Sunday Profile: From the flatlands to a rich life in the valley
Rex Coffman may have been born in the flatlands, but his credentials as a true Western Slope rancher are irrefutable.
He and his wife, Jo, were both raised on farms and met at the University of Nebraska. Rex, riding his horse through campus, offered Jo a ride, and she accepted.
“The way she stepped up in that stirrup made me think this might be something that’ll work,” he recalled.
They were married in 1952, and when Rex returned from a two-year stint in Korea, they decided to move to Colorado.
“We didn’t know much about the mountains, but they will draw you back,” Rex said.
After four years in the Eagle Valley, they bought Albert Cerise’s ranch along Catherine Store road, where they’ve been ever since. They even kept the brand, a lazy A and an inverted C.
Although his previous ranching experience put him in good stead, Rex was obliged to learn a few things from scratch.
“Back in Nebraska, you ran the cattle on your own ranch. Here, you have to have the Forest Service land,” he explained. “It’s good for the land and it’s good for the rancher.”
There’s also the matter of irrigation.
“It doesn’t take you that long to learn it,” Rex said. “You can’t make water run uphill; but if you can, you’re a good irrigator.”
The farm also happened to have a dairy, which served the Coffmans’ cows as well as some of their neighbors, like the Sharps, Nieslaniks and Gerbazes.
“I milked twice a day for 15 years,” Rex recalled. “When I quit dairying, I got into the pickup at four in the afternoon and drove around just to see what was happening.”
In Carbondale in the early 1970s, it wasn’t all that much.
“There are a lot of things you had to go to Glenwood for,” he said. “You couldn’t order it on Amazon.”
The Coffmans still managed to find time to raise three kids, and were well connected with the community.
“I knew all the ranchers and they knew me,” Rex said. “Now a lot of them have passed on.”
Rex served in the leadership of the Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association for 25 years, helped with the development of the rodeo grounds near his ranch and served as an auctioneer and square dance caller. Once, he had the pleasure of making a sale to comedian Buddy Hackett. Another time, he taught square dancing to Luciano Pavarotti and his troupe when they came to perform at the Aspen Music Festival.
“That was a little different for this old cowboy,” he said. “It was kind of a feather in my hat.”
He also juggled ranch work with the realty business for 15 years.
“Some days I’d change clothes three times a day,” he recalled.
Jo, née Knotts, taught kindergarten for a few years before spending two decades teaching home economics at Carbondale’s high school. Her students graduated with a firm grasp of etiquette, cooking, sewing, child care and money management, and at one point three local City Market managers owed their skills to her. By the late 1980s, though, home ec was going out of fashion.
“People thought they could learn everything on TV, so they decided I wasn’t needed,” she said.
Jo continued to find a place for herself as a judge for the county and state fair, and continues to fill her time with golf, hiking, tai chi and watercolor painting.
“I’m just as active as I can be.”
The Coffmans, both 84, now lease their cattle to another outfit and winter in Arizona, but Rex doesn’t consider himself entirely retired.
“There’s something to do every day on a ranch if you want to. You’re never done,” he said. “After being here for 57 years, I still find things to improve on.”
There’s more neighbors and more traffic on the road than there used to be, but he’s getting used to it.
“You can’t deny progress,” he said. “You’ve just gotta change your ways a bit and accept it.”
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.