Philip Runck and the spirit of Christmas

Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017 10:59 PM
Philip Runck (1880-1982), on his 100th birthday.

Some readers may remember when a fragrant, juicy orange in their Christmas stocking was a real treat, especially in the Montezuma Valley, where apples were plentiful and oranges were not.

Philip Runck knew apples. He was one of Montezuma Valley’s first and largest fruit ranchers for many years. Runck had followed members of his family from Nebraska to the fertile soil of Montezuma County about 1908. He and his bride, Anna Marsh Runck, built their lifetime home in the Mildred School neighborhood, located on today’s Road P just east of Mildred Road and west of Myler Corner at Highway 145. (Remnants of the Runck orchards and apple sheds can still be seen along Road P in this neighborhood.)

Runck learned that apples grown at over 6,000 feet were sweeter and ripened slower, making them sought far and wide wherever trains from Dolores could deliver them.

Over the years, Runck expanded his orchards to over 4,000 fruit trees. Other farmers soon followed suit in the higher altitudes near Dolores, making the Montezuma Valley area a highly prized source of apples.

Runck’s grandson, Howard Runck, told the Montezuma County Historical Society that his grandfather was “the primary founder of the Mesa Verde Apple Packers Co. that built sorting and packing sheds in Dolores. A fire destroyed the packing sheds, and they were never rebuilt.” Runck was also a county commissioner, served on the board of directors of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. and the board of the Mildred School District for a number of years. While a county commissioner, he started a fund that led to the building of the existing county courthouse.

Runck gave back to his community.

During the Great Depression, the Colorado and Southern Railroad decreased their shipping schedules from Dolores and eventually went bankrupt. Farmers with large apple crops then depended upon freight trucks to pick up and deliver their apples, most of them bound for Texas.

After several harsh springs brought poor apple harvests, the year 1938 produced a bumper crop, ripe for the picking. By harvest time, Runck’s storage space was filled, but the Texas trucks were not there. The apple farmers waited and waited. It would soon be Thanksgiving. Without the refrigeration systems that Runck and his son would build in the 1940s, time was their enemy.

Finally, two trucks came to Runck’s farm with an unusual offer. The trucker was not able to pay for Runck’s apples but would trade the load he had until his next trip, when he would pay cash for the apples. Inside the Texas trucks were large quantities of oranges, bananas and pecans – a treasure trove that Runck and his neighbors had rarely seen.

The deal was made. Runck offered fruit to his workers in partial payment of their wages and they eagerly accepted. The balance of the tropical treats were carefully stored away – except for some bags of pecans, which his grandsons were enlisted to crack and pick out for their grandmother’s holiday baking.

As Christmas neared, Runck and his family decided to add a surprise to the festivities that were held every year at the Mildred School, where their children and grandchildren attended. The school had no electricity, so their Christmas program was softly lighted with candles and lanterns. All went well and when Santa came in with Runck’s fruit and pecans for every family, sounds of amazement and songs of joy filled the schoolhouse.

In that Depression year 75 years ago, the Mildred community had a much better Christmas because of the generosity of Philip Runck.

Written by June Head, Montezuma County Historical Society Historian, (970) 565-3880 and Joyce Lawrence, Board Member, (970) 882-2636, who are grateful to the recently deceased Howard Runck for stories about his grandfather. Please direct questions or corrections to the authors.