Western Memories: It took longer to get there for Paul Bernklau of Rifle
Citizen Telegram Contributor
If Paul Bernklau couldn’t ride a horse to school from the ranch where he grew up south of Rifle, he wouldn’t go.
“I was a lazy little bugger,” Bernklau said.
Of course, everything was farther away back in the early 1950s.
Bernklau, 78, just attended his 60th Rifle High School reunion with about a dozen fellow graduates from the class of 1953 who still live in the area.
“Horseback was virtually the only way to get around until I got my driver’s license,” he said.
Walking would have been out of the question. The distances and the time it took to get around, even in a car, made the Rifle area feel far more remote than it does today.
“Today, you can travel so far, so fast,” he said. “We never thought about going to Denver and once in a great while you would go to Grand Junction.”
But before Interstate 70 was constructed, the route was long and arduous.
“It took better than half a day to get there,” Bernklau said. “You’d go and stay the night and make a trip of it. Now you can get there in 45 minutes.”
When Bernklau’s grandfather moved to Rifle to work in a planned sugar beet operation in 1903, Independence Pass was the only way into the valley.
Bernklau’s grandfather homesteaded 160 acres between Rifle and Rulison after high spring runoffs in the Colorado River destroyed the ditches prepared for sugar beet crops and the company bankrolling the operation backed out.
The river was a force to be reckoned with then. Just as it is now, as seen along the Front Range.
Bernklau, who put together a historical exhibit for the 75th Garfield County Fair this summer, discovered documents maintained by the fair agent from 1938 to 1957.
“Some of the planning for Garfield County back in the 1930s and what they envisioned back then for the future of this area – it’s hard to believe how far off they were from the reality,” Bernklau said.
It wasn’t that planners in the 1930s expected Rifle to be a buzzing metropolis, but they did expect it to revolve around the massive river running through it.
“When you look at pictures of the Colorado River in 1939, at the steel bridge, and see how humongous that river was at the time, you can see how it happened,” Bernklau said.
Community leaders looked at all that water, their proximity to Utah, and thought they would never need it all. They sold the rights in 1922, Bernklau said.
“I don’t think in their wildest nightmares they imagined Colorado would have the population it does today or that it would need the water,” he said. “It’s just a trickle of what it used to be.”
Even when Bernklau was growing up, he remembers the water washing over the bridge near the ranch and delaying already-lengthy travel plans to Rifle.
He’s a city dweller now, living in Rifle, but any time Bernklau wants to visit the old ranchland, it’s just a couple minutes away along the highway that runs along the once grand river.
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Former Rifle Bears standout turned starting running back for Western Colorado University Ty Leyba remembers it like it was yesterday.