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Tony Vagneur: Women held the West together

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

To put a time on it, you’d have to say it was in the “old” days, before the world of today — well, you know what today’s Aspen is like, pretty much, anyway.  We lived in Woody Creek, before that name rang a bell with anyone other than valley ranchers and maybe a few packing houses in Denver.

It was The West, about as close as anyone got around here. We rode our horses to work, we used horses to pull farm implements, we raised cattle, purebred Herefords, had a huge garden, a henhouse, dairy cows, a pigsty across the road, a large orchard full of apple and plum trees, with several large patches of rhubarb (think of the pies). Deer and elk were in abundance during hunting seasons. 

In all of Woody Creek, we had four neighbors who weren’t Vagneurs, which, in actuality, made us isolated, but I don’t think anyone used that word or term in thinking of our existence. In looking back, I prefer the term idyllic, although I’m sure my mother would argue with me about that, although not entirely. In any case, it may be on overstatement on my part.



My maternal grandmother, who was born and raised on the ranch that now contains the Aspen airport, was a semi-retired school teacher and spent a lot of time with us on the Woody Creek place.

Depending on the size of the summer crew, she and my mother would plan the menu for the day, which oftentimes meant going to the henhouse (free-range during the day) to pick out two or thee birds for the evening meal. Mother would describe the chickens she thought were past prime-quality laying performance, and Grandma and I would head to the chicken house to gather in the unfortunate feathered friends. 




Unlike today, when we get them out of the store cooler, Grandma and I started with live chickens, my job to catch them under my arm and bring them to the chopping block. It was bloody, and Grandma, in her 60s, wielded the ax with an unerring eye — in retrospect, maybe a bit unpleasant, but in those days, nobody was going to do it for you. Then we’d clean them out, soak them in hot water for a bit, and pluck the feathers off, readying them for the cook pot.

Then it was down to the garden, where my mother might be busy weeding the rows and rows of vegetables, and pick what the women thought might go good with the chickens we had just harvested. They’d both fill their aprons with produce and head to the house, where peas were shelled, corn was shucked, radishes, carrots and onions were washed, whatever. Enthusiastically, I would help. Maybe pick some sweet peas for the table – my mother loved those and geraniums.

While all that was going on, Mom likely had a roast in the oven or in the pressure cooker, maybe some venison or elk meat, along with some potatoes and other vegetables for the soon-to-arrive lunch (dinner if you prefer) hour.

They’d fill up a bucket with cold water and hang it just outside the back door, with a long-handled dipper, where each member of the crew would take a long drink of cold creek water and then pass the dipper on to the next man in line.

We talk about the men of the West, those John Wayne caricatures of men who in reality were the models that JW used to craft his own characters, and they deserve all the accolades they get.

But so often overlooked are the women of the West, wives and daughters of men who ranched the land, the women who kept the home fires burning, who headed off disaster before it could get past the ranch house; women who would go to the neighbor’s place to borrow this of that or to pass along important information. Some single women owned their ranches outright, such as “Cattle Queen” Kate Lindvig of Snowmass or Nellie Bird, east of Aspen. Many wives rode the range with their husbands. 

So when you think you’re cool clunking down the sidewalk in your shined-up boots, designer jeans and new Stetson, buying drinks at the bar or trotting your horse around the arena in front of your house, make a place in your memory for the women who without fanfare or complaint held it all together.

It seems like I always helped the womenfolk with such chores until I was old enough to ride my own horse and drive tractors pulling farm implements. And in reflection, let me just say, having grown up like that, I always get a chuckle out of those advocating “farm to table” menu items or events, as though that were a new thing. 

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.  

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