by Roy Roper
Editor’s Note: Enjoy this excerpt from Roy Roper’s remarkable account of growing up on the Roper Ranch in the 1920’s - 40s, and surviving the Great Depression. Today, 94 year old Roy, and his wife, Linda are active members of Beulah Historical Society, and avid Beulah and Roper family historians, having written/prepared over 200 articles. Like Roy, his biography is a treasure, filled with sobering, and delightful details of a time when living was tenuous and joys were simple. This version has been edited to fit our paper, read complete article in .pdf here!
My Early Years on the Roper Ranch
Several of my children and grandchildren have often asked me what it was like to grow up out in the country during the 1930’s. Therefore, I put down here some of the experiences I recall from my “growing up years,” from my birth, until I left the place of my birth.
I was born on the Ruddock-Roper place, 2 miles south of Goodpasture (red barn east of Beulah) in Pueblo County, CO. The land was homesteaded by Richard Ruddock about 1887 and proved up on Aug. 16, 1892. My great grandmother, Eliz. Roper, married Richard Ruddock in 1890. The land has been handed down to later generations in the years since. My brother, Mel and I received the title in 1946, after returning from WWII.
I was born March 20, 1925 in the wood frame house my father had built in 1918. The house was located about 200 ft. north of the edge of the North St. Charles Canyon. My parents, William and Ethel Roper moved to the new house sometime in 1924, after they were married Dec. 19, 1922.
I think my birth did not leave much of an impression on my father, who at that time, was apparently not much interested in children, especially babies. My father kept a daily diary in those days. Years later, I came across his old diaries so looked up his entry for my birthdate. He had written “worked at building fence up on the buttes. New baby.”
Early years on the ranch in my memory were a mix of youthful fun and hard times. The Great Depression had started with the Stock Market crash of Oct. 29, 1929. For us the years 1931 through 1936 seemed to be the worst. These were the start of the “Dirty Thirties” as drought and dust storms became more frequent. Depression, lack of income and crop failures were a constant worry for my parents. Early in 1933 the new Franklin D. Roosevelt Admin. started some relief employment. Dad Roper was fortunate to get such work for several years. The wages were quite low, but enough to buy grocers and clothing. Violent spring wind storms scoured our fields of remaining topsoil and blow dirt piled up over the field fences.
By 1934 the range grass on our ranch was dead or dying due to the lack of moisture. There were only a few live plants among the rocks in the gullies. We had no grass and no hay for the cattle. A number of our cattle became so thin and weak that they could not get back up after lying down. We tried to strengthen them with extra feed, but some did not survive. After the grass was gone our cattle ate all the oak leaves supposedly poisonous to cattle. Then they grubbed out the yucca plant roots and ate them, spewing foam, like soap suds, from their mouths. After the yucca was gone the cattle turned to eating cactus, thorns and all. Dad Roper then managed to buy a kerosene flame burner to burn off the cactus thorns. The cattle came to depend on burned cactus and they come running when they heard him start up the burner of a morning.
Our salvation was the garden in the canyon where we were able to raise our own vegetables, after the squirrels, rabbits and porcupines got their share. We ate them, too.
These were the years also when we gathered and burned cow chips for fuel. There was no money to buy coal even though coal was plentiful and cheap at Florence and Canon City. The cow chips burned good, but were dusty and produced a large amount of ashes.
Among our few luxuries was a radio, when it worked, (a 3 tube Crossley), and a gasoline lamp, when we could keep the cutworm moths from flying through the fragile mantles.
In 1937 Dad Roper managed to save enough money to buy a 6 volt wind-charger. Mel and I helped out with a few dollars we had saved. Zenith windchargers were a new development, and worked really well. We could now get some good from the annoying everlasting wind. What a change! We now had dependable power to charge the radio battery. Dad even rigged up a single electric bulb from an auto headlight. We felt we were just as modern as the folks in town.
Compared to today’s youth we children had almost nothing. We wore cast-off clothing from the Salvation Army store, or whatever my grandmother could find among her friends in Canon City. We had no TV, no sports equipment, and not many store bought toys. But, we had the canyon!
Most of our spare time was spent in the canyon, winter and summer. We learned to swim in the small river, and we knew where most of the bird’s nests and animal dens were. Many visitors wondered that we had not been killed by a fall while rock climbing. But we were not afraid. A lot of our toys were home-made, such as stilts and sling shots or beanies, as we called them. We made many of these with a forked stick, rubber strands cut from old inner tubes, and a pouch cut from an old shoe. What fun it was to shoot rocks at targets in the canyon.
Every fall my father hoped to lay in some food supplies for winter, such as 100 lbs of pinto beans, 100 lbs rice and 100 lbs of sugar. We ground our own yellow corn for cornmeal. Quite often all we had for supper was cornmeal mush and milk. The left over mush was then sliced and fried for breakfast. I liked the fried mush better than the mush and milk.
