Father grew up a mountain man
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
In the early 1900’s William Meriwether’s grandfather came west to Cripple Creek, Colorado, to seek his fortune. But after a few unsuccessful years in the dry goods business and a constant battle with alcohol, he decided to try his luck at homesteading near Meeker. Things went from bad to worse in Meeker. While he slipped further and further into the bottle, his family of nine children sunk deeper and deeper into poverty.
Here William describes how his father’s grit and determination enabled him to escape a terrible homelife and prosper in the wilderness.
Meriwether: When my grandfather moved to Meeker he got a job as a ditch rider. He would go out on his mule with various picks and shovels and ride the irrigation ditch from Miller Creek down toward Meeker. He rode it every morning and back every afternoon. Ditch riding didn’t pay very well, but well enough to buy bottles of hooch. He rode ditch and drank the money. My dad told me stories of the Dust Bowl era poverty that he and his brothers and sisters experienced. They were always hungry.
Dad learned from his father’s neglect that he had to fend for himself if he was going to survive. He became a real rugged mountain man. He was handed a rifle by the time he was 7 years old and was expected to provide meat for the family of nine kids and a father that was pretty much out of sorts all of the time with a bottle. So my dad grew up learning the wilderness ways.
He was born and raised above Meeker on Miller Creek. When he got to around 10 years old he couldn’t live with the old man’s constant abuse anymore, so he “broke camp” and left the family. He went up to Buford to the Bar-Bell Ranch, which was owned by Alphonzo Bell, a wealthy oil executive from southern California. Alphonzo and his wife, Minnewa, took him in and put him to work doing all sorts of chores.
He eventually became the provider for the cow camps. He hunted and fished the south fork of the White River and supplied the camp cowboys with elk and deer. So all through his teen years he was at the Bar-Bell Ranch. And as he got older the Bells entrusted him with more and more.
The Bells needed a barbed wire fence to separate their pastures from the road that goes from Buford all the way to the South Fork campground. My dad was chosen to run a crew. So at 16 he was supervising a group of men in their 20s building a fence that is still visible today as you drive up and down that old road.
At one point during the project the crew disrupted a bee’s nest. The crew backed off and told my father he was on his own, they weren’t going to work and get stung. My dad said OK and waved them off and he went right on digging postholes and setting posts and stringing wire. The whole time he was doing this he was getting stung, but he was bound and determined to show this crew of 20-year-olds that he was up to the task and tough enough to put up with anything. And that included any lip they wanted to give him.
In his late teens he would go up to Budges Resort on snowshoes in the wintertime and trap all sorts of beaver, marten and ermine and other fur bearing critters that lived in and around the headwaters of the south fork of the White River. He spent three years living in one of the cabins at Budges. He had three trap lines, and each of them required two nights of winter camping in 30-, 40- and 50-below temperatures.
He wore a Trapper Nelson backpack and carried all the accoutrements of a mountain man trapper. He spent three winters gathering pelts. And in the springtime he would snowshoe back down the south fork of the White and into Buford. From there he would arrange to get a ride to Meeker where he would sell his pelts for three to six thousand dollars each year. That work made him an extremely wealthy young man because this was during 1929, ’30 and ’31 when the Depression was honkin’ on bigtime.
He was able to take the cash and buy himself a Model A and travel around in the summer months, just exploring and living off the land. Then in the winter he would go back up on the Flat Tops and do it all over again.
The Bells eventually bought a big spread out by Palm Springs and they asked my dad to be the foreman. It was a cattle operation out on the edge of the California desert, and he ran the whole thing. It was out there that my dad met my mom.
Early on, my mom and dad came back to Buford every winter so that my dad could try to get an outfitter business started, but he just couldn’t swing it with a young family. Mom and dad eventually broke up, and I would spend the school year with my mom and summers with my dad. My dad would bring me to Glenwood and we would go over to Dotsero and up the Coffee Pot Road. Stop at Deep Lake and hop in four-wheel drive truck and go down into Budges for a week and ride horseback.
Dad took me over all of his old trails and showed me his survival shelters. We rode his old trap lines, and he told me how he survived those hard winters and made it on his own.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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A report released this month by the Center for Colorado River Studies says that in order to sustainably manage the river in the face of climate change, officials need alternative management paradigms and a different way of thinking compared with the status quo. Estimates about how much water the Upper Colorado River Basin states will use in the future are a problem that needs rethinking, according to the white paper.