25 years ago was a booming time for Rifle and Parachute | PostIndependent.com

25 years ago was a booming time for Rifle and Parachute

JOHN GARDNERGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Construction of Bea Underwood Elementary School in Battlement Mesa (center). School is surrounded by mobile homes and new single-family homes in April 1982. 

RIFLE – The past can tell us a lot about what the future holds.The people of Rifle, Parachute and all of Western Garfield County are hoping that the area’s current booming economy, brought on by energy development, isn’t going to repeat history.Energy companies drilling the ground for natural gas and the continued interest in oil shale development in the region has some folks thinking about one particular day, 25 years ago.It’s a day now known as “Black Sunday.” The date was Sunday, May 2, 1982.”It’s one of those times you remember, like when John F. Kennedy was shot,” said Ed Sands, an attorney in Rifle who moved to town in 1978 just as the energy boom was turning this quiet agricultural community into a bustling oil shale exploration hub.Sands was an assistant city attorney in 1982 when the bust flattened Rifle’s morale. He remembers doing yard work and listening to the radio when the announcement came over saying that Exxon USA was closing down the Colony Oil Shale project north of Parachute.The scene the next day was uneasy, to say the least.

“Exxon brought in security officers to secure the facilities and no one was allowed on the premises,” Sands said.One year later, the Rifle Tribune, one of two newspapers for the town during that period, ran a cover photo of Third Street in downtown Rifle manipulated to look like the town had been abandoned, complete with tumbleweeds blowing down the street.That image Sands has never forgotten, even though he speaks about it today with a slight grin.”That picture just epitomized our fears of what Rifle could become, a ghost town,” Sands said.

Before the bust came, Arnold Mackley, a former Garfield County commissioner, said that living in Rifle was “very exciting.””It was very similar to what it’s like now,” Mackley said. “The town was bustling and a lot of things were happening.”It was almost overnight that the bustle came to town, when Exxon USA moved in and took up operations in 1980. But just as quickly as the company came to town, it packed up and left, leaving the town’s residents with little but fear and loathing for what was the largest corporation in the world at the time.Jim Handzus, maintenance technician at the Rim Rock Apartments in Rifle, was 24 at that time. He didn’t work at Rim Rock during that time but he recalls that the apartments were constructed for employee housing. In one day, the sounds of hammers pounding boards together was replaced with a silent breeze.”Everything was like it is today,” Handzus said. “Everything was crowded and there was no place to live. Then literally in a week, everyone was gone.”Rifle has seen the booms and busts of the energy industry several times during the past century. Handzus recalled the bust of ’82 as a “very weird and bad time.”As for Sands, he phrased it as a “collective depression or psychosis. It was very bad. No one knew what was going to happen next.”A number of business closed, and Sands said that it seemed like almost every third house had a for-sale or foreclosure sign in the window, the yards all unkempt with weeds taking over the rock gardens and flower beds.”It was a very uncertain time,” Sands said.Gary Miller estimated that his store, Miller’s Dry Goods on Third Street, is one of just a few businesses in Rifle that survived the bust 25 years ago. Sands agreed, saying that he remembers Timberline Sporting Goods and the Texan bar were here at the time as well.

Longtime Rifle resident Dean Hubbell also vividly remembers the bust. He heard the news the following Monday because he was traveling home from Denver and the radio was cutting out in Glenwood Canyon when the announcement was made on Sunday.Every year since then, Hubbell’s hosted a “survivors party” in Rifle for those who chose to remain. But he remembers the feeling in town the day after so clearly that it still makes him nervous.”You bet it does,” Hubbell said. “It really felt similar to what it does today. I remember (Director of the Colorado Department of Transportation) Russell George told me once back then, ‘I can smell the greed in the air.”Contact John Gardner: 384-9114jgardner@postindependent.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

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