Meat supplies in the summer were scarce since we had no refrigeration. In early summer we often ate rabbit, either our own or wild cottontails we hunted. We also hunted and trapped squirrels and prairie dogs. These were good eating. By mid-summer some of the young frying chickens could be used.
Our domestic water supply was mostly from the concrete underground cistern near the barn. Of course all the water had to be hand carried in buckets the 150-200’ to the house-largely a boys’ chore.
When the cistern ran dry all our water then had to be hauled up out of the canyon on the cable tramway hoist. There it was stored in barrels. Dad Roper taught Mel and I to operate the hoist. It was rather fun to do this, allowing the empty 10 gal. bucket to zoom 200 ft. down to the bottom. If it was handled just right the bucket would tip over in the river to get a nearly full bucket. If not, we might get only a partially full bucket. Then we had to manually push the idler pulley in to tighten the belt, advance the engine throttle and the windlass then took over, to wind the hoist rope on the drum to pull the full bucket to the top. Fortunately, we seldom had to hoist water in the winter time.
Livestock water too, was scarce. When our earthen ponds went dry Dad R. often bailed water by hand from the old hand dug well. Or, we often had to drive them down one of the trails into the canyon to water everyday. This was another boy’s chore.
Every spring Mel and I could hardly wait until warm weather when we could go barefoot. Until about age 12 our summer attire was usually only a pair of cut-off pants with suspenders. Going barefoot seemed so natural. But, stubbed toes and cactus thorns were a common hazard, too. We often had a sore toe wrapped in a bandage. Our feet became very tough and calloused.
Winters were too long it seemed. Our frame ranch house had no insulation in the walls or ceiling. Sometimes the wet dish cloth would be frozen of a cold winter morning. In winter most of our time was spent in one room, the kitchen. There was not enough money for fuel to heat all rooms. On very special occasions the big coal heater was fired up. Smelly cobs from the pig pen furnished part of the fuel. It was always a kid’s chore to go get what cobs could be found at the pig pens.
Mel and I attended elementary school at Cedar Grove, Dist. 37, a typical one-room school of that day. There was one teacher most times for all eight grades. Enrollment was small during the 30’s, 8-12 students. We usually walked the 2-1/2 miles from the ranch to school. Winters at school were cold too. Sometimes the teacher would let us pull our desks up close to the huge coal heater. Recess games were marbles, blackman, run-sheep-run, auntie over, and the swings—if they were not broken. Some students rode horses to school. There was a long horse shed south of the school house where the horses stood patiently tied until school ended for the day.
Keeping fresh food from spoiling in the heat of summer was a challenge. The more fortunate farm folk had a spring house where they could keep milk, eggs, butter and cooked meat. Some even had a rock lined dug well where they lowered these items in a bucket to cooler depths. We had neither. But Grandfather Opp was skillful at constructing coolers. The evaporative cooler was made with a wood frame of 1 x 2 lumber. Water was pulled by evaporation out of the tank, through socks to keep the burlap sides damp all the time, thus cooling the interior of the box. Filling the water tank daily was a kid’s job.
Another experience I’ll not soon forget about life on the ranch was our road into the place. Maybe we didn’t have the worst road in the community, but it was close! Though we lived only 2-1/2 miles south of the highway at Goodpasture, we had not much of a road-only two ruts across the grass prairie, the same kind of road used by the wagons of the homesteaders. When one rut got too deep, traffic simply moved over enough to make a new rut. In some places the roadway was a series of old rut scars as much as 25’ wide.
By 1939 Mel and I were teenagers and old enough to take some off-farm employment. One summer we worked for a week cutting corn by hand for our near neighbor, Geo. Asher. We used short-handled hoes. Our wages were “a dollar a day and your dinner”.
The spring of 1940 was cool and rainy. Weeds flourished. Grandfather Opp had a brush scythe which he fixed up for our use. We stayed with him frequently in Beulah that summer and found a lot of weed cutting jobs using the scythe and hand rakes. This was mostly for the “summer people” who lived in Pueblo, but had summer cabins in Beulah.
Our weed cutting wages were better, at .25 cents per hour. We now earned enough to buy our own clothes. Blue jeans from Montgomery Wards were .79 cents a pair. Chambrey shirts were about .49 cents each. The summers of 1941-42 we found men’s work. We had hit the “big time”. There had been more moisture and a good wheat crop. Some of the neighbors did not yet have combine harvesters. They still had the old style grain binders so needed labor to shock wheat and also on the threshing crews a few weeks later. Wages were even better, about $3 per day. We liked working with grown up men and enjoyed the big harvest crew dinners of generous helpings of fried chicken, potatoes and gravy.