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Summit County pioneers: Sena Valaer

Sena owned The Mint pool hall and worked at the Old Dillon Inn

By Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz
Special to the Summit Daily News
Sena Valaer in front of her Dillon home in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

DILLON — Perhaps there was no one better than Sena Valaer to exemplify the homily, “Bloom where you’re planted.” Born in Breckenridge in 1919, Sena spent her entire life in Summit County and flourished in every setting and every experience she encountered.

Sena’s tenacity may have come from her maternal grandfather, Lars Christensen, who came to the United States as a stowaway aboard a ship transporting cattle to the New World. He worked his way across the country until he reached Denver, where he married.

Moving to Summit County, the Christensens homesteaded a ranch in 1903 on a hill by the Slate Creek schoolhouse in the lower Blue. They also had a mining claim in Breckenridge. Her paternal grandparents, the Ottersons, were Norwegian and homesteaded a ranch along the Green River in Wyoming. Then in 1916, her parents met at Mrs. Black’s Boarding House in Montezuma. Mrs. Black, a nurse, had two houses on Washington Street in Breckenridge, where Sena’s mother, and later Sena, was born.

As a young girl, her family, with three girls and one boy, moved several times between Laramie, Wyoming, Breckenridge and the lower Blue. Sena remembers her father trapping coyotes on their ranch near the Green River and selling their pelts. She only went to school one year in Wyoming before they moved back to Colorado, where her parents leased a ranch named Coal Place near the old State Creek school. While there, he served as a guide and would take people by wagon to go fishing to nearby lakes. 

Sena attended Slate Creek school until the eighth grade before returning to her birthplace of Breckenridge for high school. In 1938, Sena graduated in the same class with her brother, Herman, who was just a year older.

“He was my big buddy all through school,” Sena remembered.

Not long after graduation, he went to Pearl Harbor to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II but was lucky to be out at sea the morning the Japanese attacked.

Even at an early age, Sena learned the value of hard work. The Great Depression years were very difficult, and everyone had to do their part. From 1936-37, while she was still in high school, Sena helped in the kitchen of a private home on High Street where the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Harris, served boarders family-style meals. Sena smiled while remembering that Mr. Harris was the only one who could mash the potatoes for dinner because he did it best. Once a week, a man from Kremmling named Red Irving would stop by to show a movie at The Mines Theater on Main Street in Breckenridge and then stay overnight at the Harris’ home. The movies then were all in black and white. 

Sena Valaer (No. 9) and the 1935-36 Breckenridge High School girls basketball team.
Courtesy Sena Valaer

Sena also assisted Belle Marz, who had a wooden leg, and her husband, Joe, in The Brown Hotel kitchen. They used canned milk instead of fresh milk, so Sena cleverly began saving the coupons off the milk labels and eventually had enough to receive a free set of dishes in exchange. She kept that original set of eight, floral-patterned china in her cupboard for the rest of her life.

After she graduated from high school in summer 1938, Sena went to work in another kitchen for The Hamilton Hotel in Dillon, later known as The Dillon Hotel. The owners Mr. and Mrs. Briggs also served roomers and boarders from the Green Mountain dam and reservoir.

“I really learned a lot from all those places I worked,” recalled Sena, who spoke not just of the skills inside the kitchen but of other life lessons, as well.

Sena and John Valaer shortly after they were married circa 1939.
Courtesy Sena Valaer

Dancing and ranching

Even during the Depression, people in Summit County found time for fun and laughter. Dances were at the center of the social scene, held throughout the county at various halls or schools. It was while attending a dance in Frisco with another date that Sena encountered the charms of John Valaer, who drove a dump truck for the construction crew working on Loveland Pass. When he politely offered her a ride home that evening, she accepted.

At 19 years old, Sena married John in Leadville on March 10, 1939.

“We were going to get married on the first of March, but we decided to wait until the 10th of March because that was Johnny’s birthday,” Sena said. “After the wedding, we came home and milked the cows.”

John’s parents emigrated from Switzerland in 1905. His father moved to the United States first to mine in Breckenridge and returned to Europe to get married. He brought his Swiss bride back to Summit County to see how she would like the mountain lifestyle. Unable to speak English, she would take notes to the grocery store to help her communicate with the clerks. In 1916, not long after they purchased the Roberts Ranch, Mrs. Valaer’s husband died, forcing her to raise their children and maintain a full working ranch on her own.

When Sena and John married, they helped with many of the ranch chores.

“I didn’t know how to milk cows, drive a car or anything when I first got married,” Sena admitted. “I was just a little high school gal.”

Always a quick learner, Sena soon became a valuable asset on the ranch. Mrs. Valaer taught her how to prepare a number of Swiss recipes, such as potato cakes, Swiss meatballs and knudley (liver). Sena took an interest in gardening, as well, and planted a variety of vegetables in the back of Mrs. Valaer’s house, including cauliflower, cabbage, carrots and parsnips.

