Where life, love and legacy keep flowing: Friends, family say goodbye to legacy rancher Ben Wurtsmith
BURNS — On the way up to Derby Mesa for Ben Wurtsmith’s memorial, some folks had to weave gently through a couple dozen cattle loose on Derby Mesa Loop road. A bull, the size of a cement mixer with a bad attitude, gave a guy in a compact car a look that made it clear who was the head of that herd, and it wasn’t the compact car or the guy in it.
From heaven, Wurtsmith was smiling. He’d had that showdown before during his long and rewarding life, and loved to tell about it. On a gate at the neighboring Gates Ranch is a sign warning you that if you decide to cross a particular pasture you’d better be able to do it in nine seconds, because the bull can do it in 10.
The way it was, the way it is
Wurtsmith spent his life ranching in Burns, in northwest Eagle County, like his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren after him.
There’s a rhythm to ranch life in places like Burns: “That’s the way it was, so that’s the way it is.”
Our lives are a collection of stories about … well, our lives, and the adventures we have as our time goes by.
There was the time Wurtsmith was talking with federal officials about how sage grouse habitat is like time: “We have plenty, but none to waste.”
Wurtsmith’s son Dayna recalled that their grandmother was a Gates, and told stories about hearing wolves howling. Ben was part of a pack of boys who tended to roam free … not unlike those wolves.
In 1946 Wurtsmith was Eagle County High School’s junior class president. When he graduated high school he headed for Fort Collins and Colorado State University.
In high school he met Mildred Eichler. They married Aug. 20, 1950, and stayed that way for 69 years.
When his country called in the 1950s, Wurtsmith answered, as did so many other young men, entering the Army while the Korean War was raging. In 1954 he was back in Burns to visit family, on furlough from California’s Camp Stoneman. Milly was with him. They had Dayna in Oklahoma, Jill and Betsi when they returned to Colorado.
In the 1960s they caught a break. Wurtsmith was bringing cattle down when his horse stepped in a badger hole and broke its leg. “Enter John Bailey,” said Aaron Schlegel, Wurtsmith’s grandson. Bailey was at Pat Bratton’s house to discuss Pat’s retirement from the Bailey. Bailey hauled Wurtsmith to the doctor, and the chance meeting led to Wurtsmith leasing and eventually buying the ranch.
It was October 1957 and Wurtsmith was riding on the ranch, seeing to some of a rancher’s never-ending chores. A hunter apparently mistook him and his horse for an elk and opened fire. The first shot almost took Wurtsmith’s hat off. He raised his arms and shouted, but the hunter kept firing. Wurtsmith jumped into a gully to take cover. He escaped injury, miraculously. The hunter was never found.
He scratched his artistic itch as a painter. In 1965 he earned an award in an amateur artists’ competition in Glenwood Springs with his portrait of a cowboy. It could have been a self-portrait or the image of almost everyone he knew.
Neither the military nor that hunter did him in, but the drought year of 2002 came close. Wurtsmith resorted to superlatives to describe conditions.
“This is the worst,” he said. “It’s kind of a disastrous year.”
Ranching is a cyclical business, and in 2003 the Eagle County Conservation District named Wurtsmith Outstanding Conservationist of the Year.
When Wurtsmith was a kid on the family ranch there was no 4-H. Ranching and farming skills were your life. By the time his kids were running around the ranch, 4-H was rolling and he was happy to be part of it. Among other things, his children raised livestock for their 4-H projects. They often bonded with their animals and hated to sell them for slaughter after the county fair. But that’s part of life Wurtsmith said.
Life goes on in several forms, taking both predictable and unexpected turns.
Here’s something you might not know. In the 1960s when Vail was in its infancy, Wurtsmith was one of its early police officers. In those days Vail was a rough and tumble upstart town with dirt streets. Some people tended toward to fisticuffs to settle alcohol-infused disputes. Wurtsmith was raised on a ranch and served in the Army. Fistfights were hardly new to him.
Life, love flows on
Close to 100 people — friends and family — gathered on the Wurtsmith family ranch last week for Wurtsmith’s memorial, many sporting shined boots and white hats — white hats because these are the good guys.
“He rode several good horses, turned plenty of hay fields green, was friends with the best men to walk the earth, made enough money that he had to give too much to the government, voted for Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump,” Aaron said. “But his family was his greatest pride. He married the woman of his dreams, raised three God-fearing children.”
Once when Aaron thought he’d really screwed up, he thought he was really in for a lecture. Wurtsmith thought differently.
“I think you’re smart enough that me telling you how dumb that was won’t help,” Wurtsmith told his grandson.
When the memorial was done and the tears were shed, the crowd adjourned to the Burns Baptist Church for lunch. On a bluebird Colorado afternoon, children laughed as they played on the swingset and romped in the church’s huge backyard, set in a bend in the Colorado River that flows quietly past.
The Wurtsmith’s place in Burns is a legacy ranch, five or six generations depending on who’s counting.
Like the Colorado River nearby, lives and love like Wurtsmith’s in Eagle County’s ranch country will continue to flow.
Jon Asper flashes a million-watt smile as he empties a clip on the machine gun some friends helped him fire at a local gun range.