Harold Rutherford grew up on a ranch in Frisco during the 1930s and 40s
February 16, 2014
It was a clear, warm day and we marveled at the beauty of the mountains and the beautiful green forests as we traveled along. Our trip took us up Highway 285 through Morrison, Bailey, Fairplay, Alma, over Hoosier Pass to Breckenridge, and to Frisco.
. . .
It was late in the day when we arrived at Boggs’ cabin, but I had seen enough to know that this was, as Dad said, the most beautiful place in the world.
— pg. 60, “Dustbowl to Paradise”
Thus wrote Harold Rutherford about his first journey to Summit County, all the way from the dusty eastern plains of the state. The Rutherford family moved to Frisco in 1935, when Harold was 11 years old, and shortly thereafter purchased the Meadow Creek Ranch. Harold and his siblings grew up among the burgeoning towns of Dillon, Frisco and Breckenridge, working on the ranch, attending Frisco’s one-room schoolhouse and encountering countless adventures with the surrounding wildlife and local characters.
By Harold’s later years, the Frisco he had grown up in was gone, the dirt roads and sidewalks replaced with asphalt and concrete, with buildings and houses sprung up where once were only trees. But the memories remained strong, and Harold passed them down to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Eventually, he began to document his stories, gathering them into several books he published himself: “Dustbowl to Paradise” about moving from Eckley, Colo. to Frisco; “The 10th Mountain Army Division Invades the Rutherford Ranch,” a short story; and “Dust, Wind, and Tears” about living in the Dustbowl area during the Great Depression.
Harold, who relocated to Denver in the 1950s, would visit Summit County often, accompanied by his grandchildren. On these visits, he would stop by his old schoolhouse, which is now the Frisco Historic Park and Museum, and share stories — stories about his teachers, his classmates and, above all, his schoolboy pranks.
Harold passed away at the beginning of the year, but his memories, and those others hold of him, remain as vivid as ever.
School Bell Surprise and other shenanigans
I looked up at the school bell and a terrific idea came to my mind.
— pg. 146, “Dustbowl to Paradise”
“He was the guy with the best source of information about the schoolhouse, as to what life was really like in the schoolhouse,” said Nancy Anderson, museum coordinator at the Frisco Historic Park and Museum.
Anderson would often listen to Harold’s stories when he came to visit. It got so she could recognize the distinct sound of his footsteps on the old wooden floor. He would come in, always well dressed, and stand by the reception desk at the back, regaling Anderson and anyone who cared to listen with his tales.
“You knew if Harold came in, put away your things, because he’s ready to tell you a story,” Anderson said with a laugh.
And people were ready to listen. “He made an impression on everybody,” she said, “even guests that would be listening to him.”
One of his favorite stories revolved around the school bell, and is written in “Dustbowl to Paradise.” In it, a mischievous Harold decides to play a prank on his teacher by turning the bell upside down on top of the beam and filling it with water.
“(The teacher) broke the silence by saying, ‘That’s strange, the rope on the bell is shorter than usual this morning,’” reads Harold’s account. “She managed to reach high enough to grab the end of the rope and give it a hard tug.
“It was even more exciting than I had expected. The water seemed to have grown since the night before. The teacher was drowned! Her curly, red-dyed hair was hanging straight, her dress was soaked and water was dripping from the hem. She looked a mess! Needless to say, she went home to change clothes and redo her hair before returning.”
All those who recounted this story, and the way Harold told it, would laugh.
“He was certainly a jokester,” said his daughter, Danetta, “and seemed like he was always trying to liven things up.”
Harold had many stories — about fishing, hunting and trapping; about the adventurous family cat, Tim; drawing caricatures of his teacher; pushing an old car down a hill in Breckenridge with his friends. Chapters in his book feature intriguing titles, such as “Three Mice in the Teacher’s Desk,” “Get This Cow Off Me” and “Live Frog Sandwich.”
His shenanigans eventually earned him a reputation as a trickster.
“Dad never ever lied, you know,” Danetta said. “There’d just be a big huge grin on his face. People, I guess, probably knew better than to ask.”
In the epilogue of “Dustbowl to Paradise” he wrote, “Had I included all the stories I remembered, and the stories friends reminded me of, the book would be a foot thick.”
Handy man, service man, family man
When he was a bit older, Harold got a job at the Climax Mine and eventually graduated from Climax High School. He also learned carpentry and telegraphy (Morse code) from his father. This served him well when he enlisted to fight in World War II.
He joined the Navy and served active duty on the U.S. east coast, tracking submarine activity. He was injured when a German torpedo hit the boat he was on, blasting him out of it. His work with headphones and radar had also greatly damaged his hearing.
“He was very very humble about it, and didn’t like to talk about the war at all,” said his granddaughter, Robin Aggus Benson.
After the war, Harold briefly returned to Summit County with his wife and baby daughter (Danetta) in tow. Times were hard, however, and he eventually relocated to Denver, where he worked in the construction business, first as a contractor and later building custom homes. He also was involved in building churches, particularly in the Denver suburb areas. Religion was very important to him.
“(He was) a man of very strong faith, he would want that to be known. A very godly man … and he’d probably want all the credit to go to the good man upstairs,” said Benson.
Yet he would always take time to return to Summit County, whether it was with his group of hunting buddies, his children or his grandchildren. He took them all hunting and fishing, pointing out places he remembered from his childhood along the way.
“He had a special place in his heart for Summit County,” Benson said. “It was like a sacred part of his life.”
Cherishing the memories
About three years ago, Harold was diagnosed with cancer. Although he fought hard, he left this world on Jan. 2, 2014. His service was held at Fort Logan National Cemetery, with military honors.
“He was my hero, the kind of guy every guy should be,” said Benson, emotion filling her voice. “They just don’t make them like that anymore.”
The schoolhouse floors will be all the more silent without his step.
“It was just really neat to be blessed with him in your life, and to have that part of Frisco’s history alive in him, and we’ll miss that,” Anderson said.
Yet those who recall Harold continually bring up his bright and positive outlook on life.
“Good memories, I’ll tell you what,” Danetta said. “He would just laugh and laugh telling stories.” And she does too.
“He just loved life so much,” said Benson, quoting Harold’s wife, her step-grandmother. “And he would absolutely take dust and make a diamond out of it.”
During his final years, Harold was working on writing down even more stories about his life, which his family hopes to eventually publish.
Though Harold has moved on, his words remain strong, in print, in the museum and in the minds of those who knew him.
As he wrote in his first book’s introduction, “Thank God for good memories.”