Amid work on the ranch, attending rodeos became a popular pastime. Sena belonged to a saddle club and rode in a quadrille team, which is essentially like square dancing on horseback. Howard Giberson and Gail Byers were both actively involved in quadrille shows, as well. She often rode Dick or Dan, two horses borrowed from a corral owned by Paul Dahl. She recalls getting bucked off in the middle of one performance, but as she had been instructed, she jumped right back on and continued with the show.

“It was a lot of fun,” Sena said. “I really enjoyed it and the gatherings afterward. There always seemed to be a wiener roast or something social for everyone.”

For seven years, Sena peddled milk in Dillon and took over the Breckenridge route when Mac Nicholson, who previously had that territory, wanted out of the business. Sena sold several products, including whole milk, cream, butter and cottage cheese to their customers throughout the county.

John built a dam over Willow Creek to create the necessary pressure to force water into the house through special piping to facilitate a cooling process. Then the milk was bottled. The back seat of Sena’s Chevy had been removed in order to stack boxes containing two dozen bottles per crate for delivery. In those days, a gallon of milk cost 60 cents, a half-gallon 35 cents, 15 cents for a quart and 50 cents for a pint of cream.

“In all the years I delivered milk, I only had one customer who didn’t pay his bill,” Sena said.

John worked furiously cleaning the barn and feeding the cattle while Sena completed her route. When she returned, she helped him haul hay into the barn and grain the cows.

“There was a lot of work involved with all of that,” Sena said.

In 1945, they sold the ranch to Cully Culbreath, who took over the dairy operations.

Sena Valaer, from right, with friends Ray and Millie Hille, who owned the Old Dillon Inn.
Courtesy Sena Valaer

A changing community

Moving to Dillon in 1945, Sena joined the Rebekah Lodge and was accompanied by Martha Enyeart to her initiation in Leadville at a sister lodge.

“We would host dinners to raise money or set up tables with cookies, cupcakes and coffee at rest stops on Vail Pass to do the good neighborly thing,” she explained.

Sena enjoyed learning where all the travelers were from. Once, she introduced children from South Africa to their very first marshmallow roast when they stopped at the rest area.

While John and Sena lived in Dillon in the 1950s, they bought The Mint pool hall and remodeled it, putting rooms upstairs and living there for a while. They later rented that room out to a few different tenants. While John ran the pool hall, Sena began working at the Old Dillon Inn when the owner of the Dillon Garage asked her if she would run his liquor store. He was a Mason, and it was frowned upon to possess a liquor license, so he eventually sold the store to Sena. 

Then Al Kuchach, another local owner, offered Sena the opportunity to purchase a second liquor store, to combat a competitor. He told her to just “pay when she could.”

With so many construction crews working in the county to build the Dillon Dam and the Roberts Tunnel, there arose a need for an accessible place to cash checks. The nearest bank was in Kremmling, so Sena began cashing checks for 25 cents a piece. Every Friday night after payday, the construction workers would stand in a long line outside Sena’s store. She also took cash from the post office as well as the school’s hot lunch program to the Bank of Kremmling for deposit.

“I had a good hiding place,” Sena said.

She was aware, however, of the potential dangers being the sole person responsible for such large quantities of cash. One night, she remembers hearing gunshots that woke her up. She looked out her window to see a small group of men at the Dillon Inn with their hands in the air. The robber escaped, but authorities later discovered he had been an ex-con working in the tunnel.

In 1961, with the newly built Dillon Dam forcing local residents to move, the Valaers jacked up their home, put it on wheels and moved it to new Dillon. Residents were given salvage value if they were willing to move their house when the dam was built.

“I wouldn’t want to do it again,” Sena said, remembering how difficult it was to relocate. Once in the new location, the house was remodeled inside and out, and a front addition was built. 

Sena Valaer and a photo of herself from the early 1930s.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

While they lived in their new Dillon location, John was still working for Summit County, plowing snow had started as a nice gesture and turned into a full-time occupation. Sena and John spent 32 1/2 wonderful years together and had many colorful tales to tell before he died in 1971.

Sena started her liquor store in the new town in Dillon in 1963 and sold it in 1967. She then went to work for the Little Brown Drug store in Dillon until 1983, always enjoying talking to and interacting with customers.

Sena acknowledged that she always had been quite “ornery,” but it might just be that spunk that kept her young at heart all those years. She and her good friend Grace Warren earned a reputation for playing many a practical joke on other acquaintances in town.

“You have to make fun of yourself,” said Sena, thinking about her many experiences in Summit County over the years. “Life’s too short to not have a little fun out of it.” 

Editor’s note: Sena Valaer died in February 2018 at age 98.

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.

Sena Valaer, age 9, with her brother Herman on the way to school.
Courtesy Sena Valaer

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