Pioneer Resident Tells History of Early Days in Rogers Mesa Area
By Edgar G. Riehl of Glendale, California
I was born in Colorado on a homestead, 20 miles from Sterling, about 10 miles from Atwood, Colorado.
My first home was a sod, one-room hole in the side of a hill facing the Pawnee Creek, and this sod shanty had only one window.
My parents started with a few head of cattle. No sod had ever been turned. Because of the lack of trees for fuel mother dried cow chips, when they were dry on one side she had to turn them. This was an all summer chore.
In the year 1898 a severe blizzard came across the prairie and thousands of head of cattle drifted with the storm, mostly following Pawnee Creek. Our cattle drifted away with the rest of them. This blizzard lasted for three days.
As the cattle passed the window, great gray wolves were walking with them. These wolves stopped and looked into the window. At this time father was in Sterling, Colorado, trying to find some work to keep the wolf at the window, not at the door. My mother and three small children were alone. This was the turning point. My folks made up their minds to go away from the blizzards and the wolves.
The cattle were all gone. Some were found to have drifted to the Kansas and Nebraska line. With a few things my parents left for Delta County.
Delta was a settlement of about 200 people, with one street which started at the D & RGW station. Father went to the assessor’s office and found many pieces of property which could be had by paying back taxes.
It was an all-day trip to Rogers Mesa. The place was occupied by a family named Heasters. This place is near Lazear (now the Ted Trimmer place). There was a log two-room cabin, nothing else on the 160 acres.
Half a mile away was a school house, also made of logs, located on the northeast corner of Bob Craig’s ranch. School was held from three to four months each year. The teacher received $50 per month and lived in home of the pupils.
The teacher started the fires and swept out when he/she could not stand the dust any longer.
The desks were hewn from logs and the tops were carved with initials of all former pupils. We did not have to use the desk surface for writing as no one ever had pencil or paper-the old slate was our standby. If school was on or not it made little difference-we were always finding excuses for not going.
There were only about 10 ranches/farms on Rogers Mesa. Those who had No 1 and No 2 water rights in Leroux Creek were those who had it best. Their farms/ranches seemed green and they had green trees around their houses. Very little was raised, so what could you sell? All lived off the land in some way, but most depended on a few head of cattle.
In our family, to start, there were no cattle to sell. If it had not been for the cotton-tail rabbits we should have been hungry more times than we were, and the prairie dog graced our table to fill an emergency. One could depend on the prairie dog –his towns were everywhere, yes, and at our back door.
Some corn and potatoes were raised with the early water, which would stop about June 15th. Mother learned to cook potatoes in many different ways-what she could do with the potato would fill a book.
The few head of cattle were driven to Leroux Mountain each summer to conserve the small amount of alfalfa, which was only one cutting, sometimes two. When we sold our cattle they were driven to Delta, Colorado.
Some fruit trees were planted for home use and seemed to get along with what water we had.
When the water was gone from the ditch it was carried from the North Fork of the Gunnison River, a mile and half away. I made many a trip with the old burro to the canyon below the ranch. Many are the times I cursed that old balky burro-but she received nothing for her work, she made her living on rabbit brush.
The cattle got the alfalfa when there was any. Sometimes to get feed we gathered the cactus and burned the spines from them. I can still see the cows turning the cactus in their wide-open mouths to keep the small stickers from hurting.
The few farmers decided to build a big ditch so as to have later water. This was to come from the North Fork of the Gunnison River, after the survey made by Mr. Greenwood.
In the fall the ranchers started with their teams and small scrappers to dig the Fire Mountain Canal.
They only worked in winter so they could take care of their alfalfa. These sturdy pioneers lived like rats in the holes they dug in the side of the hills. Little was accomplished in a day, for they toiled for seven years.
At last the water was turned in. We waited for two days and then went to where the canal crosses the Leroux Cree, but no water came. A rider was sent to investigate and it was found that the ditch would not hold water—it went into the ground or else the whole side of the mountain would have slide out.
It was then about two more years until the water would pass through. The thunder storms would bring cloud-bursts and the ditch would break. As years went by the banks became more stable.
After the few fruit trees began to bear, all began to pack fruit and haul it to Delta, Colorado, and then they waited for returns.
Most of the time the fruit did not pay for nails and boxes, I have known times when we paid freight charges and that was all. Where is the courage such as the early pioneer of Rogers Mesa had today?! —always it was said “next year will be better.”
As for Hotchkiss, Colorado, there was a one-room log school house not far from where the old brick one stood later. The post office was a one-room log cabin. Bridge Street was the only thoroughfare.
The Hotchkiss Block was the first structure to amount to anything. To a small boy’s mind this was a grand structure.
I well remember Mr. Hotchkiss and the boys. Their brick house near Leroux Creek Bridge was a grand castle.
The cowboys ruled the streets Saturday nights. I have seen many a wild horse race, firing of guns and shouting-also a few killings, one of which I shall never forget.
Everything came to Hotchkiss, Colorado, by covered wagon so the road to Delta, Colorado, was some highway. Water for drinking purposes was used from a ditch which ran along each side of Bridge Street in Hotchkiss, Colorado.
Well do I remember the first pipe-line for Hotchkiss, Colorado, as soon as the water was turned in all the pipes broke apart. Such mud you never will see again!
Many things could be written but the struggle for an existence in pioneer days cannot be exaggerated. There are no words powerful enough for the praise of a great people that struggle dot get this country on its feet.
Delta County Independent