Resourceful ranch woman raised a family on ingenuity
RIFLE – Vivian Langstaff’s inventiveness and resourcefulness served her well over the better part of a century as a ranch woman.One of the only problems she hasn’t figured out how to overcome is old age.At age 94, she sat on her bed at E. Dene Moore Care Center in Rifle recently and recounted how she tapped a reservoir of strength all her life.”But right now I just feel like a wet noodle. I do not feel like I can survive much longer. Ninety-four years is a long time,” she said.It was only last year that Langstaff had to go into the nursing home, after a fall and a heart attack. But she said she’s lucky to be living there.”If you can’t live by yourself, this is one of the best places to be,” she said.As Langstaff talked, she stared off into space, seemingly frustrated by the limits that old age finally has gotten around to placing on her. But while she is on oxygen and has trouble with her legs, her mind remains sharp and her vision still seems good. Her daughter, Vivian Mathers, said her mom still drove her car in recent years after moving into senior housing in Rifle in 1993, and was a good driver at that. Mathers recalled how her brother, Mike Langstaff, decided not to assume it was time his mom stopped driving, and instead went out for a ride with her to see for himself.”Mike got back and said she drives perfectly fine,” Mathers said, as her mom allowed herself a smile at the memory.Then again, what’s the big deal about driving a car in the case of someone who learned to ride horses as a child, and managed them adeptly for much of her life?
“My dad wouldn’t let me ride with a saddle until I had learned how to ride a horse bareback. It was one of his principles – you learn better that way, I guess,” Langstaff said.Mathers said her mom, whose husband Ira has passed away, is the last of her generation in the Langstaff family. She’s also one of the last in a generation of local residents whose lives were unimaginably different from life in Garfield County today. Langstaff’s parents took over a relative’s homestead in the Anvil Points area west of Rifle, making her a living part of the county’s early agricultural history.Langstaff was born in Kansas but then lived in Nebraska, where her father, Otto Black, was a teacher. He also had been one of the first carpenters to work on the federal facilities in Los Alamos, N.M., where the atomic bomb was developed. He must have been in heaven when he moved with his wife, Emma, and their family to Anvil Points.”My dad was nuts about horses,” Langstaff explains.During World War II he had wanted to catch wild horses on the Roan Plateau for the U.S. cavalry, “but by that time cavalry was going out,” Mathers said.However, the family did end up with a once-wild horse named Gypsy that was unusual in that it had seven gaits, from walks to trots to lopes. After Langstaff married, the horse showed the smarts to be able to travel on its own between their winter ranch headquarters in the narrow valley of Rifle Gap and their summer ranch up West Elk Creek.Mathers only learned later in life the story behind her parents’ marriage. Langstaffs’ parents were both Seventh-day Adventists, and Ira wasn’t. So the couple eloped. “It took them several years to accept it but they did. They decided that Ira was a pretty good man after all,” Langstaff said.The Langstaffs married under the open sky rather than in a church.”They were the original hippie children,” Mathers said. “They did things the flower children were doing later – outdoor weddings.”
They also did whatever needed to be done to run a ranch and raise five kids. Once they snowshoed across the Flat Tops – 16 miles, almost to Meeker – to get supplemental milk for a months-old child. When they came to one creek crossing, Langstaff had to toss the baby, protected by a heavy bundle of blankets, over the water to her husband so she could scoot across a log herself.Langstaff would run their ranch single-handedly when her husband was away. He often worked at a family sawmill up East Rifle Creek in the Flat Tops or building fences for the government.”She was fully capable of running the place if Dad had to be someplace,” Mathers said. “During her lifetime, she’s helped build fences, she’s helped saw wood.”Langstaff once told her daughter she preferred outside work, having done plenty of housework in her youth as the oldest daughter of the family. But while she loved ranch jobs such as cutting hay, she also was kept plenty busy doing the work of a ranch mother. She would get water out of the creek and let it settle overnight before doing the laundry with a ringer washer powered by a gasoline motor. She was an excellent cook, and would garden and can to help keep her family well-fed, even during the Depression. She also played piano in what spare time she could find.She was endlessly creative. While rocking a sick child, she figured out a way to put the motion to use churning butter. She managed to use the ringer washer to strip peas from their pods. She added cactus to the laundry water to help the dirt settle out. She tied a dead chick around a Samoyed dog’s neck to teach it not to kill chicks.”I went to Glenwood Springs one year and I bought airplane fabric that was bright orange and I made vests for the family so when they went hunting that fall they were visible,” Langstaff said.Langstaff called ranching “a life worth living,” and said she misses it – “the fact that you’re independent … the fact that you can do and live however you want to.”Langstaff lived through the technological revolution that changed her life as it did every American’s.”I saw the first radio, then they turned to television, then they turned to microwaves,” she said.She was no more daunted by technology than by ranching, as proven by the ultimate test – she did just fine at programming her videocassette recorder, Mathers said.
Langstaff treasures unique memories during her life – driving from California to Colorado with her aunt in 1929, witnessing oil shale operations at her family’s Anvil Points property, seeing the Donner Party cannibal site in California where survivors had lopped off trees 14 feet up to survive a winter when the snow piled up that high, watching the strange sight of an apparent test aircraft coming down with a giant parachute at Edwards Air Force Base, also in California.”She’s probably seen more of history than any generation before,” her daughter mused.She’s also lived it and been a part of it.Today, she disdains having been reduced to “living off oxygen and pills,” perhaps in part because she was the epitome of the independent ranch woman.”I could do a lot of things,” she said.But she appreciates having had the chance to experience so much in her life.”I have had a very, very varied life. Ninety-four years is a very long time to live,” she said.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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