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Summit County pioneers: Sue Chamberlain

By Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz
Special to the Summit Daily News
Sue Chamberlain in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

Edith May “Sue” Chamberlain was skeptical that all of life’s modern conveniences and technological advances have made the world a better place.

“We are a generation too late to remember many of the facts about life in Summit County,” she said.

Born and raised on a ranch that would be halfway between Frisco and the old town of Dillon, Sue was from a family whose land is now covered by the water of Dillon Reservoir. Sue’s father owned a cattle ranch, and although they lived through the Great Depression, there was always enough food for everyone. They raised cows, pigs and chickens, and produced milk, butter and cheese. Aside from potatoes her father would buy from a farmer in the Lower Blue, they would pick up a few staples at the Dillon grocery store. 

“My mother did a lot of baking,” she said. “Pies, cakes, cookies and bread.”  

Until 1937, the C&S Railroad would bring shipments every day from Denver on a route that would go to Como, over Boreas Pass, into Breckenridge, down to Dillon, Frisco and then on to Leadville. Sue’s family shipped cattle to market in Denver on the same route.

Before Loveland Pass opened, the only way to drive to Denver was over Hoosier Pass or Berthoud Pass. 

“They didn’t use to keep the roads open all the time because there was no modern machinery like we have today to clear snow,” Sue said. “The C&S Railroad was crooked and slow, so The Denver Post would be a day late when it came by train. Once the train quit running, the roads were kept open more often and supplies began to be trucked up rather than arrive on the train.”

As the only daughter with four older brothers, Sue had to endure much teasing and cajoling. Her fifth brother died when he was just a baby. For 11 years, Sue went to school in the old town of Dillon, but she and her parents rented an apartment in Denver, and she attended North High School. The boys stayed at the ranch and finished high school in Breckenridge. 

Sue and one of her brothers.
Courtesy Sue Chamberlain

“It was the hardest thing I ever did,” Sue recalled. With a class of 656 students, it was a bit overwhelming for a girl from the mountains who didn’t know her way around Denver. “I was so homesick that I cried every night, but by the last semester, I was alright. I had become used to it by then.”

Sue described ranch life as nonstop hard work. Every family member knew to lend a hand and do his or her part, and no one slept until the work was complete. The boys would wake up every morning at 5 a.m. to complete their chores of milking the cows, feeding the calves, pigs and chickens and mending fences. “Dad would always tell us to go to bed, because 5 o’clock comes early,” Sue remembered. 

After graduation, Sue returned to the ranch for three years before attending nurse’s training at St. Anthony Medical Center in Denver. She joined the Army Nurses Corps and spent some time at Camp Carson, now called Fort Carson, toward the end of World War II. After she was discharged from the Army, she worked in Colorado Springs until September 1947, when she and Charles Chamberlain were married at the ranch.

Sue Chamberlain in her WWII uniform with family photos in 1999.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

They lived in Grand Junction for four years during which time they inherited license plate ZL-3, one of the oldest plates in the county, from Sue’s father. They then moved back to Summit County. From 1951-1981, they lived in the log cabin that was once a café and later became the ReMax Real Estate office. She helped her husband run the Texaco Station next door, and their two daughters attended school in Frisco.

Sue reminisced about the days when the county was smaller and people got together for dances, card parties and pot lucks. Before the county became so populated, they knew everyone. It seemed that there was an endless flow of visitors stopping by the ranch. They had a pond on the ranch where friends would come to ice skate. The boys would burn old tires, build a campfire on the side of the lake and grill burgers.

“One time, my mother kept track of how many people were at our house for meals,” Sue said. “There was almost always someone stopping by the ranch. Everybody was always welcome to eat, and we always found room for one more.”

Sue Chamberlain’s license plate from back in the days when you could tell how long someone had lived in Summit County by their license plate number.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

Whenever anyone came by, there was always coffee, cake and pies to serve them. They had no modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing, electricity, telephone or running water. Sue recalled her mother often laden with buckets of water from their well to cook or do the wash. Before electricity, they first used kerosene, then gas, to light the rooms. At one point, the town of Frisco relied on electricity generated by the Excelsior Mine during its operation.

“It seemed like my mother was always cooking,” Sue said. “But she never used a recipe. Just a pinch of this and a pinch of that. All on a wood stove.” It was usually late when Sue’s family finished a meal, but they never missed an opportunity to gather around the stove and listen to stories. 

“My mother was a good reader,” Sue recalled. “We would pick out a book and sit, wide-eyed, waiting for the next story. My favorite were the mysteries.” 

When her parents bought their first radio (battery operated), the family started listening to programs such as “Amos and Andy” and “Fibber McGee and Molly” on one of the three stations. Sue’s family later had one of the first televisions in Frisco and enjoyed watching the old Westerns. 

Sue Chamberlain and her horse, Bird, in 1934 in an area that is now covered by Dillon Reservoir.
Courtesy Sue Chamberlain

Of all the changes in Summit County over the years, Dillon Reservoir probably had the biggest geographical impact. It dramatically affected people who lived on the Blue River between Frisco and Kremmling. The town of Dillon was moved and the cemetery, where two of Sue’s brothers were buried, was relocated. For her family, the reservoir meant losing their ranch to the recreational pursuits of boating and fishing that interested the new generation.

“We were very content,” Sue remembered. “Today, you have all these things that are supposed to make life easier, and yet we still don’t have as much time as we used to. When I stop and look back on things, I can only think of how much fun we had. I don’t think about how times were hard because life was so much simpler then.”

Editor’s note: Sue Chamberlain died in March 2005.

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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