Horses, guitars add up to great valley living
July 23, 2014
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Anita Witt: Before I was married, my last name was McCune. My great-great-great-great-grandfather Robert McCune came here from Scotland and Ireland in the 1800s looking for a better life, like so many other immigrants at that time.
He settled in Illinois and became a farmer and had a son named Obediah. Obediah grew up and worked the land alongside his father. He eventually married and had a family of his own — six, big, strapping sons.
One of those sons was my great-grandfather, William Curtis McCune. And he had a son named Albert, my grandfather. Albert married Laveda and they raised their family in Wichita, Kansas, where I was born.
Gallacher: Tell me about your parents.
Witt: My dad drove a truck for Safeway all of his life. He was a veteran of World War II who fought on Iwo Jima. I don’t know how he managed to survive because a lot of the men from Wichita who fought there never came back.
I was only about 6 years old but I will never forget the night he came back. My mother and I and my Aunt Goldie and cousin Margaret Ann were sitting in the kitchen waiting for the taxicab. When he drove up he was in his green Marine outfit.
We were all overcome with emotion and so happy to see him and he didn’t know what to say. He’d been away for so long that he could hardly talk. My mom prepared him dinner and said, “Let’s let him have some time to himself.” And so my dad sat alone in the kitchen and ate his supper and we waited in the living room.
Later that week, my dad put on his “dress blues” and I took him for a walk through the neighborhood. All the neighbors came out and shook his hand and thanked him for all he did. I was so proud to be his daughter.
Gallacher: Was your dad able to recover from the trauma of war?
Witt: My mother never let my dad speak about the war, but after she passed I was able to talk to him about it. My dad was a very simple man and I think that saved him from the after effects of the war.
Gallacher: You have loved horses all of your life where did that come from?
Witt: It was my dad who saw how much I loved them. So one day he took me to the country sale and bought me a horse for $20 and let me ride it home.
We lived in town so we kept my horse on some vacant land that we had on the edge of town. My dad gave me horses, and I will always love him for helping me have them in my life.
I started dressing like a cowgirl and spending so much time with horses that the kids at school nicknamed me “Hoppy” after Hopalong Cassidy, a famous cowboy from that time.
After high school my parents sent me to Oklahoma State University. I had so much fun there because all I did was play my guitar and go to parties. One day the dean of women called me in. She said, “So are you having a good time, Hoppy!” And I said, “Oh, yes, I’m having a wonderful time!”
She looked at me over her glasses and said, “Well maybe you should listen to me. This is an institution of learning, and you will either shape up and go to classes and make your grades, or you will be gone!” She definitely got my attention and I started to do more work and less play.
Gallacher: When did you start playing the guitar?
Witt: When I was in high school we had a wonderful group called the Bobby Wiley Band and we played on KEDD, the local television station. We played five nights a week. We were all 14 and we would go to the station after school and play our little country songs.
Gallacher: You must have had quite a repertoire to play that many nights.
Witt: Oh, yes, we did, and we all took turns. They were wonderful people and we had a great time. It’s sad to think that they are all gone.
Gallacher: When you graduated from college did you plan on being an entertainer?
Witt: No, I graduated with a degree in teaching. But it didn’t take me too long to realize that I could make a lot more money with my guitar. Teaching was paying $300 a month and I could make that in a week. So I went on the road.
My manager was Buck Ram, who helped make the Platters famous. I worked out of Las Vegas and toured the country singing in clubs. It was in one of those clubs that I met my husband. He was quite the “drugstore cowboy” with his fancy cowboy boots. I saw him and looked down and said, “Goodbye, guitar.”
Gallacher: So it was love at first sight for you. Was it the same for Don?
Witt: I knew instantly but he had just been through a nasty divorce so it took him about three years. We were married in Chicago by the rabbi.
In 1967, we came here.
Don went to work for the drugstore in Aspen that first year. Then we decided to open our own business, Center Drug, in Glenwood. We started in the space that is now occupied by the flooring company in the Rite Aid building. We expanded three times and ended up in the space that is now Rite Aid.
He was a drugstore cowboy but he knew what he was doing when it came to managing a drugstore. I loved helping him make a business grow but there were times when we didn’t think we were going to make it. During those times, Don would sometimes send the wrong checks to his suppliers on purpose just so he could have a few extra days to get money in the account.
Gallacher: You have authored two books on the history of this area, “They Came From Missouri” and “I Remember One Horse.” What inspired you to write them?
Witt: Well, after Don passed away in 1993 I got to wondering about Missouri Heights, where we had spent the last 26 years. What was the history of this place and how did it get its name were just a few of the questions I had. I knew there were wonderful stories that needed to be told about this area.
When Don and I first got here there were only about six farms. And as I watched those farms turn into subdivisions, I was inspired to learn more about the pioneers who worked the land and tried to make a life here.
At first people were hesitant to talk to me, but over time, I gained their trust and then they were opening drawers and taking pictures off the walls.
They were wonderful people who wanted their story told. They truly did come from Missouri. One family would arrive and then send word to friends and family members that there was a chance for a better life in the mountains of Colorado.
They would load everything they owned — furniture, livestock, pots and pans — on the train in Missouri and head to Colorado with a lot of hope and faith. Dr. Clagett and his wife came to Missouri Heights in the 1914. In 1918, when World War I broke out, he moved to Carbondale to fill in for doctors who had been called to war. He and his wife eventually moved to Rifle and lived out their lives there.
Gallacher: What were the circumstances that motivated people to leave Missouri?
Witt: They were starving, there wasn’t enough water or workable land. They came here hoping for a better life and for so many of them there was no better life, just more of the same.
But there were success stories. Ira Fender came here and took a suitcase of potatoes and produce home to prove to his family that things were better in Colorado. When his wife saw the suitcase she knew there was no way of talking Ira out of moving.
Gallacher: Your next book was “I Remember One Horse.” Tell me how that developed.
Witt: I saw it as an important story that needed to be told. Subdivisions were sprouting up where there used to be ranches. And there were all these fine cowboys in the valley and I felt like people needed to know about them.
These were guys who were used to working all hours of the day and night, pulling calves in freezing rain and snow, bucking bales, feeding livestock, sorting potatoes and riding ditch. Their way of life was going away and I wanted to give some of them a chance to tell their story.
I teamed up with my friend, Lois Harlamert, who is a great photographer and we were able to profile 27 cowboys. My only regret is that we didn’t have room for 60 more.
Gallacher: What’s your next project?
Witt: Well, right now I’m just looking forward to riding my horse and hanging out with my dog, Spanky.