Recalling Rock Ledge’s last days as a working ranch
Doris Dillie has many memories from 1946 to 1953, when she and her husband Don were living in the Rock Ledge House at what is now the Rock Ledge Ranch
Perhaps the most vivid is the time the house - stone-quarried by the Chambers family in 1874 and now a key ranch attraction - nearly burned down.
But that's getting ahead of the story. Those were the last days of Rock Ledge as a working ranch. And, just as Rock Ledge has changed since, so has the area evolved from the small-town era when ranching was a big part of it. And while it might raise eyebrows today, it was hardly unsual in 1940 that Doris and Don Dillie both came from ranching and farming backgrounds when they met at Fountain High School.
Don had a reputation in those days, and her brother-in-law even warned her, when the family moved from Hanover to the Fountain area that year, “Dorie-Lou, you stay away from that Donnie Dillie.”
But destiny had the final say. “Don and I seemed to migrate toward each other,” Doris recalled. She was so sure he was right for her that when he graduated from Fountain a year ahead of her, she dropped out of school at age 18 to marry him. The marriage lasted until his death 60 years later.
World War II would separate them for a time, with Don serving overseas in the Army Air Force. On his return in 1945, he had a hard time finding a steady job until, as Doris states in a written account, “someone told him they were looking for a family to live and work on the old Chambers ranch.”
The position was herdsman for show cattle belonging to Westland Ranches, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Louis L. Dent. The Dent ranch “chain” through the '40s and '50s also included outfits in Matheson and Widefield, Colorado, one in New Mexico and another in Texas.
Historical side note: In her book, “White House Ranch” (as Rock Ledge was then known), Emily Johnson, wife of 1940s-'70s property caretaker Ed Johnson, writes that “the only period during which the ranch could be designated as a 'working ranch' included the years 1875 to 1900” (when the Chambers lived there). However, Doris Dillie's recollections shed a different light. With Don Dillie as herdsman (later foreman) for the last eight years of the Westland Ranches era, the Rock Ledge property provided the stable, barn and roughly 200 of the 3,600 acres for a cattle and farming operation that also took in the present areas of Pleasant Valley, Kissing Camels and went north as far as modern-day Garden of the Gods Road, she said in a recent interview.
The Rock Ledge house was in nowhere near the restored condition it is today. It was also partitioned into two apartments, one on the south side (including the upstairs) and one on the north. The available one was on the south. “I was unimpressed,” Doris writes. “It had been used as a bunkhouse for mostly single cowboys for some time. It was pretty dirty.” She even found bed bugs, which caused her initially to advise her husband against staying there. “'I can scour and clean up the dirt, but I'll be d--d if we live where there are bed bugs,'” she quotes herself as telling ranch general manager Grant Fraziers.
The house's cleanliness problem was soon rectified, and the Dillies moved in. Don's initial job was taking care of the Dents' show cattle, which had to be bathed and brushed and specially combed. Although the ranch won “some pretty high prizes,” the show-cattle effort “took a lot of time,” according to Doris, and it ended after two or three years. Don became ranch foreman, which put him in charge of up to 500 cattle, plus the fields of alfalfa and oats which were grown in the general area of the current Pleasant Valley subdivision. “Cattle don't require daily attention, especially through the spring and summer,” Doris said. “We'd go around and see that all of them were there, but he didn't have to do it every day.”
As for the crops, “he loved the farming part,” she said. “When springtime came, he looked forward to going out there with a plow. He was never a religious man, but he felt closest to God when he was out with a plow, being close to nature.”
With her rural background, Doris helped Don with his work as much as she could, in addition to caring for the house and her daughter Connie and adopted toddler Meldon. Doris just had to be careful about doing ranch work when Mr. Dent might see her - he being from the old school that believed ladies shouldn't do work like pitching hay bales or cutting out stray calves. This issue went away, she pointed out, when Mr. Dent died after their second year at the ranch.
Still, she has only good things to say about him and his family. “They were always very good to us,” she said. “They were interested in helping people get started. They did many nice things for us.”
The Dillies knew the Johnsons. Mrs. Johnson helped Mrs. Dent while Mr. Johnson maintained the Dent grounds, Doris said. “He had two beautiful shelty dogs who went everywhere with him, and he drove Mrs. Dent sometimes.”
The Dillies liked to shop in Old Colorado City. The nearest store selling groceries was Barnhart's, a two-room place near Whittier Elementary (where the Dillie children went to school).
On Don's days off, “we loved going up behind the house where the lake was,” she said. “We'd fish or go swimming or whatever. Sometimes we'd go on a Sunday ride with the children. We just loved the whole ranch.” Another perk was that the Dents owned Westland Theaters, meaning that the family got free passes to the Chief and Peak theaters and the Starlite Drive-In.
One day, after the Dillies had lived in the house a couple of years, the good times nearly turned very bad. Don was in the corral working cattle with the ranch manager and a man from Widefield when Doris smelled smoke. Going outside, her worst suspicions were confirmed. Flames were shooting up from a chimney - evidently overheated from the cookstove. She raced down to the corral. The ensuing conversation went something like this:
“Donnie, I need you to come up here.”
“You just need to come up here.”
“I'm busy right now. I'll come up in a while.”
“No I need you to come right now.”
“What's so important that it can't wait?”
“The G---d house is on fire. Is that enough for you?”
Sufficiently motivated at that point, Don left the corral, climbed on the roof and doused the fire with a garden hose.
Rock Ledge's private ranching days ended in 1953 when Mrs. Dent sold the house to Egmont Vrooman. A land developer, Vrooman would create the Pleasant Valley subdivision, starting in the late '50s. The Dillies had to move on.
In the years that followed, the couple ranched for a while out east and later moved back to town to operate a family lawn service for about 20 years.
These days, Doris lives on the eastside with Meldon. She keeps busy volunteering for the American Indian charity, One Nation Walking Together, and serving as president of the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts.
But she enjoys reminiscing about her days with Donnie at Rock Ledge. “Those were eight of the best years of our lives,” she said.
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