In their own words:
Tom Stephenson – cowboy, surveyor, businessman, preacher
Tom Stephenson, 70, lives in Florida nowadays (except in the summertime), but he spent most of his youth on the Westside.
Born to a family of cowboys, he worked on a ranch through his teen years and continued that lifestyle until his retirement in
But ranching was just one of his careers. Over four decades, he left his mark on Colorado Springs as a surveyor/engineer, working on several prominent projects and even surveying for the Bock family - including their massive (eventually aborted) development plan for the property they lived on and owned for some 80 years, which is now the Red Rock Canyon Open Space.
Q. What time frame did you work for the Bocks?
A. It was over a period of time. I did some surveying work for John, Sr. [John G. Bock]. That was in the late ‘50s; it was just small work here and there when he was still running his stables. That was when the Midland Expressway was coming through his property and he disagreed with some of the surveys that were being made.
Q. Did you know the elder Bock very well?
A. I had numerous run-ins with him as a kid, 11, 12, 14 years of age because he was very protective of his property, which of course made it very important for us to be all over it, in the rocks and playing Indians in the hills. So he wasn’t a stranger to me, even when I started doing work for him. My Uncle Jack [Buckner], eight years older than me, had worked for old man Bock in his stable, just guiding people around. But he was out of contact with old man Bock until young John [John S. Bock] and his brother, Richard, came. My uncle’s frame of reference came then because he was city engineer for a number of years and chief engineer for the City Water Division, so his connection came through John’s and Richard’s dream of what they were going to do with that property. My work with John and Richard came on the ground. I did the boundary surveying and laid out numerous roads, whatever they wanted done from a surveying point of view. I’m not trying to defame young John at all, but he was a little tough to work for and a little hard to get money out of. They might have been left land-poor by their father – lots of land, but no money.
Q. How did you get along with the younger John Bock?
A. Quite well. We did a lot of survey work, in the late ‘60s into the early ‘70s. Richard was an architect. I don’t know what John’s background was. I think he was some kind of engineer. Richard, I was always impressed with his ideas and I thought he was more insightful and had a better hold on what could be done up there. John wanted to do something really big, he wanted huge structures and golf courses and beautiful roads and huge homes and wealthy neighborhoods. That could have come, but he was a little early. Had he had the wherewithal and was a little younger, he could have pulled off what he wanted to do. It would have taken some world-class money to do the job, no doubt about it. So he settled for a landfill. You know, eventually, you have to get down to earning bread and beans.
Q. How did you wind up living on the Westside as a kid?
A. We moved to the Westside from the nursery at the Monument ranger station. My grandfather, Bill Buckner, was a forest ranger. When they started building the Rampart Range Road, they set up headquarters at a station in Manitou where the city hall is. My grandfather was one of the superintendents. He had a large crew of CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] boys. That road was almost entirely built by CCC. And Rainbow Falls, if you look in there, there’s some rock work and dams and stuff in there. My grandfather did all that. He worked on that several years, then moved back to Monument. My mother died when I was a little kid, and then my Uncle George and later my grandfather died, and by ’43 there wasn’t anybody in the family left except my grandmother and my father, Jack, who was in the service and gone. So then I moved out with a family by the name of Campbell on the other side of Black Forest, on the northern El Paso County line, at a place called Table Rock.
Q. Where was that?
A. Ten or 12 miles straight east of Monument, right at the headwaters of Cherry Creek. About halfway through their property was the Elbert County line. I spent part of my years until I was 20 working on ranches in that general area. The other part I was going to schools on the Westside.
Q. How did that work?
A. I went to Washington School, then West Junior and the Colorado Springs High School [now Palmer]. I had to do that because when everyone was gone my grandmother had custody of me, and the custody agreement provided that I go to school here in Colorado Springs. So I lived on the ranch and traveled back and forth. I would come in on Monday morning and go back up on Friday night.
Q. Did your family have a cowboy background?
A. y father was an old cowboy who had left home at 11 years of age and went to work at a ranch. He taught me to ride when I was about 5. His brother was a cowboy, my grandfather Stephenson was, the whole family were [cowboys]. My grandfather al-ways said it took people most people 12 years to get through school; it only took him 4. He went to heaven when he was 35. He hopped a freight and went to California, and California was always heaven to him. He did come back a while before he died, and I buried him.
Q. You buried him?
A. I was an ordained minister for 20 years in the Catholic Church.
Q. Is that like a priest?
A. There are a couple of things a priest normally does that I didn’t, but in the area of baptizing, marrying, burying, preaching, teaching, I did those things.
