit, find out how things were going, stuff of that nature. And it makes perfect sense. If it was my daughter, I would stop to visit, as well. But that may not be the entire story.

The new ranch, beautiful and well-configured as it was, with a creek running through the middle, had one short-coming: less than adequate irrigation water. Even in those days of plentiful water, those years when the ditch above our houses ran 12 months of the year, providing crucial stock water and was the only source of domestic water for a couple of houses, including the bunkhouse.

The water shortage hampered my granddad’s son-in-law in his quest to make a go of the place, and being family, he seemed inclined to take more than he legally owned, which in turn shorted my grandfather, and tensions, although kept below the surface, simmered through irrigating seasons. No doubt on one or several of our visits, Gramps was in the house entreating his daughter to talk some sense into her husband before things got out of hand.

Gramps had a reputation of carrying a pistol, mostly for the enforcement of adjudicated water rights in our fecund, narrow valley. He never shot anyone; likely it was all for show, and in the way of the New West in the 1950s, the water issue was eventually settled in court.

He’d visit with his daughter, my aunt, and then we’d hit the trail, up the Collins Creek valley, Gramps on his favorite sorrel, Slim, and me on my big black horse, Spades. We had to ride through the upper pastures of the ranch to reach the forest, and I clearly remember the luminous emerald green of the well-grazed grasses, so bright and spectacular, right up to the edges of the run of the creek. It’s a strong, life-long memory that a young boy has carried to maturity.

Over the next few years, my aunt and uncle would occasionally hire me to ride for cattle on the Red Mountain range, where they had a grazing permit or, in the other world of Woody Creek ranching, would put me to work weeding their latest rows of fast-growing potato patches. I still remember the blisters.

Deep inside, I have an abiding love for that ranch, the two-story log house they lived in, the one with no running water, and for them. We had a close relationship that few relatives, I suspect, could ever manage to fashion. The ranch finally took more than they could muster, although no one ever tried harder. In later years, owning a successful business in town, they would both proclaim that those were the best years of their lives.

After Gramps died, I never again rode up through those bottomland green fields, even though I spent a lot of time on the ranch. Until, that is, a couple years ago when I rocked around them in a John Deere tractor, swathing the hay in those pastures turned to hayfields. A span of 60 years, at best, maybe more.

By then, my aunt and uncle, along with Gramps, were long dead. It was a bittersweet homecoming of sorts.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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