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  • Writer's pictureRichard A. Jones

Neighboring

“Neighboring”

Although its is still done occasionally today, it used to be common practice for ranchers to move cattle from one pasture to another along county roads, or even on highway 69. Some times I helped with such events. Other times, with my window rolled down, I would stop my truck or move slowly through the herd, while visiting with whoever was on horseback. It was a good time to catch up on local news.


Not long ago, I watched, again, the 1978 movie, Comes A Horseman, which was filmed mostly in the Westcliffe area. One early scene takes place in town with a cattle drive down Second Street.


As I watched this scene, I began to think of some of the people who lived on Second Street, before, or at the time this movie was filmed. Come with me, to back then, as we stroll along the four blocks of Westcliffe’s Second Street from Main to Hermit Road.

We begin with Canda’s meat locker, located on the Southwest corner of Main and the West side of Second. 45 years ago, much of the rest of this block’s West side was occupied only by a few empty buildings. Alma Lange’s house was next, followed by Ernie Jeske (two story house in the scene) and Father Dan Jones. Then came Lucille Piquette, Van and Thelma Kelly, Vern and Thelma Tovrea, Arno and Joanne Hartbauer, and Jim and Myrtle Christoff. Selma Lensch was in the last house on the West side. (I wonder if that is Ernie, kneeling in front of his house, sneaking into the movie scene).

On the East side of the Street, across from Canda’s, was Jennings Market, and to the South of Jennings was Menzel’s funeral home. After the old vacant Wolff Hotel, Bill and Laura Lockhart rented one of the small shingle-sided houses.

Other East-siders included Jerry and Willa Buzzi, Clarence and Dorothy Schlosser, Hugh and Betty Munson, Earnest Sparling, (Betty’s Dad), and Roy and Rosetta Kidder. In the early 80‘s, Chet and Mary Kastendieck moved from the Lange place on Muddy Road to join the Second Streeters. Beyond them, and after several vacant lots, Velma Vickerman’s little house sat on the Southeast corner of Second Street and Hermit Road.

Some of them I knew well, others, not quite so much, but at one time or another, I had been inside most of their homes. Of the people named, only Father Dan and Joanne Hartbauer still reside on Second Street. The rest live there only in the memories of those of us who knew them.

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As we journey through life, our lives intersect with many fellow travelers, and in a small town, we come into contact, occasionally, with just about everybody. With some, we share common ground. We inhabit the same street, the same county road, or a nearby ranch. These we call neighbors.

However, in Westcliffe 50 years ago, at various times, the term neighbor could be apply applied to a wide range of people. This was maybe best expressed in what Ruby Geroux called “neighboring.” Six generations of Gerouxs have called the valley home, and no one has “neighbored” better.

Jack Geroux served as Custer County School Board president for many years and always looked out for, what he believed to be, the best interest of the children.

One September, Stan and Jeannie Coleman were out of town and needed some help to finish haying. Jack and I arrived to rake and bale the last meadow. When Jack got out of the truck, unknown to either of us, he accidentally bumped the door lock. A couple of hours later it started raining.

We raced for the truck only to find that we were locked out. We scrambled under the hay bine, which did not help much, since the rain was blowing sideways. Fortunately, the shower was brief. When it was over, the hay was soaked, and so were we. I don’t remember whether Ruby came to get us, or broken glass was involved, but we got home. We would return another day.

It was 1976, and I had just shot a bull elk on Geroux land. Harvey Geroux was with me and helped load it into the pickup. At about 6’1 and 210 pounds, Harvey was a good guy to have around when you were loading a 500 pound elk. We drove down to the ranch, skinned the elk, and hung it in Jack’s walk in cooler.

A few days latter, Barb and I would be at the Geroux home for supper. After the meal, we went to the basement where we would use their grinder, their saw, and their butcher paper to process the meat. No, not just Barb and me, but all Gerouxs who were in the vicinity: Jack, Ruby, Harvey, Ginny, Nancy, and Darell. That evening, while we worked, we joked, told stories, and snacked on crackers and Ruby’s canned trout.

Many years later, when Harvey would be stricken with ALS, I went out to the ranch and helped him into my truck. We drove the valley’s back roads, remembering, laughing, and shedding a few tears. Harvey will not be forgotten.

Jack, Ruby, Harvey, and Ginny are all gone now, but it was that night in the Geroux basement, some 47 years ago, that I began to understand the meaning of “neighboring.” Hunting, butchering, branding, haying, moving cattle, or any other task that required extra hands, were opportunities that not only served to lighten the work of another, but also to forge friendships and deepen relationships.

