Fun Hunting Traditions
The traditions of hunting have long been a part of Rifle, its economic prosperity, the lives of many who live here and those who come from far and wide to experience one of the world’s most renowned big game hunting areas. The Ute Indians survived on the plentiful game in the area and when the first European settlers came they did too. It wasn’t long before writers began trumpeting the hunting possibilities of the Grand Valley and the surrounding mountains while Rifle’s competing railroads promoted Elk and Mountain Lion hunts to push increased passenger service to the area.
One of the biggest names to come to Rifle to hunt now has his mug on Mount Rushmore. Theodore Roosevelt first came to Rifle in 1901 while Vice President of the United States to hunt mountain lion and stayed at the Winchester Hotel where Rifle’s City Hall is now located. Four years later in 1905, while president, he returned to hunt again, this time for bear on Divide Creek south of Rifle. This hunting trip and the speech he gave during a Sunday service near his camp have become a local legend. While introducing the President, the Rev. Horace Mann of Rifle, who was conducting the service, said “Colorado is signally honored. We claim more bears and more governors, if you please, may be “treed” in 24 hours time than can be in any other state of the Union!” I bet that introduction would hold true today!
Long before I moved to Rifle, I remember listening to my grandfather tell of the experiences he had on the twenty five years of hunting trips he made with a group of hunting buddies to the Flat Tops between Rifle and Meeker. Starting in the 1930’s and continuing into the 1950’s this group of small town friends and relatives would take the annual hunting pilgrimage to a place that became legendary in their eyes, making friends and memories along the way.
My grandfather, Mason Frates, was the town barber in the little farming village of Brule, Keith County, Nebraska, just off the northeast corner of Colorado. Soon after the fall harvest was completed a group of 16 or so men would meet at the barber shop, go over previous hunts, look at photos and plan their trip to Rifle to hunt Mule Deer, Elk and Bear. They had a big camp with a large army tent like the one where the docs stayed in the old MASH TV series.It was an even bigger production rounding up all the equipment, tools, horses, food and libations to make it a successful camp. One of the local farmers would bring his large wheat harvest truck in order to carry the camp. Another had a livestock truck for the horses. Coolers as we know them today were non-existent so the men built large wooden boxes and filled them full of ice for the trip.
The convoy of trucks would leave Brule at 4:00 a.m. and drive to Denver where the group would stop for breakfast.There were no interstates back then and the speed was about 50 miles per hour so it was a good four hours to breakfast. Then it was off to Rifle where they would stop for a late lunch and buy last minute supplies and their hunting licenses. Somehow they always made it into the Flat Tops and set up camp before dark.
In the weeks prior the wives would bake cakes, cookies, brownies and other treats for the men to share with each other. One member of the hunting party had a particular fondness for my grandmother’s cookies and would take as many as he could hold in both hands as the box containing them was passed around, often not leaving enough for the whole group to have one. My grandfather was a notorious prankster and legend has it that after several tips of having grandmother’s baking enjoyed mostly by one man the cookie monster received a special treat. Gramps opened several of the layered cookies and spread EX-LAX in the filling then went directly to this hunter and offered him a helping. This time the guy only took four or five cookies so my grandfather said, “Oh here! Take the box as I have another in the truck.” So he took all that was offered to him. This is where the story would pause to allow the anticipation to its climatic ending to build. About 2:30 a.m. there was a horrible ruckus of someone trying to get out of their sleeping bag and finding the door to the tent. Needless to say that gentleman didn’t get much sleep that night nor did he have any more interest in my grandmother’s cookies.
My grandfather’s barbershop was filled with many horns, heads and even a bear hide which exhibited the success of the hunting trips he took to Rifle. When the hunt was done the men would break camp and drive to Rifle where they would get a room for the last night and a meal at a local restaurant. I never was told where they stayed but I imagine during those many trips they spent some time at the Midland and Winchester hotels. Like hunters today, the men went shopping in Rifle to take souvenirs home to their families. My mother still has, and treasures, the jewelry and a special ceramic bear her father purchased for her in Rifle after his hunts.
During those many trips to Rifle my grandfather became friends with members of the Coulter family, one of Rifle’s earliest families who had a farm north of town and the Coulter Lake Guest Ranch above Rifle Mountain Park. As a little girl my mother remembers her father bringing his family out to meet the Coulters and show them where he hunted. The thing she remembered most about Rifle was a large “stuffed” elk that stood atop the drug store in downtown. I would guess that would’ve been Stauffers Pharmacy at corner of Third Street and Railroad Avenue. I never saw the elk but I do remember a buffalo that stood atop the same building when it was Timberline Sporting Goods. To this day my mom still looks for that elk when she comes to Rifle.
Like my grandfather, I have spent over twenty years putting in camps and hunting around the Rifle area. I first came here as a hunting guide and packer working for outfitters Fred Ellis near Meadow Lake and then Tom Bullock at Boiler Springs above New Castle. During those years I often saw the same groups of hunters who come here from all over the country. Mostly I know them by their camps, usually in the same location year after year, where they were from and some of the characters within their camp. One group from Arkansas, who I know has been putting in a camp near Meadow Lake for over twenty years use to have a rather portly gentleman come out with them who dressed in a blaze orange jump suit. You couldn’t miss him anywhere on the mountain. He would always sit on the same rock day after day during the years he came out. To this day those in my camp still refer to that spot as “Fat Man’s Rock.” I’m not sure if he ever got an elk from that rock but I have. It was a good location.
As Rifle has for over 100 years, we welcome our hunters and say a hearty “Thank You” for being a vital part of our economy. Good Luck!
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