Our storytelling cowboy | VailDaily.com

Our storytelling cowboy

Wren Wertin
Special to the DailyThe Eagle County Library District is honoring Frank Doll, 81, with the Nimon-Walker Award, given to people who have worked to discover and preserve the history of Eagle County. The ceremony takes place Sunday at the Eagle Library from 2 to 4 p.m.

He was a cowboy himself, working his dad’s ranch in the Gypsum Valley. Frank has had his finger in a myriad of pies, most of them local. At 81, he’s lived and observed a sizable portion of the history of the Eagle Valley, and now the Eagle County Library District is honoring him with the Nimon-Walker Award.

The award is given to people who have worked to discover and preserve the history of Eagle County. The ceremony takes place Sunday at the Eagle Library from 2 to 4 p.m.

“Any history is worth preserving,” says Frank. “Any community, be it new or old, should know who the first person was that moved there, and who moved in next.”

Frank helped create the Eagle County Historical Society, spearheading the collection and preservation of photos documenting the people and places of the past. He also helped create and stock the historical buildings at the Visitor Center in Eagle, including an old-time barn.

“He’s not used to being in the public eye,” says Tricia Medeiros, one of his three daughters. “He is hard-working, honest, made of good moral fiber, sincere and straightforward.”

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She’s not the only one who thinks so.

“He’s a genuine, honest person,” says Robert Dallain, general manager of the Beaver Creek Park Hyatt, where Frank spins tales for visitors. “You can always count on Frank to be Frank.”

“He preserves what we’re losing in Colorado – the cowboy, the rancher,” he adds.

Frank’s ties to Eagle County go back to his great uncle, Sam, who spent four years fighting in the Civil War. Upon his discharge, Sam decided he’d become a professional gambler, and in 1878 high-tailed it out of Chicago and up to Leadville.

“He decided to try and lift a few dollars out of there,” says Frank. “He did.”

Sam eventually moved to Eagle and fell in love with the place. In the summer of 1887 he wrote to his brother that he’d “found it.” His brother, Frank Sr., took him at his word, quit the many prosperous family businesses he had going in Ohio and moved his family to Colorado. After looking it over, he agreed with his brother. They’d both found home. And so Frank’s grandfather settled down.

Frank himself is prone to agree with their decision. After a military career that had him moving hearth and home all over the world, he returned to Eagle County in 1968.

“I wouldn’t have come back anyplace else,” he says. “This is just where I want to be; it doesn’t get better than this. You’ve got mountain air, sun, streams flowing and birds in the air. This is where I live, and this is where I die. Period.”

Though a native through and through, sometimes visitors get more of Frank than locals do as he wanders around the Beaver Creek Park Hyatt spinning tales. It’s his job.

“You don’t have to make up stories; there’s so many out there,” says Frank. “I don’t care who my audience is.”

Despite this role as professional storyteller – which he wears easily and has claimed for his own – daughter Kathy Doll has a different perspective.

“He’s more of a historian than a storyteller,” she says. “He’d tell us stories from when he grew up, but it was never “Come on over here and sit in my lap.’ It would just happen, depending on where we were in the county, what we were looking at.”

Frank’s jobs have been many – cowboy, military man, ski area manager, weatherman – but he cites storytelling as his favorite. A gleam literally enters into his eyes, as though he can’t believe he’s being paid to talk about the things he loves.

“This place would never be the same without Frank,” says Dallain. “He dresses like a cowboy. All good cowboys have their wrangler jeans, leather vest, boots, cowboy hat, a typical cowboy shirt and a strong, strong cup of coffee.”

Frank says looking the part was almost as important as being one to most cowboys. It was looking like an extravagant cowboy that got his father, Frank Jr., noticed by his mother. In a group of young bucks, Frank’s dad was wearing angora chaps dyed orange, and when she spied them she took a liking to the man straight away. In fact, legend has it there were some lavender chaps back in the closet as well.

“I can tell you, cowboys are a very vain lot,” says Frank. “Most cowboys take pains to be noticed, hence the big white hats. Now originally the hat was a necessity – keeps off the rain, the snow, the sun; you could drink out of it and so could your horse. But the big silver belt buckles … well.”

