A tough life ranching in the valley
This story is a collaboration of the Immigrant Stories Project and Mount Sopris Historical Society. The author, Walter Gallacher, is a Glenwood Springs native and a retired marketing director with Colorado Mountain College.
Ed Grange retired from Holy Cross Energy in 2011 after serving the rural electric association for nearly 60 years.
Grange: Some people have asked me why we call ourselves Italian because Grange isn’t an Italian name. Grange is French and means “farmer.” I have to explain to them that northern Italy in the old ages was sometimes in France and sometimes in Italy. It depended on who the conquering army was at the time. The eastern edge of northern Italy was even in Switzerland at one time.
Both my mother and father came from the Aosta Valley in northern Italy. My mother came first. Her dad, Joseph Usel, came in 1898 because his family was desperately poor, and there was nothing for him there. He made his way to a ranch in Basalt, and when he got settled he rented a ranch in Woody Creek and sent for my grandmother.
So, as was the norm in those days, she bundled up what little they had and put tags on their coats and someone told her where she was supposed to go. It was probably a month-long trip across the ocean down in the bottom of the ship at the lowest possible place. My grandmother came with my mother who was 3 and her sister who was 5.
When they arrived in New York there must have been someone who helped her get on the right train. I can’t imagine how a woman with two little girls and no understanding of English got from the Aosta Valley to Woody Creek. I can remember, as a little kid, hearing stories of that difficult journey.
They stayed on the Woody Creek ranch for three years and then were able to buy a ranch from the Arbaneys outside of Basalt. My mother finished the seventh grade and then stayed home to help on the ranch.
Gallacher: What about your dad?
Grange: He was born in 1891 and came in 1912. His brother, Joseph, had come a few years earlier and was working in the mines in Leadville. That was the first stop for a lot of the Aostans. They had heard that there was work in the mine and smelter in Leadville. None of them liked working in the mines, but it was work they did to survive.
Gallacher: What did most of them do in Italy before they came?
Grange: They were farmers. Most of the families had a little plot of land and some cows and they eked out a living on some pretty rocky ground. So my dad got a job in the smelter, but what he really wanted was a farm.
In 1915, my mother went up to Leadville to visit with her sister, and that’s where she met my dad. They were married a few months later and came to the Roaring Fork Valley a year after that. I can remember my dad talking about seeing the valley for the first time. It reminded him so much of home.
My folks ended up buying a ranch near Basalt with my dad’s brother and his wife right across the river from where my mother grew up. The two couples lived together for a few years until my Uncle Joe and his wife bought their own ranch. Uncle Joe’s ranch is still producing hay and cattle and has been in the family for almost 100 years.
Gallacher: What was the economy like back then that made it possible for new immigrants to buy land in a few years?
Grange: Land was really cheap in those days. Our 85 acre ranch cost them $12,000. That ranch is now the Roaring Fork Club covered with a golf course and million-dollar duplexes.
It was tough going in those days, there was a lot of rock and gravel, and the soil needed a lot of work and irrigation. Both of my parents worked hard all of their lives. We grew everything we needed. We had potatoes, pigs, chickens, turkeys, cows and were pretty self-sufficient. My older brother was born in 1916, and I was born 12 years later in 1928. He had to work much harder than I did and ended up being a father figure to me.
I can remember as a little kid that there wasn’t any money around but we always had everything we needed because we worked from daylight to dark. In those days we never left the ranch overnight.
We had four or five cows that had to be milked morning and night and 85 head of cattle that had to be fed. We were bound to the ranch year-round. My mother did all of the milking. I helped, but she could milk twice as fast as I could.
She used a hand-cranked separator to take the cream off. The skim milk went to the pigs and the cream was churned for butter and cheese or set aside in a ten-gallon can that we put on the train that ran through our ranch. The train would take it to Glenwood, and the guys from the Glenwood Creamery would take it off the train and pay us according to how much butterfat was in the cream. The can was loaded back on the train and dropped off in our field along with the newspapers.
We seldom went to Glenwood, but we would go to Basalt once a week to pick up the mail and drop off eggs at Hubbard’s grocery. They would give us credit for the eggs, and we would buy flour and sugar. That’s how we survived along with a lot of other Italian families.
A few years ago, I made a list of all the Italian families that came to the Roaring Fork Valley from Italy’s Aosta Valley. I started in Woody Creek and worked my way down the valley listing all of the families from Aosta. I counted 85 families that had ranches or worked on ranches.
Gallacher: How was it that so many Aostans came here?
Grange: I think it was mainly word-of-mouth. A lot of them spent time in New York or Chicago, but they eventually made their way west to this valley.
Gallacher: When did you realize that ranching wasn’t for you?
Grange: I decided pretty early on that I wasn’t going to be a farmer. So I asked my parents if I could go to college after high school, and they encouraged me. I was the first of my generation to go, my brother and my cousins had all decided to stay in ranching.
Before I graduated from high school I volunteered for the Army’s officer training school, but I flunked my physical because of a heart murmur. So I went to Western State for four years and then on to graduate school at Colorado University.
It was during college that I met the love of my life, Lorraine Zelnick. She grew up in Aspen and was the youngest of nine kids. Her father was a retired Aspen silver miner, so she lived just up the road. I got a chance to take a summer job in Glenwood in 1950 with Holy Cross Electric Association, so I left college.
The job only paid $1.15 an hour, but I needed the money, and it gave me an excuse to be near Lorraine because I was falling in love. My temporary job at Holy Cross grew into a permanent one, and Lorraine and I were married in 1951. We had a very good life together raising our five wonderful kids. We almost made it to our 60th wedding anniversary, but Lorraine passed away in 2011.
When I look back it feels like a great evolvement, I think I was fortunate to have grown up in those years. Because I don’t think my children and grandchildren can appreciate what life was like back then when there were no conveniences.
We didn’t have electricity on my folk’s ranch until 1949. My mother didn’t have a refrigerator or a deep freeze until then. In those early days, they had to work so hard raising and storing their food.
Gallacher: I think it is interesting that you spent your career at Holy Cross Electric bringing electricity to rural Colorado and making life easier and more comfortable for people like your parents and grandparents.
Grange: That is one of my favorite accomplishments. When I went to work at Holy Cross in 1950 there were seven employees serving 700 customers in Eagle, Gypsum and the Roaring Fork Valley.
Today there are 125 employees serving nearly 60,000 people.
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I wrote this column to share my story through my cultural assets: Aspirational, linguistic, familial, navigational, social, and resistant. I know we all have an open wound in our lives and I want to share…