Summit County pioneers: George and Susanne Culbreath
Special to the Summit Daily News
SUMMIT COUNTY — Pictures have the tremendous intensity of silence — the silence that speaks volumes about a person in the setting that has helped shape his character. To paint a picture of George Culbreath, one might depict calm in a man with unwavering core values and strong fundamental beliefs. It is a picture that also reflects the quiet resolve of Summit County.
The youngest of Cully and Elizabeth Culbreath’s three children, George played well into the role of the much-adored baby of the family. Always a bit more mischievous than his siblings, he recalls once driving down Main Street Breckenridge in high school shooting out all six of the town’s street lights. As another prank, George once hiked to the top of Quandary Peak and drug an old miner’s forge down the Blue Lakes side of the 14,265-foot mountain with the help of a burro.
Like his father, George has always possessed a certain charisma mixed with a practical ability to survive even when times were tough financially. While he was really too young to have felt the effects of the Green Mountain Reservoir project, he does have vivid memories of his dad’s dairy barn. As a child, the house he grew up in would get so cold that the linoleum flooring actually curled up each morning. He spent many hours in the dairy barn with all its milking equipment as it was the warmest place on the ranch. Yet, he remembers the amount of hard work that went into the 35-cow dairy and wasn’t as taken with life as a rancher as his brother Grady. As a result, it would be Grady who took over the responsibilities of his father’s ranch when the boys returned from the service in the late 1950s while George pursued other means of making a living.
Over the years, George worked in many diverse capacities. He and Grady worked in the tunnels of the Wellington mine, shoveling ore minerals onto muck sheets and filling many carts by hand. Breckenridge’s economy became very depressed following the decline of the mining industry and had nearly returned to its ghost town state. George remembers hearing the painful sounds of the lode miners wheezing, infected with the ailment of miner’s consumption in their lungs. For parts of two years, George also worked in the Roberts Tunnel, built to transport water from the bottom of the Dillon Reservoir to Denver’s South Platte River. Completed in 1960, the tunnel is 23 miles long. He remembers it being a great job, because the temperature under the Continental Divide was always a comfortable 56 degrees.
For several years, George was actively involved in bareback and saddle bronc riding and traveled around the state, competing on the rodeo circuit. Once riders acquired enough points from winning a few competitions, they are qualified to join the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, as George did. It was hard to survive as a professional rodeo cowboy when contestants were required to pay $50 entry fees. Riders like George had to keep winning in order to pay for it. “I was never able to place at the big ones, but I did alright. I won a lot of the small competitions, including the intercollegiate all-around,” George explained, adding that he earned enough money riding to buy a new car.
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“He was good — very good — but I still always held my breath when he rode,” admitted Susanne Culbreath, also known as Suzy, who would watch the competitions from the stands toward the end of his career in the rodeo circuit.
Originally from Michigan, Suzy and her friend Shirley Snyder, who now lives in Frisco, packed up with California dreams and headed west. Taken by the beauty of Colorado, they altered their plans to stay in the Rocky Mountains and accepted teaching positions in the small mining town of Uravan, located 60 miles from Montrose. “We stayed with an Indian family,” Suzy said. “They treated us royally, because they wanted young teachers in the school system, but it was just too far away from everything.”
They moved to teach at Climax from 1957-58 and discovered a wonderful, friendly group of people that welcomed them in. At 19 and 21 respectively, Suzy accepted a first grade teaching job and Shirley took one teaching kindergarten. “We had the best time up there,” Suzy said. “We would go skiing on weekends and night skiing some. Afterward, we would gather at the warming hut where Bob Zdechlik would entertain us.” While she was still learning how to ski, Suzy earned the nickname “rubberlegs” from Marie Zdechlik, who was a very accomplished skier. Shirley ended up marrying the superintendent’s son and Suzy returned to Michigan briefly to finish her degree at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. She later taught two more years in Dillon where the dam was being built.
The 1950s — post-war “happy days” with good music and fun times — gave leisure activities, such as skiing, increased popularity. “My folks thought skiing was a fad and would pass,” recalled George, who raced in high school and later in college at Colorado State University. A lover of speed with natural athletic ability, George raced with many junior national champions from the strong European countries in the slalom, giant slalom and downhill events. He also competed on the old ski jump at Dillon in various college meets.
Skiing began catching on in the ’50s in Summit County, but there still weren’t the crowds that exist on the slopes of the resorts today. “The skiing was excellent,” George said. “You could ski from the top of the mountain to the bottom without worrying about hitting anyone.” It was on one of those days skiing that he first met his sister Gert’s roommate in Climax, Susanne Randall. During this time, he and Suzy became friends and enjoyed many of the same outdoor activities, such as horseback riding, hiking and fishing. They married in 1961 and raised three children. George said their feelings obviously changed from being just friends.
Returning to Summit County
When he completed his tour of duty, George returned to make a life in Summit County. “There were nine of us in my (high school) graduation class,” George said. “I’ve always said that I was the only one who stayed in the county because there was only one job left.” George and Suzy lived in the old lodge at Cataract Lake the first winter after they were married. In March 1962, they moved to their present location at Rocky Nob Ranch. Deciding that they really didn’t own enough acres to make a living as ranchers, George decided to try the construction business.
With the purchase of his first tractor in 1963, George and Suzy started Culbreath Excavating, which they owned and operated for 14 years. The company grew to 20 employees and was involved in a lot of the early construction at Keystone Resort and Copper Mountain. “We got married, had our first daughter, bought a ranch and started a new business all in a relatively short period of time,” Suzy said. “It was a lot to have happening at once.”
The Culbreath family was actively involved in the Kremmling area. Their children attended school there and they were involved in sports and 4-H. The family also attended the Kremmling Community Church. Their leisure time was often spent hiking and backpacking in the Gore Range. George and Suzy remember when they and their children set out on a three-day trek from their house over the Gore Range to Vail. It was a great trip, but by the end they were ready to hit the hot tub at Vail and eat a good meal.
Both George and Suzy Culbreath acknowledge blood, sweat and tears that went into living in Summit County over the years, but there was also contentment. Glancing out their picture window at the lush Blue River valley, they thank God for the privilege of living there. “There are so many memories for us in Summit County,” George said. “This is where we met and where we raised their children.”
This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at SummitDaily.com/news/history.
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