The Dolls’ ranch, nestled in Gypsum Valley, included 100 head of horses, what they called the Wild Bunch. Frank’s favorite horse, Little Thunder, came to him as a horse to be broken for a neighbor.

“He was pure black, and I liked that,” he says. “He was easy to get along with, and I liked that even better. We were good partners.”

When it came time to return the horse, he did so reluctantly. The next morning, Little Thunder had returned of his own volition. The love between man and beast won a permanent home for the horse at the Dolls’ ranch.

Frank married Imogene Nottingham, whose father also was a rancher. The two were married for 53 years, until she lost her fight with cancer last fall. Their daughters say Frank indulged Imogene on their treks across the country by stopping at every antique store on the way.

“My mom would go on Tuesdays for her chemotherapy; we’d all go as a family,” says Medeiros. “So now, he still goes every Tuesday. He sits and visits people, the same way he does at the Hyatt. He’s trying to be there for people. He still wants to be productive and give back to the community.”

He’s been stoic in his loss, determined to remain an integral part of his town and family. A private man, he’s never grieved publicly for Imogene. Despite turning a brave face to a new day, he shows his loss in other ways.

“I’d never have a dog or a horse or any pet again,” he says. “You get too wrapped up in them, and eventually you’ll have to watch them die. Why put yourself through it?”

But he’s adamant that people need to be thankful for all they’ve experienced in their lives. Though he wouldn’t want to do it over again, he claims a life full of good things.

“It’s as hard as you make it,” he says. “The world today, I’m on the outside looking in. But I like doing good for others. If you’re someone I like, I’ll do whatever I can do.”

Doing is important. The work ethic of Frank is much remarked upon by his family and friends. At his age, he’s got no need to slow down. In addition to working at the Hyatt, he also takes weather readings, participates in a weekly writing group and periodically stops in at the police department to point out their inefficiencies.

“I’m serious about leaving out the people that can’t do their job,” he says.

It’s fitting that the library should honor him, as he spends a great deal of time in them. The Avon Library is at the top of his list.

“He was a regular at the Avon Library since before I started working there 10 years ago,” says Charlyn Canada. “He has an unfailing curiosity in all aspects of the human story. His interest keeps him young in mind and heart.”

“I think the library is a wonderful place,” adds Frank. “You don’t have to sit around wondering about things – you can just come right in and look them up. And if they don’t have it, they’ll get it for you. It’s available someplace.”

Medeiros says Frank is a big believer in education. This takes him into classrooms and in front of brownies and girl scouts “whenever he’s asked.” He was also good at educating his own children on proper behavior.

“When my younger sister and I were pretty darn young, we stole a pack of my grandma’s cigarettes,” says Kathy. “Somehow dad found out, and he said, “You want to smoke? Smoke this.’ He made us smoke a cigar.”

The incident cured the two of them from filching cigarettes. Kathy laughs about the incident now, and cites it as typical of him. As for getting in his good graces, that was easy.

“He’s most likely to praise me for doing what I believe in – for being strong-willed enough to enjoy my life, working hard but taking the time to smell the roses,” she says.

One of Frank’s favorite “roses” is the railroad. When they stopped using cabooses, he says, he talked a railroad owner into donating one to the Historical Society, which now resides in Eagle.

“I think the decline of the railroad is terrible,” says Frank. “On a personal basis, I miss it – I grew up with it. I think we wouldn’t have to be spending these jillions of dollars on highways if we had better railroads.”

Part of his distaste for the highways might date back to the very first Annual Spring Clean Up. Frank was the initiator. No matter how much trash is picked up now, he says it will never compare with what they found back in 1970.

Frank has “seen some things” in his day. Though life wasn’t easy, he took pleasure in the toil of the everyday. When asked if he had any regrets, he was quiet for a good while, peering inside himself. You’d think he’d be ready to put his feet up by the fire and watch the world – but that’s not Frank Doll.

“I’m pretty much at peace with the world,” he says. “Unless someone starts to do something stupid I don’t like.”

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.

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