Leaving Silt behind

Thursday, June 13, 2013 9:00 PM
Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford

Silt resident John Dwire replicated the European peasant tradition of riding cows, which were much more common than horses.
John Cozza and his wife sat on an old car seat in front of their modest home. Cozza lived his entire life in Silt and worked a variety of jobs. He bought the town lot across from his house for $250.
The oil-shale boom and bust changed Garfield County in the early 1980s but not to the extent that horizontal gas drilling and widespread fracking has transformed the landscape. Nicknamed “Gasfield County,” Garfield County now has more than 8,000 producing gas wells.
In the late 1970s, Jim Farris still farmed with horses. He claimed he could turn them on a dime and leave you a nickel in change.

We moved to Silt on the Western Slope in the summer of 1976. I began my academic career as a fourth-grade teacher. My girlfriend, whom I’d met in San Francisco, had complained about Colorado Springs being too small, too provincial. Then we settled in Silt with its dirt streets, wooden water lines and bumper stickers that proclaimed SILT HAPPENS.

For the first time in our lives, we were living in the Colorado Rockies in an agricultural valley in a world of farmers, ranchers, coal-miners and hard-drinking partygoers who never met a beer they didn’t like. The small town changed us. We married a year later and basked in the glow of tight friendships, an outdoor lifestyle, proximity to the Flattops Wilderness in the White River National Forest and closeness to the Colorado River, where we launched our flat-bottomed jon boat, smashed into rocks, floated backward through rapids, but only once capsized.

I learned to butcher goats, lambs and deer. We rode horseback on fall cattle roundups, had late-night poker parties, and practiced cross-country skiing on McClure Pass with white wooden skis made for the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale. There was no interstate highway through Glenwood Canyon yet. We were rural and remote. To the north stood the Hogbacks, an ancient range of the ancestral Rockies, and to the south stretched prime elk hunting up Divide Creek, Dry Hollow, Mamm Creek and Uncle Bob Mountain, where my hero Teddy Roosevelt hunted bear.

A year after getting married, we bought a little house in town on Eighth Street just up from the hardware store/gas station named Tim’s Tools. Our friend Sonja had purchased the house from the Pachecos as an investment because the big oil-shale boom was just beginning. But we talked her out of the property in May, wrote her a check for $500 and hit the road for the summer telling her we’d be back before school started to sign the papers. Life was like that then on the Western Slope. You could buy a house with a handshake.

I know every inch of that house. I’ve been in the cellar, up in the attic, and I’ve learned not to try and fix electrical outlets 20 minutes before dark, because when you pop the circuit breakers, it’s always nice to have daylight. Aspen is within commuting distance, and as the rich and famous remodeled their condos, friends with pickups full of free condo carpet rolled down valley into Silt. One year, the new-used carpet was too thick so I had to trim the bedroom door. I trimmed the door all right. I cut an inch and a half off the top, not the bottom, so then I had to rebuild the door frame.

The house began its life in 1923 with one room. Then a kitchen was added, next came a second bedroom. Finally, in the early 1950s, a major remodel doubled the size of the house by knocking out the south wall and turning the kitchen into a bathroom and adding a larger kitchen, a dining room and a living room with a lovely arched entrance between them, but the structure never grew larger than 1,000 square feet. Rooms were painted a bright turquoise and pink. The only heat was a Warm Morning stove that used coal and wood.

We learned a lot in that starter house. We learned patience when the pipes froze. We learned how to establish credit when it was time to put in gas heat. We learned to paint and plaster. Our pride and joy was turning a former shop into a guest room, which we christened The Clubhouse. The adjacent garage was solidly built of railroad ties, telephone poles and adobe. You could drop a bomb on it and you’d shake loose a little dust.

On a quiet street, just below the Cactus Valley Ditch, our Silt house is laden with memories, thick with family stories of returning in the summer and our children growing up in the backyard, tearing through the house. We left Silt when the oil-shale boom burst in 1983, but we never sold the house. It was our anchor to windward, and it kept us coming back to Colorado until we finally could move home. For the past nine years, my brother lived there, but with his passing, we’ve sold the house.

Saying goodbye to Silt, though, is harder than I thought. We arrived there in our early 20s and were immediately welcomed. As an historian and teacher, I interviewed and photographed the Great Depression generation. We made fast friends and learned values of thrift, hard work and making do or doing without.

Jim Farris still plowed with a matched team of horses. He proudly said, “I can turn this team on a dime and leave you a nickel in change.” John Cozza would ask us if we wanted some of his road-killed cat stew. He explained that in the 1930s to get through a winter all you needed was a roof, coal, potatoes and poached venison or deer shot during “farmer’s season.”

With Sonja and her husband, we danced to Twerp Anderson and his cowboy band at the Hotel Colorado. We baled hay with the Roark family, branded calves with the Dodo family. As a fourth-grade teacher, I came to know all the farm kids, and I often had their grandparents at night for history classes at Colorado Mountain College, Rifle. Before the energy boom, Silt was a tight-knit, close community, but once Exxon, the largest corporation in the world, stepped in, everything changed. First, a boom in the early 1980s, then a bust through the 1990s, and currently the highest concentration of gas wells in the state.

The small towns of Parachute, Rifle, Silt and New Castle along the Interstate 70 corridor in Garfield County, now nicknamed “Gasfield County,” have been transformed by gas and oil development. Farms and ranches that sprouted alfalfa have well pads 150 feet from homes. From Silt to Rifle and beyond the former agricultural landscape displays a network of pipelines, storage yards, gas plants and compressor stations.

The industry has brought diesel exhaust, dust, methane, excess ozone and cancer-causing benzene fumes leaking from wells and storage tanks. Companies have drilled 8,000 gas wells and with new wells punched each year no one can accurately estimate the cumulative environmental impacts.

So we’ll say goodbye to Silt and keep our memories. I now feel what other Americans feel about moving on and having pieces of your life left somewhere else.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.