Summit County pioneers: Melvin and Frances Long
Longs ranched Lower Blue River Valley for more than a half-century
Special to the Summit Daily News
SUMMIT COUNTY — A thousand acres.
It’s a piece of land of almost mythic proportions. Yet despite its grandeur, Melvin and Frances Long could probably have described every inch of their once 1,256-acre ranch as they might have described one of their children. Although they later reduced their homestead to 856 acres, Melvin laughed at many people who lived on 2 acres and called the land “agriculture.”
“They couldn’t grow enough off 2 acres to live for 15 minutes,” he said.
For more than a half-century, they lived in the same house in the Lower Blue where Frances and her father were born. The room that later served as a kitchen was once the full extent of the original house. Frances’ grandfather originally had ventured to Summit County to become a stagecoach driver in the 1880s.
During those early years, he ran a livery stable in Dillon and drove a stagecoach route from Buena Vista to Leadville. Later, when he began raising a family, he started ranching.
Melvin grew up in Nebraska but moved to Kremmling at age 14 or 15. Frances had been working at a bank in Kremmling when they met, and they continued to live there for three years after they married.
When Frances’ father became too old to maintain the ranch, Melvin expressed interest in taking over. He leased it for a while before buying it.
“The best part of ranching is being your own boss,” Melvin explained. “I guess I thought it would be a pretty good life to live. Of course, you don’t make any money. If you’re in it for the money, forget it. You’re not going to get it. If you want to be your own boss and are not afraid of hard work, it’s a good life.”
A life on the ranch
It takes a special breed to make a life on a ranch above 9,000 feet, especially during the mid-1900s when there wasn’t electricity or running water in the remote parts of the county. The conditions were raw. There were drifts of snow up to 18 feet deep that could keep the Longs homebound for a week or more.
Frances, who was all too familiar with passing long days cooped up during a winter storm, joked, “If I ever get to a point where I can’t read, they may as well shoot me.”
In addition to reading, she would spend hours quilting or trying out new recipes.
“Frances and I have definitely spent some miserable times out there in that field with the wind blowing and it snowing,” Melvin said.
He said traveling to town in the winter was often treacherous. Frances remembers stories of her parents trying to prepare by stocking up on provisions such as 25 pounds of apricots, 600 pounds of flour and 500 pounds of sugar. Melvin recalled hearing that it cost 50 cents for a shirt and 75 cents for a pair of overalls.
Many ranchers ordered most of their repair equipment from the Montgomery Ward catalog, including nuts, bolts and sickles. Occasionally, they would go to Dillon for additional supplies. There was a general store run by Pete Lege and another by Ed Riley. Sundreggers also had a general store that was in operation until the Dillon Dam was built.
Frances played an active role on the ranch at an early age and had been riding horses as long as she could remember. In the spring and fall, the ranch children would ride horses to school. In the winter, they would drive a horse and “cutter” (sled) all the way to the Slate Creek school they attended.
She learned to ride from her father, Alva Marshall, to whom horses were part of everyday life.
Alva, along with another cowboy, would round up cattle belonging to a rancher named Andrew Lindstrom that ranged around the mining claims above Breckenridge. They would rope one steer at a time, tying them to trees until eventually they had the whole herd of cattle tied. Then they would come back collecting six to eight cows at a time, stringing them between two horses and taking them down the hill into town. It was typical for a heifer to stay in low country grazing while a steer would head to the top of the hill to see how high he could get.
Melvin recalled Frances’ father telling him there was no way a person could run a ranch without work horses. Melvin confessed that he hadn’t put a harness on a horse since Alva died in 1968. While horses have long been instrumental to the working life of a ranch, modern machinery has made it more efficient.
A little time for fun
When the Longs’ daughter asked to go trail riding one visit, Melvin couldn’t see the entertainment in it.
“‘Pleasure ride?’ I asked. ‘What the devil is that?'” Melvin said. “When I get on a horse, I’m going to work. I’m not taking any pleasure ride.”
Although it was hard work, branding was one of the most social events of the year. Once a year, in the spring, the same crew would work their way around neighboring ranches to help brand one another’s cattle. It was a chance for the women to catch up and visit. At the end of a hard day’s work, the women would have prepared a big feast with a roast, rolls, pies and drinks.
While ranch life certainly was a 24-hour commitment of hard work to keep everything running smoothly, the Longs reminisced about the fun, as well. Frances fondly describes moonlit nights in the winter when a group of friends would go tobogganing. She said they’d nearly freeze to death, “but it was good fun anyway.”
Dancing provided another outlet for gathering and socializing. Melvin remembers the first time he met Karl Knorr, who would become his neighbor and one of the county’s most senior residents. The Veterans of Foreign Wars was hosting a dance with a local orchestra but was missing a drummer. Melvin had heard that his new neighbor played the drums, so he drove to Knorr’s house to recruit him. Karl was a hit.
In those days, people had to bring their own beverages to dances and rodeos. Between songs, they would go outside to their cars and wet their whistles.
“That was one of the most fun aspects of the dance, when the whole gang would go out to the car to get a drink, mostly because we could sit around telling stories and laughing,” Melvin said.
Frances’ dad once knew a man named Kennedy who made whisky with the label that read, “The only moonshine recommended by Dr. Smith.” He would feed the whisky mash to his pigs to destroy any evidence in case the police stopped by. The pigs were always drunk, and one sick calf actually died from a shot of the booze.
Taking a rare moment to ponder life on the ranch, Frances said, “I can’t say there’s been anything outstanding, but it’s been a happy existence. It’s had its downs, yes, but it’s had a lot of ups, too.”
Melvin simply said that if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t be here.
“We’ve had several offers to sell, but we’re still here,” he said.
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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