Learning to pick up the pieces and move on


Note: This interview is a collaboration of the Immigrant Stories Project and Mt. Sopris Historical Society.

Larry Velasquez: My mother’s family came to the United States from England. My grandfather had been a rowdy coalminer in his younger days but he gave that up and became a pastor in the Episcopalian Church. He was sent as a missionary to Ohio, where the family lived for many years. They moved to Boulder, Colorado, in May of 1886 where my mom, Minna Jane, was born. Four weeks after my mom’s birth, her mother died of typhoid fever, and shortly after her mom’s death Mom was given to the neighbors, Caroline and Nelson Robison. They changed her name to Rose May Robison, a name she kept. Mom was never legally adopted, it was just an arrangement between the families.

The Robisons eventually moved to Fruita, where they lived for quite a few years. It was in Fruita that my mom and dad met and got married. Dad’s family originally came from Basque country*, but he was born in Los Ojos, New Mexico, in 1881. His real name was Jose Gregoria Belasquez, but for some reason the family name was changed to Velasquez when they came to this country.

When the Robisons moved to Oregon, Mom and Dad went along. Dad went into the sheepherding business up there and they started a family. Two of my brothers, Charles and Carol, were born there. Charles died very young. My brother Abe and Arthur were born in Idaho, my sister Grace was born in Aspen and I was born in 1928 in Old Snowmass about where monastery is now.

Walter Gallacher: So your family moved a few times. What was that about?

Velasquez: I think it had a lot to do with the Robisons, my mom’s adopted family. They ended up in Aspen, and I think my parents followed. My dad quickly earned a reputation for being one of the best farmers around. He managed several ranches in the Aspen/Glenwood area, including the Wulfsohn Ranch (where the Glenwood Meadows Mall is now).

I was 4 or 5 when my dad got a job managing a ranch at Woody Creek. It was there that my mom got so sick with asthma. She had a horrible time breathing. I can remember one day I went out and picked some wildflowers because I thought they would make her feel better. When I got in the house they nearly threw me and the flowers out because flowers were the last thing she needed in her condition.

I wasn’t old enough to go to school, but the teacher made an exception because she knew my mom was too sick to take care of me. We rode an old horse to the schoolhouse. My brother Abe had the reins, I was in the middle and sister Grace sat behind me.

We finally moved to Glenwood Springs so my mom could be closer to the doctor at Hopkins Hospital. My brother, Carol, got a job at the hospital to help pay for Mom’s care. She died in December of 1935.

Gallacher: What was that like for you?

Velasquez: It was really, really tough. Abe and Grace and I were just kids and Dad was working for the WPA**, the only jobs available at that time. We kids were practically left alone during the day because Dad was working all the time to make enough to feed us.

Dad was under a lot of stress and started drinking. I would have to go down to meet him on payday to make sure he would get home and we would have enough to eat. One day, I went down to meet him and he was gone and some of the men told me he had hopped a freight train and left. We never saw him or heard from him for seven years.

Social Services stepped in and took us kids. My brother Abe went to live with the Boscos at the Denver Hotel. I stayed with my brother Carol. He had a room as part of his job at the Hopkins Hospital.

I was there until Blanche and Cap Prendergast came to get me one day. I remember I was out back playing in the ash pit with these other kids and was black with soot from head to toe. Carol cleaned me up as best he could, and I went off to start a new life on Canyon Creek. My sister Grace wasn’t so lucky: She was moved from family to family.

Gallacher: So you had just lost your mother and your dad. You must have been devastated?

Velasquez: And I had lost my older brother Arthur to pneumonia. I felt like a ship at sea without a pilot. It was tough, but it made me a stronger person. I learned that you had to pick up the pieces and move on.

The Prendergasts raised their own food. They had dairy cows and chickens and got by as best they could. They were good enough to give me a religion and a place to sleep. I went to the little red schoolhouse on Canyon Creek for grade school and rode the bus to New Castle for my high school.

I joined the Marine Corps in 1945, and in 1947 I went to work for Hank Williams, just a few days after I was discharged. Hank had just bought the Rock’n’Pines Ranch up Canyon Creek. We became really good friends, and he was like a father to me.

Gallacher: Please explain who Hank Williams was.

Velasquez: His family started the Mennen and the Williams shaving soap companies. His family was very rich and involved in a lot of other businesses, but Hank wanted to be a farmer.

A couple of days after being back, Hank and I were off to Michigan to buy Brown Swiss cattle for the dairy herd he was starting. While we were there he showed me around Michigan State College. Hank’s brother, G. Mennen Williams, was governor of Michigan at the time, and Hank had an apartment in the Governor’s Mansion. That’s where we stayed. I think it was there that I first got interested in politics.

With Hank’s help and the G.I. Bill, I was eventually able to enroll in Michigan State, where I studied for two years.

I came back to Glenwood and tried my hand at farming, but the bottom dropped out of the seed potato business, and I eventually got a job with Glenwood Springs in the electrical department. That’s when I met my wife, Barb, and my life turned around. We were married in 1950 and bought one of the first houses built in the new South Grand subdivision. That’s where we had our two sons.

I went to work for Buckles Frosted Food Center on Cooper Avenue in Glenwood. I learned the meat cutting business well enough to eventually open my own business, Larry’s Frozen Food Center, just down the block (where the new library is).

I was doing pretty well there until I was badly burned in a big fire in Glenwood Springs in 1952. I was a volunteer fireman at the time, and we got called to the old Napier Building in the 800 block of Grand. I was in the hospital for a month recovering from the burns.

Gallacher: What happened?

Velasquez: The fire had started upstairs in a dentist’s office. I went up there with three other guys to try and contain it. Just as we got to the top of the stairs the fire exploded and knocked us down the stairwell and blew the door shut behind us and we couldn’t get out. We chopped our way through that door, and the next explosion blew me across the street and onto the sidewalk. I didn’t have any broken bones but the upper part of my body was consumed with burns.

It took me a while to fully recover, and there was something about the burns that made it hard for me to handle frozen food, so I had to sell the business. We moved to Denver for a few years, but I didn’t like raising our two boys in the city. So we moved back and bought property up the Fryingpan River above Basalt. That’s where we built the Taylor Creek Cabins.

We were settling in there when Hank Williams came to see me and asked me to come to work for him as general manager of the Rock’n’Pines. I worked for Hank until he passed away in 1968. Hank was the second largest employer in Garfield County at the time, second only to the vanadium plant in Rifle.

I ran the Glenwood Produce Company for several years and had a guide and outfitting business on the side. It was through my guide business that I met Mike Lee from Houston, Texas. He ended up buying the Storm King Ranch up Mitchell Creek, and I went to work for him as a managing partner.

While I was working there I got elected to serve on the Re-1 school board, and in 1976 I was elected as a Garfield County commissioner. I was commissioner for eight years and served during the oil shale boom and bust periods. While I was a commissioner I served on the state board for social services and got involved trying to help our senior citizens.

Gallacher: Do you think your experience as a little boy inspired you to get involved with social services on the state level?

Velasquez: I know it did.

*Basque country is in the western Pyrenees Mountains spanning the border between France and Spain on the Atlantic coast.

** WPA, the Works Progress Administration, was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed people (mostly unskilled men) to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads and trails.

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