Chroniclers of early Vail honored
Local historians Don and June Simonton were honored with the Nimon-Walker Award at a gathering at the Eagle Library.
The Eagle Valley Library District has made a tradition of annually honoring people who have helped preserve Eagle County history. The Simontons have authored four books focusing on the histories of Vail, Beaver Creek, Bachelor Gulch and Squaw Creek.
The Simontons lived in the valley from 1967 to 1993, during which time Don served as minister for the fledgling Lutheran church upvalley.
Don recalls that at the time, the developing ski area was something of a phenomenon. Most of the other ski resorts in Colorado grew from already-established communities, many dating back to the state’s gold mining days. Vail, on the other hand, was born in a sheep meadow.
“My job was to find out how to relate all of that,” he says. While the Simontons raised their family, they did some exploring. Don soon found the historic old Lutheran church in Gypsum, which the community had kept alive for four years despite the lack of a pastor. He stepped in and began to offer services on Sunday nights.
In the process of serving his congregations, Simonton began to meet “old-timers” – life-long residents who relayed bits and pieces of the county’s colorful history. Simonton knew enough about ranching and cowboys to sort out the fact and fiction.
“These old boys started telling stories. I became interested and it became part of the ministry,” he recalls.
June, meanwhile, was pursuing her love of painting. But she was also drawn in by the local lore.
“The longer we lived in Vail, the more interesting it became to us,” she says. At some point, she latched onto the idea that there should be a comprehensive history book about Vail.
“We had been collecting pictures and stories over the years,” she says. “I just got it in my head that I was going to write about Vail … how it began, and what this country was like in the beginning.” Little did she know that the Vail history would evolve into a four-year project.
The Beaver Creek book was actually the Simontons’ first local history effort. That came about when Vail founder Pete Seibert asked Don to write a local history segment for the proposed resort’s first environmental review. The ski company actually paid the church for Don’s work.
Along the way, the Simontons started picking up all sorts of information and photos about not only Beaver Creek, but also the rest of the valley, from Red Cliff to Gypsum.
That led to establishment of the Eagle County Historical Society. Flo Steinberg of Vail was the first president, Don was the second. Simonton, along with local historian Frank Doll of Avon, and former Eagle Valley Enterprise publisher Roy Robinson, were leaders in the organization when the historical museum was established in what had once been an old dairy barn in Eagle.
“We just felt it was very important for Vail, and for Eagle County in general, as it evolves, to know where it came from,” says Don.
These days, the Simontons are retired. They spend warm weather months at their cabin in the Wet Mountain Valley. In the cold weather months, they live in Grand Junction. June continues to pursue her artwork. Don spends his time checking out things in town, reading and still performs wedding and funeral services. He also leads some group and campfire talks at Colorado National Monument.