Immigrant Stories: Learning to operate heavy machinery from the age of 5
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a Glenwood Springs native and a retired marketing director with Colorado Mountain College. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email email@example.com. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
Intro: Paul Rippy was born in New Castle in 1926 to Elzie James Rippy and Janey Dow Simpson. He and his wife, Marilyn, established the Grand River Construction Co. in 1965. His sons, Greg and John, eventually joined him in the business, and Paul turned it over to them when he retired in 1991.
Rippy: My mother’s side of the family migrated here from Scotland through Ellis Island and settled in Michigan. I’m not sure how she made it to Colorado.
My dad’s family came from Missouri via Oklahoma by covered wagon to Trinidad, Colorado, to work in the coalfields. They got caught in the middle of what was nearly a *war between miners and the mine-owners. The miners were trying to unionize and the mine owners were resisting. Things didn’t go well.
They came to Silt on an immigrant car on the railroad with their wagon and their livestock and what little they had accumulated. My dad’s family were sawmill people in Oklahoma, so when they got here they did some sawing up Mamm Creek.
I grew up on a ranch that my folks homesteaded up Garfield Creek. We moved into New Castle when my older brother, Adair, graduated from the eighth grade. We all moved into town so he could go to high school. We moved into a house that Dad bought for $600, and I started seventh grade.
Gallacher: Were those hard times for your family?
Rippy: Well, I was just a youngster, so if they were hard I didn’t recognize it. I do remember that we all worked hard. Dad had me running a tractor when I was 5, and I graduated to operating a threshing machine when I was 11.
Dad did custom work for farmers from West Glenwood to Rifle, so he had three threshers going during harvest. I can remember threshing grain on the Vulcan Ranch outside of New Castle. They had a bumper crop of oats, and the grain was coming in so fast the thresher couldn’t handle it all, and I had grain running everywhere. I twisted every knob I could find on that machine to get it to stop blowin’ grain all over.
A lot of our work was from New Castle west to just this side of Rifle. Farmers would get together during harvest and help one another haul the grain.
Gallacher: The ’30s were a hard time for a lot of people, but there was real sense of community and cooperation back then.
Rippy: Oh, absolutely. I can remember Dad had a sign on our threshers that said, “Our terms are cash or grain.” There were times when some folks just didn’t have the money, and he would take the grain and have it ground at the flour mill on the Roaring Fork River in Glenwood across from the Rosebud Cemetery.
Gallacher: So you had early experience running machinery.
Rippy: I grew up with them. It was in 1946 when my dad established E.J. Rippy and Sons Construction Company. So when I got out of the service I went to work with him, running all kinds of heavy equipment.
Gallacher: Where were you during the war?
Rippy: I ended up in the Navy. I was 17 when I graduated from high school in New Castle and enrolled in the New Mexico Military School in Roswell, New Mexico. I wanted to enlist in the Navy and become a fighter pilot, but I was 17, so I needed my parents to sign for me.
Mom finally agreed to sign, and I ended up in flight training at Flagstaff, Arizona. I was still in training when the war ended. So I came back to New Castle and went into business with Dad. There was quite a bit of work after the war.
One of the first jobs I remember is digging trench for new water line on the oil shale project at Anvil Points outside of Rifle. It was one of my first times on a backhoe, and I wasn’t too good at it, but I learned pretty fast when I had to redo it.
Gallacher: What was your dad like to work with?
Rippy: He was an ambitious guy who worked hard and expected the same. He used to always say, “You don’t have to hurry, just follow me.”
While I was in the service he was doing construction and excavation work up on the Cline Top near the Flat Tops at that prisoner of war camp they had up there. And during that time he expanded from one tractor to five.
Dad’s job was to drag and stack the logs with his tractors after the prisoners felled them. They had German prisoners harvesting the timber for the war effort. Dad was pretty impressed with the caliber of work these young guys were doin’.
Gallacher: When did your brothers join the business?
Rippy: Well, Adair landed in Chicago after the war, and it took him a couple of years to realize that city life wasn’t for him, but he eventually came back and joined us. Harley was eight years younger, so he was busy being a teenager. He joined later on.
I guess we all had it in our blood. It was me and Dad to begin with. I was the bidder, the timekeeper and the finance officer. I wore all kinds of hats.
We did a lot of work down in the Four Corners area on highways. We built the access road to what is now the Homestake Reservoir near Leadville. The road was the first step in the water diversion project from the Eagle River to Aurora and Colorado Springs.
I spent a lot of days commuting from our job site near Camp Hale to our office in New Castle. I’d get up every day before dawn and head out. I could have stayed at the only hotel in Leadville, but it looked like a firetrap waiting for a spark.
Gallacher: Those were some long hours.
Rippy: Yeah, there wasn’t much sleepin’ time in those days. It left a lot of the responsibility for raising our five kids on Marilyn. I often said that the first nine years of our marriage I was a visitor on the weekends. I was the guy who showed up on Friday night and left on Sunday afternoon.
Things got considerably better when we got an airplane. We were doin’ a highway from Taos to Las Vegas, New Mexico, driving down there took over six hours, flying took an hour.
We acquired the plane kinda by accident. Monarch Aviation, out of Grand Junction, was doing a promotional show for Cessna Aircraft in Aspen and my brother, Adair, went up there and came home and told me he had signed up for a plane. He told me I needed to tell Dad. We argued back and forth about who should tell him, and I finally did, and he went along with it.
If anybody in the family had trouble with Dad, I was the one they asked to help mediate the situation. “You gotta talk to Dad about this,” they’d say. Dad and I were on the best of terms most of the time. We always told one another what we thought. Neither of us was bashful.
Gallacher: You had experience as a pilot, what about Adair?
Rippy: He was trained as an aircraft mechanic, so he knew all about the maintenance of a plane. Adair and I worked hand-in-hand. He was the site superintendent on a lot of our jobs.
Gallacher: You worked with your brothers, and now your sons are working hand-in-hand on the business.
Rippy: Yeah, Greg and John worked their way up and took over when I retired in 1991. I always told them, “When you’re doing a driveway, do it like it was your own, and everything will turn out fine.”
Gallacher: How did you meet your wife, Marilyn?
Rippy: I first saw her at the theater in Glenwood. She was popping corn and seating guests. I definitely noticed her there, but it was across the street at the sweet shop where we first met. We went together, off and on, for about three or four years and finally got married on June 20, 1948.
She was an Adriance, but she lost her dad when she was 12, and her mom married John Demaestri two years later. So she had two dads. She was beautiful in so many ways. She did a wonderful job. We have great kids, and she deserves a lot of the credit for the way they all turned out. I really miss her.
We were married 65 years and two months. Now, if you don’t think living with me that long isn’t tough, you got another think comin’. She’s on my mind all the time.
* Trinidad was 12 miles from Ludlow, Colorado, the site of the Ludlow Massacre. On April 20, 1914, a camp of 1,200 striking coal miners was attacked by the Colorado National Guard and camp guards from Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. Six men, two women and 11 children died in the assault.
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