Western Memories: Smith bends and shapes a lifetime of experience
Citizen Telegram Contributor
“Western Memories” is a monthly feature profiling a longtime resident of Western Garfield County and their memories of the area “back in the day.” If you know someone who might have an interesting story or two to tell, email email@example.com or call 384-9114.
SILT – Bill Smith can remember seeing a blacksmith working in Carbondale when he was a boy. While he was always fascinated by the art, he never expected to be the local blacksmith in Silt during his retirement years.
Smith has been blacksmithing at the Silt Historical Park’s Chautauqua for at least 15 years, he said.
His interest in the hobby emerged when he saw a blacksmith set for sale in the newspaper years ago, while working as an engineer in Lakewood. He couldn’t save up his money in time to buy that set, but bought a different one several years later and joined the Rocky Mountain Smiths, a regional blacksmithing group.
“I would go around naively telling these guys I had a complete blacksmith shop,” Smith said. “I didn’t realize until later that you never have a complete shop.”
He still makes tools as he needs them for different projects.
Smith took a long and winding road to the Silt Historical Park.
His father was a farmer and rancher, but never owned the land. As a result, Smith’s family moved a lot. He was born on a patch of ground outside Rifle, then moved to a plot near the Utah boarder, out to Rangely and back to Silt.
“We rented River Ranch,” Smith said. “Now it’s the Apple Tree Mobile Home Park.”
Finally, the family ended up on a piece of land on Red Hill, outside of Carbondale. Smith and his younger siblings had to walk a mile and a half down a steep hill to catch the bus everyday and back up again in the afternoons.
When Smith graduated from high school in Carbondale in 1955, there wasn’t much he could do for work in the area. He could work a farm or ranch or do construction, but none of those jobs paid well. And he was too afraid to work in the coal mine.
“We didn’t have the ski resorts then,” Smith said.
Aspen had one small chairlift and Vail Valley was a sheep farm that had been for sale for ages.
“That fool wanted $10 an acre and we thought it would never be worth that,” Smith said.
On top of hard times finding work, Smith was facing the draft.
If he was drafted, he’d be in the service four years. If he volunteered, he could be out in three. Smith tried to join the Army after finishing a road construction job in Denver.
“The recruitment officer started giving me orders before I even signed up,” he said.
He couldn’t do it.
The same day, Smith was denied a chance to test drive a beautiful car at the Pontiac dealership in Glenwood Springs and started stomping across the bridge. That’s when a U.S. Navy recruiter convinced him to have a hamburger.
“By the time I walked out of the restaurant, I’d joined the Navy,” he said.
Smith was in the Navy 13 years, retired as a commander, then joined the reserves for another 10 years. He was stationed all over and the military even sent Smith to college in Boulder to learn engineering.
After he left the military, Smith moved his family to Colorado permanently and lived on the Front Range. In his last job, Smith was the wastewater engineer for the City and County of Denver.
During the natural gas and oil shale boom in the early 1980s, Smith bought some land outside Silt as an investment.
When the boom went bust, Smith decided it would be a great place to retire and kept it. He and his wife, Eunice, built a little house on the property 20 years ago and have all three children living nearby in Rifle and Parachute.
“This place has changed tremendously since I was a boy,” Smith said. “From an economical standpoint, I think it’s probably for the better.”
It was a tough place to stay when he was a young man. Now, there are more job opportunities and people can afford to live in the valley and support their families. Smith is a strong proponent of the natural gas industry for that reason.
“Environmentally, [developers have] destroyed the Roaring Fork Valley,” he said. “It all used to be ranch land. Now, everywhere you look, there’s a giant house. I don’t much like to go south of Silt any more.”
The historic character of the community is still alive in this part of the region, though, especially when Smith goes to the Silt Historical Park to work as a good ol’ fashioned blacksmith.
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Former Rifle Bears standout turned starting running back for Western Colorado University Ty Leyba remembers it like it was yesterday.