Q. But you could still be married and have a family?
A. Yes. I’m deactivated now. I petitioned Rome for a dispensation from vows and was granted it when I retired and went to Florida.
Q. How was it different here when you were a boy?
A. When I was younger, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, children were a lot freer to roam. The old Golden Cycle Mill was our Sahara Desert. We spent every minute we could along Fountain Creek and up on the mill site, even camping out around the cyanide pond that was up on top. It was kind of a different era – harder and yet gentler in a way. The men were friendlier. If they wanted you out of the way, they chased you out, hollered and yelled at you, but there was no meanness – just “Get out of here or you’ll get hurt.”
Q. Where else did you explore?
A. From the mill, it was an easy drop over the hill and down into Bear Creek, which was an absolute paradise. From there, on up Bear Creek Canyon, there was a trestle, up above where they pull water out for the Colorado Springs water supply, on the old Short Line Railroad that had become the Corley Mountain Highway. That whole area of Bear Creek and Bear Creek Canyon was a place we really treasured. And of course from there we followed the hogback down, which was Bock’s place.
Q. Did you ever get chased out of there?
A. Oh, yeah. I never saw him [the older Bock] with a gun. Of course, with kids there were all kinds of stories, but I never saw him with a gun.
Q. The younger one had been seen with a gun.
A. Yes. I remember a story. I won’t mention his name, but he had done some surveying for young John, just before I did, and had sent him a bill and John had not reciprocated, and this engineer went out to see John and demanded to be paid. And John took him over to the bunker where he had a punching bag hung from the ceiling. He stripped off his shirt – he was a big, broad-built man in those days – and did a few fancy rounds on his punching bag, and then turned to this engineer and said, “I’m not paying your bill, either.” So the engineer told me, I just left.” He said, “I didn’t want to be treated like that bag was.” He was a distinguished engineer here for a lot of years. But I never had that kind of trouble with John.
Q. You went other places as well?
A. West Junior High was probably a highlight of my life, in a sense, because I had a lot of good friends, and we skipped school, and we spent a lot of time over at the [Midland] roundhouse, and there was a slaughterhouse on 21st, and we’d get up and watch them slaughter beef. And then there was the old El Paso Canal that ran from Fountain Creek and ran clear out to Papetown and Roswell, which was just the other side of Fillmore, and in there were chicken farms and orchards and that sort of thing. Sometimes we’d hop a slow-moving Rio Grande train to get back to town from there, jumping off at Cache la Poudre to go to the Monument Valley Park swimming pool.
Q. You swam there?
A. It was one of two public swimming places we’d go to in the summer. Back then, Monument Valley Park was a cold-water pool. They would clean and fill it every Friday, so on Saturday and Sunday you had pretty cold water, right out of the tap. We used to joke about their being ice cubes in it. It was pretty cold. The other place was Prospect Lake. It was tied in with the El Paso Canal.
Q. How did you wind up at the ranch in Monument?
A. My grandmother found herself dead broke and with me to raise when I was 10 years old. She went to work at a laundry on Walnut and Bijou. I remember she worked there for 30 cents an hour, six days a week. When I was around 12, the Campbell boys and I found ourselves in trouble with the chief of police, and the suggestion was very strongly made that they preferred that we didn’t hang around town on weekends. Jim Campbell paid me $30 a month and my room and board to work on the ranch through the summer.
Q. What was Old Colorado City like when you were a kid?
A.Colorado City was a wonderful place to hang out. The Cross drugstore was a real famous place to hang out. Kind of across the street from [the present] Michael Garman’s Gallery was where it was. Typical of the drugstores in those days, it had a soda fountain and a juke box, with mostly country-western music. Then there was a Mexican restaurant up the street that’s still there. Later on in years, when I started surveying, we used to go there on a Saturday night and buy a couple dozen tacos and go up on South 26th Street to the switchbacks and turn on the Big D Jamboree and drink beer and eat tacos.
Q. Big D Jamboree?
A. A radio program out of Texas. Late ‘40s.
Q. Didn’t have TV yet?
A. Nope. Let’s see. I was in the Navy in the spring of ’52. I got called up and then released after a short time. That was the first time I ever saw television, in the hospital there in Great Lakes.
Q. How did you wind up in the hospital?
A. In those days they were drafting everyone for the Korean War. So, as soon as I was 18 – I was still in high school – I enlisted in the Naval Reserve. But when I went back to finish my boot camp, I came down with ulcers for some reason. So I was just released back to Naval Reserve here in town. So my term in the Navy was pretty short.
