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From homesteaders to here and now

Caramie Schnell

A black and white photo shows a young and newly married version of Bud and Margie Gates, smiling in anticipation of their life to come.Fast forward 50 years.Another picture, in color, shows Margie in her same wedding dress, clasping Bud’s hand (see below). They both have a few more wrinkles and a lot more life behind them. Bud has a little less hair, but the same small smile plays on his lips; it’s like he knows something you don’t.And he does.He knows what it’s like to live on the same ranch for 85 years and he knows how to keep that same 740-acre ranch (located at an elevation of 7,640 feet) in operation. Bud knows about the special connection between a man and his horse and he has a special way of communicating with animals.He also knows what it’s like to be a county commissioner for 12 years and what it’s like to see an entire county grow from nothing into what it is today much like the beets and carrots and potatoes do in his garden every spring and summer.Margie has her own treasure chest of knowledge. She knows how to survive as a rancher’s wife, how to keep her household running smoothly, even if she can only get into town for supplies once a month. She knows what it’s like to help a first-time mother with her colicky baby and also how to run county health programs.At the tableA good time to stop by the Gates’ Ranch is around lunchtime. And it’s not often you’ll find the door locked.”My dad didn’t believe in locking the door,” Bud says. “He said the only person you’ll keep out is your neighbor.”And there’s no doubt you’ll be invited to stay for the midday meal that’s just how things work in the Gates’ home. When you’re in Bud and Margie’s home, you are family. There is no pretension you are likely to be given a hug upon arriving, and if not, you’ll surely be embraced when you leave.Before you sit down to eat with them, you’ll circle the table, clasp hands with your neighbors and offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God. It’s likely the meal will consist of vegetables grown in the garden (visible through the kitchen window) and the roast beef will hail not from a meat packing plant hundreds of miles away, but from the fields you can see from your spot at the table.Bud and Margie are the perfect complement to each other. Her eyes are the light blue of the sky peeking through dark storm clouds, his as dark as an eddy pool at midnight. They finish each other’s sentences and help each other piece together when the major milestones took place. And they can’t help but tear up when they talk about the life they’ve lived together, the children they’ve raised, and the ranch that is as much a part of them as their own limbs.Bud’s family first emigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania in the late 18th century. From there they headed up the Ohio River to Nebraska, before eventually settling in Colorado. His clan started the Stage Stop on Gore Pass and around 1890 they homesteaded a ranch in the Derby Mesa area.The family has been running cattle on the 740-acre parcel on the Colorado River for more than 100 years. Every window in Bud and Margie’s home looks out onto green fields that have sustained five generations of Gates’.And in Bud’s eyes you can catch a glimpse of that history a sense of the dynamic land and all that Bud has seen.”When the old homesteaders came in here, this was all sagebrush and cedars and rocks,” Bud narrates in a weathered voice. “They cleared this land off and you think, ‘Why’d they come all the way across the Ohio valley and Nebraska and all that farming country and settle on this rock pile?’ But it was remote and that’s what they were looking for, someplace remote and someplace they could call their own.”Bud’s great-grandfather was a rugged man cut from the cloth of the Old West. He used to hunt bears and use the bear fat for lard. Bud’s ancestors also cured their own meats, made their own soaps and generally lived off the land. The top ditch on Gates’ land is nine miles long and took nine years to dig.”They worked in the gold mines in Breckenridge during the winters to get enough money to come back to the ranch and pick and shovel (the ditch) in the summertime,” Bud says. “A good worker could dig a rod of ditch a day.”They done everything the hard way but nothing was impossible it might be impractical, but it wasn’t impossible. They were hearty old people.”Ask Margie to tell you about her love story, about when she first met Bud, and it’s likely you’ll get a glimpse of the dedication and deep love she has for her husband.”I’ll cry,” she warns with a laugh while she chokes back tears.”He came out to Gypsum to school and I was 12 years old. I was in (primary) school and he used to walk by there every day going to high school and he was friendly and kind of nice. For some reason, he was just the guy that I wanted.”As Margie says, she chased him for eight years. After high school she left town to attend nursing school at Presbyterian St. Luke’s in Denver, an affiliate of Denver University.”I told myself, I’m going to forget him,” Margie remembers. “A month into nursing school he wrote me a letter and asked if I’d go to the Thanksgiving dance with him.”In 1951 as Bud was preparing to join the Army he called Margie to ask if she’d marry him. However, at the time, nursing school students weren’t allowed to get married and Margie told him so. After a year in the service Bud was readying to go overseas. Once again he asked Margie if she’d be his wife. After passing it by her daddy and getting special permission from the nursing school, Bud and Margie were married on July 11, 1952 in Denver.”The first year of our marriage he was in England and I was finishing up nursing school,” Margie says. “It was hard (to be apart) but we were both