A good life in the valley despite growing up in hard times
June 25, 2014
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This story is a collaboration of the Mount Sopris Historical Society, the Garfield County Library and the Immigrant Stories Project. Walter Gallacher is a Glenwood Springs native and a retired marketing director with Colorado Mountain College.
Intro: Jim Crowley is 96 years old and has spent most of his life in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Crowley: My mother came to this country with her parents from Pratt, Kansas, in the late 1800s. They settled in Aspen, and her dad was a printer and also a judge. When mom was a young woman she came up the Fryingpan River to Thomasville to teach school.
She met my dad here. They had a tough time. Mom was makin’ about $30 a month, and dad had a hard time finding steady work. But he was in the store down at Meredith one day, and he got to talkin’ to Gus Dearhammer, the store owner. Gus told him he had 200 logs up on Dead Man Creek that he needed but he couldn’t find anybody to haul them.
Dad told him that if he would stake him to a team of horses and a sled he’d haul ’em. So Gus staked him, and dad went to Marble and bought a team and spent all winter haulin’ logs for Gus. After that they became the best of buddies and there wasn’t anything that Gus wouldn’t do for Dad.
By then the folks were runnin’ some cattle and startin’ to get a little better off. Gus let them run a bill at the store from one year to the next. When they shipped their cattle they paid the bill, and then they’d start all over again.
Gallacher: That was real trust.
Crowley: Boy, I’ll say. But I think Gus knew my dad was a man of his word. Dad came here from Medford, Missouri, with a fourth-grade education, but he was a planner and a hard worker. He learned about hard work from his dad. Granddad worked in the timber down at Ruedi, and it was there that he got his foot crushed by a log skidder one day. He never worked again. His leg got infected, and he died of blood poisoning.
Gallacher: What was it like growing up here in Thomasville?
Crowley: I was born in 1918, and the railroad into Thomasville stopped that year. There were six of us kids, four boys and two girls. I was next to last, and now I’m the only one left. There were some really tough times back then. I remember for Thanksgiving one year all we had was lima beans and bread. We didn’t suffer like some folks, we had plenty of venison and elk, but there was very little money to be had.
We kids slept in the bunk house, which we never heated at night, so in the winter we would run as fast as we could and jump in our feather bed, which was a big ol’ bag stuffed with chicken and turkey feathers. We could stay warm in there almost any night. In the morning we would run back to the house and get behind the stove.
There was quite a little colony of people here then, there was a lot of loggin’ goin’ on and prospectin’, a lot of prospectin’. There was a lime quarry up Dead Man Creek then, and they would haul the lime down to the kilns here and burn it down to a powder and then ship it to a smelter in Leadville to be used in hardening steel.
Dad worked on that kiln for a time.
Gallacher: Your dad did a lot of different things in his life.
Crowley: Yes, he did, he was always lookin’ for a way to get ahead. One year when he was a young man, someone had dug a prospect mine at the base of Fools Peak and shot gold into the walls of the hole to make it look like there was a rich vein.
They eventually sold the claim to some guy named Pratt from back East who believed their story. It wasn’t long before Pratt had shipped a big steam engine and equipment for a sawmill up to Thomasville and then had it all hauled in about 15 miles towards Woods Lake. They built some roads and pulled it all to the mine with teams of horses. They got it all set up and built a big stamp mill (ore crusher) out of timbers all in preparation for processing the gold.
Then they built a big flume up near the prospect hole with the idea of running the ore down the flume and into the stamp mill. They fired it all up, started workin’ and … nothin’.
When Pratt realized he’d been swindled, he just walked off and left everything. My dad saw an opportunity and eventually bought all the equipment and the steam engine for pennies on the dollar and spent a winter with a team of horses and a sled haulin’ it all down here to Thomasville. That spring he set up the sawmill, and we started cuttin’ timber and makin’ lumber.
Gallacher: Was there a lot of building going on then?
Crowley: People were always remodeling and building sheds. It wasn’t a big business, but we did pretty well sellin’ to all the Italians in Basalt and Emma and up Woody Creek. They all wanted a little lumber, and they were great people to deal with.
They always had the money to pay, the minute you delivered it. There was none of this “pay you later.” When you gave them a bill, they’d go somewhere and dig it out of a sock or somethin’ and pay you right on the spot. Then they’d invite you for a glass a wine to seal the deal.
The lumber business was good to us, so when Dad got to ranchin’ he just kept branchin’ out and branchin’ out until he had about 4,000 acres of ranch and pasture. He also spent about 50 years maintaining the road between Ruedi and Carlton Tunnel for the county. A good part of that 50 years was with four horses pullin’ a grader. The county paid him about $4 a day.
When Dad was workin’ for the county I was left to take care of the ranch. We had about 150 head of cattle by then. My brother Ray would take care of the cows on the summer range, while I looked after the ranch and put up the hay. One of my favorite jobs was helpin’ Ray move the cattle to up around Woods Lake in the spring.
In the fall, we would round them all up and pick out the ones that we wanted to go to market. We’d herd them down from Woods Lake to Basalt on horseback and then on to Emma where we loaded them on the train and off to market. It took us about four days from start to finish.
Gallacher: You’ve been around horses most of your life.
Crowley: All my life. Since I was 5 years old I don’t ever remember bein’ without a horse. I still have one. We depended on horses for most everything, in the winter they were the only way to get out of here.
Gallacher: You grew up in the hard times of the ’20s and ’30s; how did that experience shape your life?
Crowley: Well, I think I turned out to be a lot like my dad. I’ve managed ranches, run heavy equipment, built roads, worked as a shop foreman and supervised construction crews.
Gallacher: So you’ve had a pretty good life.
Crowley: A good life, some tough times but a lotta good times. The Rocky Mountain Gas explosion was the toughest. It took me two years to recover, and I’m still gettin’ over the shock of losin’ my friends.
Gallacher: That was the explosion in Glenwood Springs in 1985?
Crowley: Yes, I was workin’ in the shop there, and we had brought this gas tank in for repairs. We had been told it was empty so we pulled it into the garage that was in the basement of the building.
One of the guys was changing a defective valve on the tank. He got to about the last two threads and the whole valve just peeled off. The building filled up with gas instantly, it was like a fog in there. When that fog hit the pilot lights on the overhead heaters the whole place blew.
Gallacher: How much time did you have to react?
Crowley: We only had a few minutes. The people in the offices upstairs didn’t know a thing about it. I was blown under a semi and my arm was caught in one of its springs. I had a broken arm, a broken leg and a broken neck. I was finally able to free my arm someway.
I crawled around under that truck tryin’ to find a way out. There was smoke everywhere from the fires. Finally Jack heard me and started clearin’ a way.
He and Leonard had to lift me up over this eight-foot wall to get me out. Two firemen showed up about then and took me to the hospital, but it wasn’t until they got me to the hospital that they realized my neck was broke.
Gallacher: How many friends did you lose that day?
Crowley: Twelve were killed and 15 were injured. The shock of losin’ them is still with me. It was terrible. We were like family, some were like my brothers and sisters. I lost my will to live for quite a while after that.
My kids and my girlfriend, Lila, looked after me and tried to encourage me. Doc Derkash and my minister gave me pep talks. But the shock of it all just wouldn’t go away. It was Lila who finally got through to me, and I’m sure glad she did. I would have missed out on a lotta good things in my life.