Ralph Sample: fence mender, poet and predictor of rain | PostIndependent.com

Ralph Sample: fence mender, poet and predictor of rain

by Carrie Click
Post Independent Staff

NEW CASTLE – You wouldn’t necessarily expect a rancher to be an insurance agent, just like you wouldn’t expect someone who milked cows for a living to be a poet.

But Ralph Raymond Sample was all of these things, and much more. The lifelong New Castle rancher died Aug. 24, 2003, at his family home up East Elk Creek.

“He taught me everything I know about irrigating, pruning fruit trees, mending fence and the weather,” said John Kelly, who lives about a mile and a half from the Samples’ Gray Eagle Ranch northwest of New Castle. “And he was almost like Thomas Jefferson with the weather. He always knew when it was going to rain.”

After Ralph’s funeral, it hit Kelly that with his old friend gone, he didn’t know who he would go to for weather forecasts.

“And right then, it started to rain,” Kelly said. “It rained a lot after he died.”

Raised on the creek

Ralph Sample was born in Glenwood Springs Sept. 19, 1917, to Samuel John and Elsie (Harris) Sample. His parents, who came from Kansas to Colorado in 1909, brought their new baby to the Gray Eagle Ranch, the ranch named after a gold mine farther up the creek.

“But I have one over him,” said Ralph’s wife, Edna, with a smile. “I was born right on East Elk Creek, in a little log house beside the creek.”

Edna and Ralph lived just two miles from each other when they were kids. Edna’s parents moved to East Elk Creek in 1924, and Ralph’s future wife was born a year later.

“We used to ride the school bus together, but we weren’t high school sweethearts or anything like that,” she said with a laugh. “He was too old for me!”

Ralph had a sister, Marjorie, and two brothers, Barton and Harold. The family ran Sample’s Jersey Dairy for years at Gray Eagle Ranch, making milk deliveries via horse and wagon to all the families in town.

New Castle resident LaRue Wentz’s family has lived in the area for generations.

“Ralph said to me once, `I delivered milk to your grandmother,'” said Wentz. Ralph told Wentz he remembers making milk deliveries and dropping off bundles of mending in exchange.

“Ralph’s mother didn’t know how to sew and my grandma did,” said Wentz. “I guess Grandmother did a lot of things to make ends meet.”

Horses and dogs

After graduating from New Castle High School, Ralph got a degree at Mesa State College, “back when it was just a little old building in downtown Grand Junction,” said Edna.

Ralph’s father, Samuel, died in 1937, and during World War II, Ralph’s brother Harold was lost in New Guinea. Ralph’s mother, Elsie, a registered nurse, moved to Glenwood Springs and became a superintendent at the hospital, leaving Barton and Ralph to run the dairy and the 360-acre ranch. Edna and Ralph married in 1942, and had three children – John, Larry and Jeannette. It was rustic living.

“East Elk Creek didn’t get electricity until 1949,” Edna said.

Marjorie, Ralph and Barton eventually divided up the ranch between the three of them, closing down the dairy in the early 1950s.

With the dairy closed, the two boys got desk jobs. Barton was the postmaster for New Castle from 1950 to 1980, and Ralph opened Glenwood Insurance Agency with his partner, Walt Thrall.

But there were always sheep on the ranch, and there were always cows. There were always animals around Ralph.

“He loved animals,” Edna said. “We always had horses and dogs.”

John Kelly remembers Ralph’s love of animals, too.

“He loved my dogs Mookie and Jack,” Kelly said. “And they loved him.”

Even when herds of elk would get into Sample’s pasture and munch on the grass reserved for his stock, he wouldn’t get miffed. At the most, he’d fire a round from a shotgun over the elks’ heads to move them on.

“He wouldn’t whine about the elk,” said Kelly. “He’d just look and watch.”

Just last Thanksgiving, Ralph’s 10-year-old mare, Jackie, got tangled in fencing and lost her hind leg.

“They tried to save her, but we lost her,” Edna said.

And then in January, the couple lost their 10-year-old dog, a kelpie named Rusty, that Ralph had picked out as a pup.

“He said to me, `You know it’s pretty sad thing when a man loses his horse and his dog,'” Edna said.

`The security of home’

John Kelly could not have dreamed up better neighbors when he moved onto his ranch next to the Samples in 1987.

“You don’t really have next door neighbors up here,” Kelly said. “There aren’t any lights, and you can’t really see anyone else. But Ralph was always so gracious. As soon as you met him, it was immediate.”

Kelly, an internationally regarded photographer, was soon to become an experienced rancher. But first he needed some advice from Ralph.

“He’d only give you advice if you asked for it,” Kelly said. “He could do so many things.

“I remember once, a buddy of mine – an oil man from Texas I met when we were in Vietnam together – came up to visit with his wife. They were here to have a good time, but we had some fence to mend, so we all went out to mend this old fence. Here’s my buddy, at least 35 years younger than Ralph, and Ralph just about killed him. That’s the way he was. He worked steady, not to fast and not too slow, Kelly recalled.

Ralph didn’t need to replace old tools with newfangled equipment.

“He had an old 1948 John Deere tractor with two cylinders,” Kelly said. “He never saw a need to buy a new one. And he had an old Datsun pickup truck that worked fine for him.”

Now the Gray Eagle Ranch is up for sale, and Edna is planning to move to Battlement Mesa when the place sells, staying relatively close.

Family – including daughter Jeannette Davidson, who just retired from teaching at Riverside School, brother-in-law Barton Sample, who recently moved to Colorado State Veterans Nursing Home in Rifle, and dozens of other family members live in the area.

“We’ve never lived anywhere else,” Edna said. “Ralph loved the security of home.”

Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. 518


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