busy.”Bud came home in April of 1953 after being discharged from the army, and headed straight for the ranch. His dad wanted to be sure it was the right decision, and reminded him how hard it was to make a living as a rancher, but Bud had his mind made up.”I didn’t think there was anything prettier than a red and white cow and green grass; I didn’t know any better,” Bud says.The married couple moved into a small cabin on the ranch and started working.”We started out in a two-room cabin and as we had babies, they just added more rooms,” Margie laughs.Bud and Margie’s first son, Kip was born in 1954 and four others followed in swift succession: Doug, Vienna Sue, Nancy and Tammy.All five children still live in Colorado. Kip has taken over much of the day-to-day operation of the ranch while also running his own guide and outfitting business called River’s Bend Outfitters.Give and takeFrom the time Bud was a young man he had a strong interest in local government.”I was always involved in something,” Bud says. From 4H leader to serving on the school board, the soil conservation district, planning and zoning and finally to commissioner. I guess I was a devil for punishment.”From 1986 to 1999 Bud served as an Eagle County Commissioner. During his time he had the opportunity to see a significant amount of change and growth in Eagle County.”We accomplished an awful lot during my time,” Bud says. “We got to build the country administration building, the jail, the airport, the justice system, animal control offices. We got the tree farm from the Forest Service for the people in Basalt. And we bought the Berry Creek fifth up there in Edwards.”After 12 years, well, people still liked me so I thought it was a good time to get out,” Bud says. “They asked if I’d run again and I said, ‘Only if I’m drafted.'”Four of his 12 years on the board, Bud served with fellow Commissioner Don Welch.”Bud? Well he’s a great guy; he’s a rancher, he’s a cowboy. He’s also an environmentalist and a conservationist,” Welch says. “He brought the longtime Colorado native perspective to the board. As time goes on we have people on the board that haven’t been in the county as long and that especially haven’t grown up here. Bud had the historical perspective he knew the history of the ranchers and how they got along, how the old irrigation ditches were built and the importance of water and water rights. He was definitely the historian.”Being a commissioner, Welch also met with the county public health nurse on a monthly basis, a position Margie held for 30 years.”(Margie) is the nicest person in the world,” Welch says. “Everybody loved her; she was tireless in her work and very knowledgeable. She has a very big heart.”Margie was honored with the Nightingale Award by the State of Colorado in the late ’80s. The award, which was established in 1985, honors nurses each year who have best exemplified the philosophy and practice of Florence Nightingale, a 19th century nursing pioneer.Bud is quick to brag about his wife, even though she’s just as quick to admonish him for it.”She won the prestigious Nightingale Award,” Bud says. “And I can brag about you if I want you’re my wife, after all, and look who I picked!”Years ago, when Margie applied for the position, she knew it would soon be time to move to town for her children to attend secondary school and was excited at the prospect of putting her nursing education to use.”We’d leave dad home at the ranch during the week and we’d come back home to the ranch on Friday night, if my brother didn’t have a baseball game or something,” remembers their daughter Nancy Becker. “Come Monday morning we’d get up around five in the morning and get headed back to town. Holidays from school were a real treat because we got to stay at the ranch.”Both Nancy and her older sister Vienna agree that they were extremely lucky to grow up on the ranch as they did.”Ranch life was great, it was a wonderful place to grow up,” Vienna says.They also agree that they were lucky to have parents as caring and loving as Bud and Margie. Not only were they unconditionally supportive of their children, their marriage was truly a partnership, says Nancy.”They always loved each other; the communication has always been open between them,” Nancy says. “I think there were two times that I ever saw them upset at each other. Neither one of them made a decision without the others input or comment. I told my parents when I was a teenager I told them, ‘When I have kids, I hope that I can be as you have been to me.”At the forefront of Bud and Margie’s marriage has been a strong faith in God. Weekly the family would attend church at the Burns Baptist Church and during the time the church didn’t have a minister, Bud and Margie made it a priority to keep the spiritual aspect of the family’s life a priority.”God has been in their marriage from day one,” Nancy says. “And that’s what they really stressed in our lives, keep God in your lives, he’s there to help you. God has a special part in their marriage and that’s why they’ve kept it together for so long. Money was not always there, times weren’t always easy, but we always made it through.”And though times have been hard in the past, selling the ranch, even a part of it, hasn’t been an option for Bud.”Somebody said to me, ‘Well, why don’t you just subdivide if you’re worried about money enough to operate,” Bud says. “I said, ‘Mister, it’d be just like living with cancer. I’m used to walking out that door and cutting across the north forty and if I subdivided I couldn’t do that.”If I ever leave, I’m going to sell all of it and I’m not going to be back. I said, ‘I’ve been to lots of funerals, but it’d be nothing compared if I ever had to sell this.'” VT– Caramie Schnell can be reached at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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