Meet one of Rifle’s true originals, Paul Bernklau

Tami Sours
Special to the Post Independent
Paul Bernklau

Each month or so, Tami Sours, director of the Rifle Senior Center, will be interviewing senior citizens here in the Rifle area to preserve the history of our wonderful town. She begins with her father, Paul Bernklau. Corresponding videos, called Senior Spotlight, can be found on the Rifle Community TV section of the website. This accompanying article is just a brief introduction to each featured person from the prospective of an observer of the conversations. If you think you or someone you know should be featured, please contact me at 970-319-8288 ( or Tami Sours at 970-665-6549 (tsours@ — Kathy Pototsky, Rifle public information officer

It took three people about five minutes to figure out how to turn off the tiny phone Paul Bernklau pulled out of the breast pocket of his perfectly pressed western-style shirt. It was clearly a model no one had seen for several years. But it seemed perfectly suited for its owner.

A handsome man neatly dressed in true Rifle style including the cowboy hat and silver belt buckle, he was not a man who spends a lot of time making or receiving calls. Physically fit with an air of comfortable confidence and a hint of mischievousness (he jokingly describes daughter Tami as “the only hell I ever raised”), Bernklau is indeed the personification of a true rancher. His sly sense of humor led me to laugh out loud quite a few times, completely forgetting the “quiet on the set” rule applicable to invisible audience members.

Bernklau was born in 1934. The staple industry in western Colorado at the time was agriculture. Bernklau and his sister, Darleen, attended the Horn Schoolhouse and, one year, were the only two students in the school which served grades 1-8. He also attended one year at the Beaver Creek School. He never owned a bike, instead riding the miles to school on a horse, periodically stopping at neighbor’s homes for a snack.

In 1949, several country schools moved to Rifle and Paul started high school at Rifle Union High and played baseball his junior and senior years.

So what was this town like back then?

“Very community oriented,” reflects Bernklau. “There were three lumberyards, three hardware stores, two drug stores, a Ben Franklin 5 and 10 cent store, Safeway, City Market, Wilson’s and J.C. Penney. All in a town with barely 1,200 people.”

Of course, in an era with no TV and very poor radio reception, downtown was the central hub of social interaction. Saturday nights were spent downtown with the women dressing to impress and everyone enjoying ice cream. Baseball games were also extremely popular and there were numerous local teams.

The County Fair was the event of the year. Bernklau was a rodeo clown in the mid-1950s. After serving in the Army, he returned to clowning which he did until 1963. Earning $35 per performance, he met “a lot of people who are still alive and still good friends.”

Sledding was a favorite winter activity. The county would plow the hills just low enough that there was still a layer of ice remaining. This allowed the sleds to get up to speeds estimated near 60 mph. Bernklau was quick to note that it wasn’t quite as dangerous back then since tech clothing and down jackets were still decades away.

“We had on layers and layers and layers of clothing and were very well protected.”

It was during one of these sledding excursions that Paul “met” his future wife, Carla Johnson. There were six people piled onto a sled when it went out of control and hit a snowbank. Carla, who was seated in the back, literally catapulted over everyone and landed right on top of Paul. This was the beginning of a relationship that has endured for over 60 years and produced four children, all born here in Rifle, nine grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren.

This idyllic lifestyle was altered with the construction of a new highway.

“The worst thing to happen to Rifle was the construction of I-70,” laments Bernklau. Before then it took 8-10 hours to get to Denver and at least three to get to Grand Junction. Needless to say, trips out of the area were rare and downtown thrived. The sense of community was strong.

There were also some hardships Paul remembers well. In 1956, there was a tremendous drought and nothing would grow. Although the Colorado River back then was “humongous,” the lack of precipitation forced him to sell his cattle. It was a vivid reminder that “we are only this far from the Great American Desert.” This year’s lack of moisture has him posing some serious questions: “Can we sustain agriculture? What happens if the water goes? If water is to be used for the most beneficial use, how can you decide between agriculture and flush toilets?”

It’s fascinating to see that while some things in Rifle have changed dramatically, some of the questions and concerns that we face today were faced by our predecessors. Yet in spite of changes in industry, Rifle continues to thrive. The stories from older generations serve as a reminder that there are many lessons for the future to be learned from the past. I’m looking forward to future interviews with other seniors and maybe even a follow up with Paul Bernklau.

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