Betty and Cecil Waldron keep Rifle Heritage Center history alive — even in the dead of winter
Blankets cover many priceless artifacts salvaged from Colorado’s frontier history. New paint is being applied to the walls. There’s also no boiler to heat the place, closing its doors all winter.
This is the current state of the Rifle Heritage Center, a museum dedicated to ranchers, doctors, miners, photographers, dentists — pioneers behind the rudimentary stages of what’s now modern-day Western Slope.
But despite this brick facade building enveloped by large historical photos and paintings being closed throughout the dead of winter each year, curators Betty and Cecil Waldron still succeed in keeping its history alive and well.
Throughout the past few months, Betty, 80, and Cecil, 79, have hosted presentations at the Rifle Branch Library, where genuine Colorado historians come to highlight some of the most famous — and infamous — figures and events in Centennial State history.
Featured on Rocky Mountain PBS, Colorado historian David Little spoke of the 10th Mountain Division scaling a 2,000-foot cliff in northern Italy to surprise the Nazis in World War II.
Author of “Incident at White River,” Jay Sullivan also came to Rifle to discuss the devastating Meeker Massacre of 1879.
“I try to find subjects that are interesting to the public, subjects that depict history,” Betty said. “In January, we had Camp Hale, which was a tremendous hit.”
The Waldrons expected between 35-40 attendees. They instead at one point received a whopping 102 guests.
The foundation of Rifle’s museum itself holds its own distinct roots. Just before the Silt Conservation District started planning to build what is now the present-day Rifle Gap Reservoir in the late 1950s, at the bottom of the lake sat a former town called Austin. There were ranches and also a one-room schoolhouse, Cecil said. That very schoolhouse was removed prior to the reservoir’s construction and placed directly across from what is now present-day Rifle Creek Golf Course, on Colorado State Highway 325.
In 1967, old Rifle resident Emelyen Kansgen founded what would be called the Rifle Creek Museum inside the schoolhouse.
“The Rifle Creek Homemakers ladies club started gathering the artifacts that locals had, that they didn’t want to throw away,” Cecil said. “It got to the point that the schoolhouse couldn’t contain it all, so they made an addition onto it and stayed there.”
Standing two stories tall, Rifle built a new brick city hall at the corner of Fourth Street and East Avenue in 1952. Thirty years later, the city built what is now the area’s present-day city hall at Second Street and Railroad Avenue, which presented a perfect opportunity for Rifle’s lone museum to move into a new location.
“The Rifle Creek Museum board made a deal with the city of Rifle to lease it for $10 a year,” Cecil said. “So they moved the artifacts out of the Austin schoolhouse and moved them into here.”
The Austin schoolhouse still exists and can be toured at the Silt Historical Park. The museum, which later changed its name to the Rifle Heritage Center, now boasts more than 20 rooms with multiple exhibits in many of them.
“We have a fabulous Native American exhibit. We have an auto room. We’re just getting ready to make a new exhibit,” Betty said. This includes recreating a studio of Fred Garrison and Ola Anfenson, the region’s earliest photographers. The outside of the museum is decorated in large prints of their photos. “We’re moving the mineral exhibit upstairs and we’re making the Garrison studio in that room.”
Cecil and Betty Waldron came together as a husband and wife history couple in 2008. Cecil was born in Palisade in 1943 and moved to Rifle in 1947. He’d spend time with his father, Roy, as he’d do heavy machinery work for all the local ranchers. The area’s ranching history is Cecil’s favorite.
“Just getting to know the ranching and the lay of the land and enjoying it that way, and then getting to be here when the oil shale starts coming and it’s in its ups and downs and ups and downs,” Cecil said. “It made an impression but not really a good impression because it was boom or bust.”
Cecil then spent four years in the U.S. Air Force and later worked in the gas business in Green River, Wyoming.
Betty was born in Nebraska in 1942, raised in Wisconsin, later had a family in Wyoming and then moved to Montrose. And soon, Betty and Cecil met.
“He lost his wife. I lost my husband,” Betty said of Cecil. “And by that time I had navigated to Montrose. We met on eHarmony and we dated for a year, we got married and I moved up here because my place in Montrose wasn’t big enough to house all his toys — snowmobiles, trailers and classic cars.”
Since Cecil’s roots run deep in Rifle, Betty suggested they volunteer for the museum, and soon they’d be on the Rifle Heritage Center Board. This Rifle couple can now quickly provide synopses on just about every historical facet, like how Rifle came to be or the buffalo artifacts that intersperse the local landscape.
“I’m not from here, so I’m having to learn it all,” Betty said. “I am all ears when some of the old timers are talking. But it doesn’t have the meaning to me that it does to (Cecil). But I enjoy history, I’ve always loved history.
I’m into it, but not to the depth that he is because he has lived it and seen it.”
Since museum operations are supported solely by volunteers, it operates on donations and grants while the city itself pays its utilities. The museum also doesn’t have heating in the winter, so it’s generally open between May-October. Two volunteers — including Cecil and Betty — typically operate the place each day when it’s open, and sometimes the museum receives up to 15-20 people visitors per day, or, other times, 50 kids when a school field trip rolls through.
This coming season, with upcoming events like the contra dance in June and, later, the Voices in the Dark and mystery dinner for Halloween, the Waldrons look once again to keep the history alive and people walking through the front door.
“We always hope and pray that it will be a bang up year, and of course COVID didn’t help us any, but we hope that it will be,” Betty said. “We always start off making everything fresh and new and beautiful, and I’m trying to appeal to the general public.”
“You know what? We have world travelers coming in. We have far more out-of-county visitors than we do in-county visitors.” For more information about the Rifle Heritage Center, visit https://www.rifleheritagecenter.com.
Post Independent western Garfield County reporter and Assistant Editor Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or email@example.com
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