‘Eat potatoes and buckskin’ – Ranching in the High Country
EMMA – When Freda Glassier glances out her kitchen window to the south she sees the vast fields of the Emma area where, for most of her 90 years, she coaxed things to grow.The daughter of Italian immigrants, she’s been in her house on Hook Spur Lane for 58 years. It’s less than a mile from where she was born and raised. It’s also less than a mile from the house where she and her husband, Fred, first scraped out a living as potato farmers and cattle ranchers.Freda is brutally, and refreshingly, honest about her life. There were no frills. She didn’t travel much. She never even took the train from her home near the southwestern corner on Eagle County to nearby Aspen. She loved the simple life on the ranch. Hard work wasn’t reserved for special projects. It was a way of life.”She’s worked her ass off her whole life,” said her granddaughter Temple Glassier. “My grandma became a workhorse from the minute she was born, first on her parents’ ranch and then on her own.”Anybody with even the faintest sense of history realizes how much the Roaring Fork Valley has changed over the years. But a conversation with Freda really puts into perspective the changes that have swept the area in two generations.She has a picture from 1963 of a vast potato field at the foot of the Crown, the peak that separates the Roaring Fork Valley floor from Mount Sopris. It’s the same field she can see out her window. The Glassiers worked hard to produce 100-pound bags of potatoes sold for 4 to 5 cents per pound.
The meadows adjacent to the Glassiers’ land now sprout million-dollar mansions rather than spuds. High land prices haven’t been enough to entice her to sell off the ranch.No dolls or houseworkIf she had her way, everybody in Emma would still be ranching, she said. Her mom came to the Roaring Fork Valley from the Val d’Aoste area in the Alps on the Italian-Austrian border in the early 1900s with her family. She saved what money she could to send to her sweetheart so he could come to the United States as well. He made it, and the Vastens married in 1915. Freda was born a year later on a ranch her parents rented in the Emma area. They soon acquired their own 160-acre ranch in the heart of Emma.The center of her universe in those days were two buildings still in Emma – the old store and post office that is abandoned and crumbling, and the old one-room school that still holds various meetings.
Freda couldn’t speak English when she first attended classes. It wasn’t a big deal – all the other students except one were also children of Italian immigrants. Nevertheless, their bilingual teacher forced them to speak English, “even outside” at recess, she said.Her parents never did learn the tongue of their adopted country. She said she often interpreted for her dad when he had to attend to ranch business.Freda was also recruited to drive the first car her parents purchased, when she was 13 or 14. She said her dad would yell “whoa” when he wanted the car to stop and got frustrated when the jalopy wouldn’t respond like a horse. So she had to drive, including the occasional all-day trips to Glenwood Springs for errands.Freda quit school after nine years. She was needed on the ranch. She worked the potato fields for as long as she can remember. She and her sister, Sarah, and a brother were the only kids to help. Freda preferred being outside.”I never did nothing in the house,” she said. “I wasn’t much for housework.”She didn’t have time for child’s play, either. “I hated dolls,” she said.A hunter, too
Farms and ranches covered the Roaring Fork Valley floor while Freda was growing up. Families and friends from d’Aoste had a network throughout the valley. So even if Freda didn’t leave her valley often, she still had ties to families throughout the area.”We used to know everybody from Carbondale to Aspen,” she said. “Now we don’t even know our neighbors.”The families in Emma would work together to sort potatoes and store them through the winter in cellars dug into the earth. A few of them are still visible.The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad would park boxcars on the siding at Hooks, and the families would fill them up with 100-pound bags of spuds in the spring. Full cars would be shipped off to distant markets.Freda got married in 1934 to a guy down the road on a neighboring ranch. Fred Glassier knew her all her life. He was 8 when she was born. Later, Freda’s sister married Fred’s brother, and the four of them ran the 300-plus-acre Glassier ranch as a team.In 1948, the brothers divided the operation, and Fred and Freda moved to the house where she still lives today. They continued to grow potatoes into the 1960s until prices fell and labor disappeared. The government cracked down on the Mexican migrant workers who illegally drifted into agricultural areas of the U.S. at harvest time. She recalled that one Mexican family came to the ranch for jobs for 22 years straight.
As well as Freda can recall, she and her husband added cattle to the ranch, probably in the early or mid-1940s. They held grazing permits on federal land on the Crown and around Dinkle Lake for summer pasture. A cowboy stayed in a cabin near the lake to watch after the cows of the Glassiers and other ranchers.At one point, Freda said, they had about 200 cows producing calves each year. It was a good living, she said, and one that she enjoyed because it kept her outdoors.Just as when she was a girl, Freda was a hands-on rancher. She could be found cultivating and planting potato fields as well as helping with calving, branding cows and rounding them up on horseback when the snow started to fall. She could be found doing anything outdoors rather than slaving over the stove in the kitchen.”I liked the ranching life,” she said, echoing what she recalled about her childhood. “I didn’t like the housekeeping.”She also liked hunting. Freda said she started shooting at age 14. Her rifle of choice was a 30-06, which came in handy to kill bears that occasionally wandered to close to the home and the coyotes that would harass the livestock. Freda was also fond of heading to the backcountry on deer hunts that provided a bunch of “buckskin” for the family.
Surrounded by strangersThe drastic changes that transformed Emma from the heart of ranching country to a desirable address for yuppies with large, rural lots didn’t come all at once. Freda said it was a gradual thing that claimed a spread here and a ranch there over the years until the transformation was nearly complete. Instead of familiar faces from the ranching families she knew all her life, she was surrounded mostly by strangers. “They didn’t understand our ways, and we didn’t understand theirs,” she said.Fred Glassier died in 1991. Freda stuck with the only life she knew. She ran cattle until six years ago, when she was 84. The size of her gardens, once immense, have decreased along with her mobility.But most people would be so lucky to be in the shape that Freda is in at age 90. She celebrated her birthday March 8 at a party with her family at the Village Smithy in Carbondale. She has two children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.Her advice for people who want to live long like her is simple. “Eat potatoes and buckskin,” she said smiling.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado
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