Vagneur: Within reach of the modern world
Somewhere in our minds we have the image of the man of the West, a lonely character up against almost insurmountable odds, carving out a beaver trap line in wet, hostile Indian territory; staking out a homestead in the middle of the flattest terrain anywhere; building a ranch hundreds of miles from the nearest market; or planting a farm on the poorest soil ever conceived by Mother Nature. We see the craggy face, the lines of heartbreak and jubilation etched deep, and there’s an abiding loneliness that dulls his eyes.
That’s kind of how it was, but not entirely. Read the newspaper want-ads today and you’ll see in the job requirements redundancy after redundancy, “team players only need apply,” as if that’s a modern concept that still hasn’t quite caught on.
For certain, those ranchers, mountain men and farmers from back when faced much of life alone and still do today, but they couldn’t have survived for long without teamwork. Think back to the old-time barn-raisings, once a cause for great community get-togethers and still celebrated as a life necessity in Midwestern Amish communities.
Began in 1901 or 1902 and completed in 1903, a group of men led by my great-grandfather, Jeremie Vagneur, built the Salvation Ditch, an engineering marvel that still provides irrigation water to farmers and ranchers as far away as lower Woody Creek Canyon. As a matter of clarification and historical accuracy, let me say that Jeremie replaced the original construction manager after it was discovered that the first man’s use of the elevation-determining device was ill-conceived and the ditch did not have enough fall to properly flow.
Those who built the Salvation, aptly named for those on a very dry McLain Flats, were a team of ranchers and farmers engaged in a project beneficial to all of them. Names such as Donald McLean, Horace Gavin, Edward Gray, Louis Bourg, Benedict Bourg, Fred Clavel, Jeremie Vagneur and Alexander Scott entrusted their future longevity to the building of the Salvation Ditch.
Likely you’ve heard this before, but McLain Flats was named after Donald McLean, a Scotsman whose name was pronounced the same as McLain. Unfortunately and at some later time, intellectually challenged government officials who recorded such things needed to “Americanize” it because they didn’t know how to pronounce McLean. Prior to construction of the Salvation Ditch, the area was called Poverty Flats.
Irrigation canals are one thing, but much of the day-to-day work on a ranch requires a good amount of team work. Threshing grain was one activity that brought the whole of a ranching community together to get the job done. Men took turns using the leased threshing machine, going from one ranch to the next separating the grain from the straw. Men from the surrounding ranches would drive to the designated ranch with their horse-drawn wagons, ready to haul the neatly shocked piles of grain to the central location that held the threshing machine. While this was going on, the other “epicurean” half of the team converged in the host kitchen, making a phenomenal lunch, including dessert, for the threshing crew.
Picking potatoes, cleaning ditch, fixing fence, turning cattle out on the range, branding, pregnancy testing and a ton of other ranch activities all required cooperation of neighbors and a spirit of teamwork.
I used to love it when I’d rake hay ahead of my dad, turning it over to dry just enough for my dad to scoop it up into the baler and make those little square bales we’re all so familiar with. Sometimes we’d be racing a thunderstorm, and it was a thrill to see the progress we were making.
A few evenings ago, out in those very same fields I worked as a kid, it was a replay of those days with my dad, almost, only I was cutting the last of the hayfields while watching my son-in-law Ty bale hay I’d cut several days before. I worked it until 9 p.m., watching a quickly falling fuel gauge as I finished the last of my work. Ty had more to do and kept making those big, round bales until 2 a.m. It was still family and it was still working together like I did with my dad, and there was a feeling of tradition and closeness about it that made it so much more memorable.
Like so many other things in life, “teamwork” isn’t a new concept, and wasn’t new when the Roaring Fork ranchers and farmers put the concept to work, but you can trust that the term didn’t enter U.S. lexicon until sometime around 1828. That almost puts it within reach of our modern world, doesn’t it?
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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