Another rancher once told me, “When it comes to ‘neighboring’ you’ll never get ahead of the Gerouxs.” I think he was right.

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Beavers are sometimes unsolicited guests on the ranches of the valley floor. Cutting trees, building dams, and flooding hay meadows are their special skills.

Several generations of Berrys are high on the list of those whom Barb and I have been privileged to call friends. Back when dynamite could still be bought, Russell Berry asked me out to the ranch to help him “un-invite” some beavers by “remodeling” their dam.

I have trapped beaver for Lynn Kattnig, Ben Kettle, Don Camper, and others. When Roland Walters owned the Wolff Springs Ranch and Rocky Moser was foreman, I was asked to remove some beavers from Medano Creek.

It was early February, after a warm spell, and there was only a thin layer of ice. I was holding onto a willow branch while leaning out over the creek to check a trap (I’m sure you can see where this is going.). The limb snapped, and I fell, head first, into the icy water.

I lunged onto the creek bank and clamored up the muddy slope. The wind was blowing about forty miles per hour, the temperature was in the low thirties, and by the time I could stand up, my clothes were already stiff. When I got to the truck, I was shivering so hard I could barely open the door.

My truck heater did not work well, and I was twenty-five miles from home, so I decided to head up the road to the old ranch house where Rocky and Sally lived. I found nobody at home, so I went in and started a fire in the wood stove. I then took off my clothes, threw them in Sally’s dryer, got a glass of water, wrapped up in a blanket, and sat down by the fire. An hour or so later, my clothes were dry and my teeth were no longer chattering, so I got dressed and went home.

About a week later, I saw Rock and Sally and explained what had happened. Sally smiled and said, “Thanks. The house was nice and warm when we got home.” She calls it “comfortable company.”

***************

One of the best examples of “neighboring” came in the spring during branding. I have had the opportunity to help brand at several ranches. Most times, I was on the ground crew, vaccinating, branding, or castrating the bull calves.

When I did get on a horse to rope, it was usually a good time for the ground crews to have a little rest. One catch in every seven or eight throws was a pretty good run for me. In later years, I would move to the other side of the corral fence and sign on as cook.

Gathering the “mammas and babies” often began at daybreak, and if all went as planned, we would begin branding soon afterward. There were, however, other possibilities than everything going as planned.

Once, we had about 200 pairs just ready to funnel into the corral, when a few cows did not share our enthusiasm for this plan. One minute we were looking at tails, and the next minute, we were looking at heads and horns. We couldn’t hold them, and they scattered, with cows going North and calves headed South. We spent all morning rounding up the rebels, and we didn’t brand a calf until after lunch.

Speaking of lunch, food was always the highlight of a day of branding. Often times, it was a matter of sitting on the ground around a homemade feast, while swapping embellished stories and outright lies.

Other times, lunch took place at a local hangout. When we were branding at Wolf Springs, it could mean a trip to Mandellas, the best Mexican restaurant in Gardner. In fact, it was the only restaurant of any kind in Gardner. Afternoon branding moved just a little slower after Mandellas, but the stories and good conversation, made it worth it.

***************

Someone has said, “You know you live in a small town when the only time you lock your car doors is in the summer. And that’s just to keep somebody from putting more zucchini, from their garden, in your back seat.”

Borrowing was a common part of “neighboring” and it was a road that ran both directions. I have borrowed horse trailers, bulldozers, tractors, cars, trucks, horses, and tools. A borrowed item was always returned ……eventually. Or, at least you knew where to find it if you needed it.

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“Neighboring” is never more evident than during a tragedy. In 1975, when my sister was ill, and later died, and our vehicle was of questionable reliability, Harvey and Jean Rusk loaned us their car, for ten days, so that we could drive to Indiana to be with family.

When tragedy struck our family in 2018, friends brought food and gave money. Best of all, however, they gave what was needed most—the presence of good friends who said little, but who gave their time and themselves to share our pain.

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Writer Wendell Berry called these friends the “membership” of our lives, and he explained it well in his novel, Hannah Coulter: “Work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need, the others, or enough of them, would come....None of us considered that we were finished until everybody was finished.”

Comfortable company, the membership of our lives, neighbors, or friends—whatever you call them, they touch the deep, God-given, need in our lives for friendship, belonging, and community.

Over the years, Barb and I, also, have tried to share what we had, give what we could, and be there when we were needed. None of us are heroes. In a real community, it’s just what you do!




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