Grandmother – A Life


    My mother, Betty (Steele) Wallace, wore many hats over the years – reporter, Clerk of the County Court, columnist & de facto editor, high school English teacher and author. Born on a small ranch in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, of pioneer stock and into a world of ranching, mining and timbering, she had a deep understanding and keen appreciation of those who migrated to the area and built the communities. Some of those communities faded into ghost towns, some continue to prosper. The people who built that part of Colorado are long gone, but Betty had known a good many of them, went to school with their children and knew every family in the Gunnison Valley – their history, virtues, faults and quirks. For several years, she wrote a weekly column in the Gunnison News-Champion, telling the stories of the area’s early citizens. She called it her ‘pioneer series’ – interviews of the original settlers or their children; ranchers, saloonkeepers, miners, storekeepers, prostitutes, preachers and politicians.
    One of the people she interviewed and wrote about was her mother, Cynthia (Weed) Steele. This is mother’s column on my grandmother, published in the News-Champion, April 6th, 1950.
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Why Are We Here?

That’s not a philosophic question – it’s the raison d’ etre for The Agonist.

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John Adams’s answer:

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

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Rough and Tumble Politics

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  In February 1874, Colorado prospectors Alfred Packer, George Noon, Frank Miller, Israel Swan, James Humphreys and Shannon Bell left the Uncompahgre for Saguache, intending to go by way of the Ute Agency on Los Pinos. Packer appeared at the Agency alone, insisting that his companions had abandoned him while he was ill.

  Suspicions were aroused when he displayed money he had not had before and property belonging to his companions. Confronted, he told a story of privation, murder and cannibalism. After confessing, Packer was jailed but managed to escape.
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Armistice Day

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For irony, click the photo and note the banner. 🙂

Some few people have noted that November 11 was originally designated Armistice Day, and commemorated peace, not the glorification of war and warriors. It was that way when I was younger and was observed in a solemn mood; sober, thoughtful sadness. People wept – grown men, in a day when men wept seldom and never publicly. My grandmother never failed to observe every Armistice Day, crying softly, although our family lost no one in two World Wars.
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Building Fence

Photos: Shoveling snow off the shed roof; Rio Grande in flood; Mountain Man

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   The Mountain Man was engaged in building fence across the Rio Grande at the Lower Ranch. At this specific time he was being assisted by ‘Vic’ Miller, a lad of around eighteen years and one of the group known to us as ‘the boys’, who periodically helped us with the hay harvest, usually starting as sulky-rake operators in the days when teams were in order.

   It was just past the middle of June, and a belated spring with cold nights and cool days had slowed the melting of the snow in the high country. Now the weather had turned warmer and summer had arrived suddenly and unheralded. Down came in wild recklessness the deep snows of December and January, swelling the old Rio Grande to astounding proportions, to big for its bridges, and causing doubt whether it would be contained within its legal banks.
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More To Life Than Bacon – Debby Bent’s Rice Pudding

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In 1916, Mabel Steele went to teach school at the ripe old age of 18, in extremely rural Colorado. The community consisted of three families who made their living raising trout for restaurants in Denver. She had to learn to maintain disciple when some of the students were bigger than she was.
I suspect it was an eye-opener to a very self-confident, albeit naive young woman.
One of Mabel’s fond memories of that time is:
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Coping With Winter


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My uncle Ray and his two brothers, Wallace and Warren owned a ranch in the upper Rio Grande Valley in Colorado.
Pump in the front yard, outhouse in back. Ice cut from winter lakes & stored in ice-house to cool ice-boxes in the summer.
This was pre-REA, so they had their own generator and shut it off at 11pm – after that it was kerosene lanterns or darkness.
The phone was party-line and hand-cranked. Folks used to have concerts, each playing piano/fiddle/harmonica/accordion/whatever.
Music online before the Internet!
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