Q. What did you do then?
A. I went on to Wyoming and cowboy’d up there and Montana and Canada starting in ’52. And then in 1953, in the fall of my 20th year, I came in from the ranch and went to work on a survey crew for the city of Colorado Springs.
Q.That was your introduction to surveying?
A. Yes. And I liked it. I made friends there. One was an engineer named George Morris, and George and I went into business together in 1955. A company called United Western Engineers. And we followed that with the Lincoln-DeVore Testing Laboratories, which we set up in ’57. It was bought out when George died, and I think has been assumed now into another corporate structure, but it existed up until just a few years ago. United Western Engineers is now United Planning and Engineering, I believe is what they call it, but the structure is still the same.
Q. For a guy who never had any formal training, you must have picked it up in a hurry.
A. I did and I didn’t. Education was difficult to come by in those days, in a sense. The University of Colorado had an extension division here in Colorado Springs. I studied geology for two years in that division. And then there was an international correspondence program set up by the state highway department and the City of Colorado Springs for people who worked there, because there weren’t any other avenues open. So I finished diplomas in geodetics and engineering there, and then I went back to the University of Colorado and got another two years in political science and economics. In the ‘70s, I studied through the Archdiocese of Denver for five years in theology and scripture.
Q. How did you do all this?
A. It was all crowded together. I was doing a lot of things at one time, but a lot of it dovetailed together. I ran the surveying business. I had the business of my own from 1955 to 1995. I spent 20 years working in the structure of the church, essentially full-time. My wife and I lived on the ranch down in the Cañon area – off Beaver Creek, northeast of Penrose – where I raised three daughters and ran cattle [several thousand head] with my son-in-law, Kevin Mitchell, and his family. And we did lots of projects here. I did all the tunnel alignments at NORAD. Ever notice the antenna farm on Cheyenne Mountain? I did all that initial work. We located and did the surveying work and the core drilling on the original towers. I spent two years working on the Air Force Academy football stadium. Nick Pinello and I. He did the earthwork, I did the engineering. I was elected county surveyor two terms in Teller County and three terms in Fremont County.
Q. When did you move to Florida?
A. In ’97. But I’ve been back a lot. I have a friend in Canon who has a rather large sandstone operation near Beulah. I helped him put that together, and the last few years I’ve been up pretty regularly to run that quarry for him.
Q. What do you do in Florida?
A. I teach within the structure of the church. What they call adult enrichment classes: scripture and theology. We live in a gated community, and I do some security work there in the winter time. I try to keep really active. Like this summer… Tom Black. This is Tom’s house. He and my daughter are together. So I’m driving a truck for him, hauling tile from here to Denver and here to Pueblo.
Q. You mentioned a story that the older John Bock once told you about when he was a cowboy.
A. He was about 15, and it was his first time on a round-up crew. As usual, young men of that age wind up as a wrangler, wrangling horses. He wound up as what they call a nighthawk. In other words, he took the horses out at night and kept track of them and brought them in the morning for the cowboys to get ready. Now a nighthawks’ job also is to help around the wagon and help the cook, including rustling up wood. One morning the cook kicked him awake and told him they were clear out of wood and told him to go get some. And John could see from looking around there were miles of open prairie and no wood anywhere. The cook told him to take a saddle horse and a pack horse and an ax and not bother to come back unless he brought wood with him. So John said he started heading up the draws, trying to find an old cottonwood tree, something or other. And he rode all morning and into the afternoon and couldn’t find a thing. Finally he rode over a hill into a valley and saw a windmill on a tank, water pumping away. He was hot, he thought about that water, so he rode down, tied the horses up, got into that water tank and just enjoyed the heck out of it. Then he got to looking at that tower that the windmill pump was on. It was made of nice timbers. He got out, dried himself off, got his ax out, and chopped that tower down, chopped it into pieces, loaded it onto his horse and went in. He and the cook got on famously after that. Two days later, two cowboys showed up, and had a frank discussion with the foreman of the crew Bock was on. He told them he didn’t know about anything like that; certainly none of his men would be involved. [Laughs.] I’ll always remember old John telling me that story, just grinning from ear to ear, his eyes all lit up, about chopping that old windmill tower down. But old John Bock was a cowboy a long time. He told me that story when I went out there to ask about a job, which he didn’t have. But we sat there on the front porch and talked. Whenever people would tell me anything bad about old John Bock, I’d think about that, because I thought he was a pretty nice old guy.
Westside Pioneer interview and transcriptionEditor’s note: “In their own words” question/ answer interviews are an occasional feature in the Westside Pioneer.