After induction into Colorado State Rodeo Wall of Fame, George Culbreath reflects on a life of Summit County ranching
HEENEY — The near 80-degree sunshine reflected off George Culbreath’s belt buckle Saturday at his ranch north of Silverthorne. Now in his ninth decade in Summit County, Culbreath has been selected as a 2020 inductee into the Colorado State University Rodeo Wall of Fame.
Culbreath won the buckle nearly six decades ago. After learning the ropes at the old town of Dillon’s rodeo grounds out behind the Lucky Horseshoe bar, he departed Summit to become a star at Colorado State (then known as Colorado A&M). In 1961, Culbreath rode through a stellar competitive rodeo season all across the great plains region, being named top All-Around Cowboy for the region that year and earning a trip to the national finals in Sacramento, California.
En route to the great plains championship — which included mastery in saddle bronc, bareback, bull riding and bulldogging disciplines, Culbreath won the saddle bronc competition at the Nebraska State Stampede in Chadron, Nebraska. It’s the victory from which he earned the belt buckle he wore Saturday morning.
“He was very competitive,” said Susy, Culbreath’s wife since 1961. “I would watch him and when he rode I would hold my breath a little bit because I was scared. But he was good at it and I enjoyed watching it.”
“I think I was pretty cut-throat,” Culbreath said. “I never had much fun till it’s over with.”
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On Saturday afternoon George and Susy were joined by their granddaughter Carli on the back red porch on their several hundred acre ranch across from the McDonald Flats Campground a few miles south of Heeney. The Culbreaths have called this stunning piece of Summit County property home since their marriage.
Their home, with a majestic view of Ute Peak to the southeast and the snowcapped peaks of the Gore Range to the southwest, overlooks a hillside where for decades their cows have grazed and where elk often meander in herds from the calving grounds just on the other side of the hill.
George and Susy reflected on a ranching life well-lived as they looked at a trough that helps transport water along the ranch’s irrigation system. George built it years ago to move water from the lake up the hillside.
For George the trough is a reminder of where the Culbreath family came from. In the 1880s George’s grandfather, George Engle, came to the frontier town of Breckenridge from Switzerland. With his brother Peter, he started the Engle Brothers Exchange Bank. George Engle ran the bank until his death in 1926.
Grady “Cully” Culbreath, George’s father, also made a go of it for himself in Summit County. He married Engle’s daughter, Elizabeth, and got into the ranching business down at Otter Creek Ranch in Heeney in 1930, just a couple miles north on the country road where George and Susy live now.
It was at Otter Creek where George was born in 1936 and where he first learned how to milk cows and help with other ranch chores. After the family moved to Smith Ranch in Silverthorne, milking cows in the dairy barn eventually gave way to George and his 14-month-elder brother, Grady, riding the milk cows out of the barn.
“It was kind of tricky,” Culbreath said, “cause you had to keep your head down or you’d get clothes-lined when you’d go out the door. But they never bucked till they got outside, cause the concrete inside was slick. But when they got out that door, bingo.”
George’s ranching childhood living at Otter Creek, consisted of trotting on horseback four miles to the Lakeside School down under the Green Mountain Dam. There was also the bailing of loose hay for the Dillon rodeo back when it was the old town’s sports center — where loggers, ranchers and miners would congregate when they weren’t hanging around the town’s eight bars.
It was experiences like those, that led Culbreath to rodeo at Colorado A&M in 1954. Culbreath excelled in rodeo and on the ski team before he took a break from college for a union job building Roberts Tunnel, the project that brought water from the Dillon Reservoir — constructed where the old town and rodeo grounds used to be — down to Denver.
Thinking back, Culbreath said though working on the tunnel was a hard job, it wasn’t what gave him the strength to become a rodeo champion in 1961 after he returned to college.
“It wasn’t as hard as ranch work,” he said with a smile.
On the Colorado A&M team, Culbreath befriended a fellow mountain buddy: Tim Mantle from Yampa. The duo were thought to be so tough to buck because growing up in the mountains the ground was so frozen they would do anything not to hit it.
Culbreath never did make it out to Sacramento for the national finals in 1961, something he regrets to this day. Susy encouraged him to go, but there was just so much going on with their lives then — getting married, starting up an excavating business and getting their ranch at Rocky Nob off the ground during a time of sudden change in Summit County.
Nearly 60 years later, this past February, while George and Susy were at a previously-scheduled trip to New Zealand, their children and grandchildren attended the Colorado State banquet when Culbreath was inducted into the Wall of Fame. There, Carli met her granddad’s college friends, who shared rodeo stories of her granddad’s success from a bygone Summit county sports era — one where saddle broncin’ and bull riding were at the center of the scene.
“We were able to see a part of Grandpa’s life that I hadn’t seen before,” Carli said.
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