Scraping by on the Cerise Ranch
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Clifford Cerise: Both sides of my family came from northern Italy from the Valle D’Aosta (Aosta Valley). They came because they didn’t have anything to look forward to in Italy at that time. They were poor, and they decided to try somewhere else. I remember my grandpa saying that the reason he chose the Roaring Fork Valley was because it reminded him of the valley he came from.
My grandpa came, the first time, when he was 16. He stayed for two years and worked in Pennsylvania tanneries. He got called back to Italy to serve in the military and came back when he got out. He came as far as Leadville where he worked in the smelters. From there he went back and married my grandmother and they had two boys and a daughter, but the daughter died as a baby.
Grandpa came back to Leadville around 1900 with my grandma’s two brothers and worked in the smelters again. He sent for my grandma and the boys in 1905, and my dad was born in Leadville in 1907. They stayed in Leadville while my dad and grandma’s brothers saved enough money to buy a ranch in the Roaring Fork Valley. That ranch was just up the road from where we are now.
When they moved from Leadville they put everything they had on a Colorado Midland cattle car and rode it to the switch where the ranch was. The train stopped and set the car off on the siding and they unloaded their stuff. They had a milk cow, a couple horses and a wagon to haul firewood, just the basics.
Gallacher: Did they have any experience farming and ranching?
Cerise: Grandpa did. When he was a young man he used to take the milk cows to the mountains in the summertime. They would milk the cows and make cheese all summer and bring them back home in the fall. He did whatever he could to make a living. He used to take a backpack and walk over Saint Bernard pass into Switzerland and smuggle high-duty goods like chocolate into Italy.
Gallacher: How long did your family stay on that ranch?
Cerise: Well, around 1923, when my dad was 16, he and his two older brothers went in together and bought what is now called the Cerise Ranch next to my grandparents. They worked that ranch together through some pretty lean years.
Dad used to tell a story about a guy named Alec Cuaz, who was from the same valley in Italy. He lived just up the road here and had loaned my dad and his brothers the money to buy the ranch. During those really hard years when it came time to pay, Alec would say, “Just give me what you can. I don’t want that land. We’ll try it again another year.” So through all those tough years he let them stay. He kept telling them that things might get better, and they did.
In 1936, Grandma had died and Grandpa was getting up in years and wanted to retire. My dad’s oldest brother took over for Grandpa, and he moved to Basalt and had a little house, a couple of milk cows and a few acres of pasture where the gas station on 82 is now. Dad and his brothers took turns looking in on him and hauling him hay whenever he needed it. He lived there until he died in 1952.
Gallacher: So your family made it through the Depression by looking out for one another?
Cerise: Yes, we Italians stuck together and looked after one another. I’m reminded of that when I see the Spanish people that are here today. They seem to take care of one another like we did when we were getting started.
I was young so I never really knew it was the Depression. We always had plenty to eat. If we needed flour we took some wheat down to the flour mill in Glenwood and had them make us some flour. We raised potatoes and went out and got a deer now and then. We raised beef but that was our income so we stuck to eating venison, “government beef” is what we called it.
In those days we got paid twice a year, once when we sold our cattle in the fall and again when we sold our potatoes in the winter or early spring. I can remember paydays in the fall when we would go to town to the grocery store to pay off our bill. Guido Bagett’s family ran the store, and Guido would give my sister and me a big sack of hard candy. That was a special time. We didn’t go to town very often.
Gallacher: A lot of folks figured out creative ways to get around Prohibition. What about your family?
Cerise: We were no different than anybody else. Most people who lived out in the country had a distillery set up somewhere. My grandma was taking care of the Rex Hotel in Glenwood at the time, and there was quite a demand for a little moonshine. They made moonshine out of just about anything, apricots, grapes. Dad used to make a little bit. I can remember helping him do it. I was the guy who kept the fires going. I was just a kid, but that was my job.
Dad sold enough moonshine to buy a Model A car. Dad was pretty frugal with everything so he figured out a way to rig this car with an extra tank and he put distillate in it. Distillate was a very low-grade fuel that you could buy for 10 cents a gallon. Dad would start the car with gas and get it warmed up and then switch over to the distillate. It ran really good.
Gallacher: Did the sheriff ever come visit?
Cerise: No, nothing like that. Like I said, everybody was doing it. Dad used to tell a story about going to dances. He said he could always tell who was drinking moonshine because they had a mark on the bridge of their nose from drinking out of a Mason jar.
Gallacher: Did your family make wine?
Cerise: Grandpa Cerise would buy four or five tons of grapes every year. Mike Bosco would bring them in railroad cars from California, and Dad and I would haul them home for Grandpa. He made Zinfandel with the red grapes and Muscatel with the white. After you had the wine off, you took what was left and ran it through the still and made grappa*.
I can remember throwing the pulp that was left from the grappa out for the pigs and chickens. The pigs would eat that and pretty quick start squealing and running right into the fence. The rooster would get up and crow like crazy and then just fall over.
Gallacher: Your family relied on potatoes as a money crop for quite a few years?
Cerise: Yes, my grandpa planted potatoes when he first got here in 1908. My dad really liked raising them, but I always favored raising cattle. I can remember the winter of ’39 and ’40, Dad had raised a lot of potatoes that year and the cellars were full of them. By then the potato market had been experiencing some pretty bad years. We ended up practically giving them away some years.
We would sort up a railroad car full of them and send them out to Denver on consignment. We were lucky to get 50 cents a hundred some years. They just paid you what they wanted sometimes.
Gallacher: What did you do when there was no money in your money crop? Those winters must have been hard.
Cerise: Well, they were, but we had a few cows. So we milked cows and raised hogs and chickens. I can remember going with my dad in 1939 to make our payment on our ranch loan and the guy said, “I don’t know how you done it. I would have been satisfied if you had just given me some interest.”
My dad was frugal and he knew how to keep his money. He wanted to own land and so he figured out a way to put money aside.
I can remember when I was young and just married and my wife wanted an electric Singer sewing machine. I think it was $25 and I didn’t have it, so I got it on credit for $5 a month until I could get it paid off. My dad found out what I had done and he gave me a pretty good dressing down. He told me, “That’s the way to end up with nothing. You don’t buy anything until you can pay for it.” I never bought anything on time after that.
Gallacher: So you have lived most of your life here on this ranch. When you reflect on your life, would you have done anything differently?
Cerise: When I graduated from high school I had a scholarship and I went to Fort Collins for about a year, but I ran out of money and Dad wasn’t real excited about the idea of spending money on education. Neither Mom nor Dad ever went to high school. So anyhow, I decided to come home that spring after finishing a year and Dad told me if I worked the summer he’d buy me a car in the fall. We went to Denver that fall and he got me a 1942 Dodge convertible. It was a beauty.
When I was on the ranch I always liked what I was doing. When I was at school, the career counselor told me I should study agronomy. I thought about it, but it sounded like I would be spending most of my time indoors. I didn’t want an inside job. So no, I don’t think I would change anything. I’ve always liked working outside.
*Grappa is an alcoholic beverage, a fragrant, grape-based brandy of Italian origin that contains 35-60 percent alcohol by volume (70 to 120 US proof).
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