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George Reis: The Life and Times of a Wet Mountain Valley Rancher

Obituary Written by Lavina Reis

Valley native and lifelong cattle rancher, George Reis, passed away on May 11, 2019 at 99 years, 6 months, and 4 days old.  He passed away at Sharmar Nursing Home in Pueblo, Colorado where he had been residing the previous seven months.  The funeral service was held on May 17, 2019 at the Valley Bible Fellowship in Silver Cliff.  George was interred at the Rosita cemetery in the Reis family burial plot with his grandparents, parents, aunts, and other relatives.  George was from the third generation of the Reis family to live in Custer County.

He is survived by his wife, Zara Reis of Westcliffe, and his children, Wayne Reis, David (Karel) Reis, and Byron (Kathy) Reis of Westcliffe, and daughter, Lavina Reis of Aurora, CO.  He is also survived by 3 grandsons, Christopher (Kate) Reis of Pueblo West, CO, Adam (Tricia) Reis of Westcliffe, and Brian (Katy) Reis of Pagosa Springs, CO.  He is survived by great-grandchildren, Thomas, Shelby, Claire, Travis, Liam, and Carter, who are in the sixth generation of the Reis family.

He was preceded in death by his brothers John A. Reis and Leonard Reis, and his sister Mary (Reis) Kastendieck.

George married Zara Benson on July 29, 1951.    They were two months shy of celebrating their 68th wedding anniversary.

Mr. Reis was devoted to his family and his cattle.  George was a longtime officer of the local chapter of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.    He often slept in his easy chair during calving season, waking up multiple times during the night to go outside, often in blizzard conditions, to care for his newborn babies.

He was also an avid fly fisherman who was known for being able to catch his trout limit to the dismay of other members of his fishing party who had empty creels.   He grew up participating in family camping and fishing trips at Macy Lake, Horn Lake, Hermit Lake, and Taylor Reservoir in Gunnison, Colorado.   His Dad liked to fish, so several times per year, his Dad drove him in the automobile to the base of the trailhead, where they parked, walked to the lake, fished, and returned home that night.

He and his brother John A., would also fish together, leaving from the ranch early in the morning on horseback, riding all the way across the valley and up to Colony or Macy Lake, fish all day, and then ride all the way home that evening.  Sometimes they camped overnight and rode home the following day.  They always took one frying pan, lard, cornmeal, and salt so they could fry up any fish they caught.  If they did not catch any fish, they did not eat.  George said the best motive to become a good fisherman was to be hungry.

George did not learn to fly fish until after he was twenty years old.  His older brother, John A., had learned to fly fish and so George decided he needed to try it as well.  When he fished with John A., they usually both caught their limit.

About one time per year the whole family would go to Taylor Park in Gunnison with the Richardsons or Vickermans.   The roads were not very good and it was an all day trip to get there.  The family would camp for a week in the trees near Taylor Lake with each family setting up their own big canvas tent.  There were no cabins at the lake at that time.  George was too young to fish and just played with the other kids around the campsite.

George was born in Denver on November 7, 1919 to Hattie L. and John G. Reis.  George’s parents and grandparents lived in Antelope several miles south of Rosita.  His mother had travelled to Denver to stay with George’s grandmother shortly before he was born so she could be nearer to a hospital for the birth.   His Dad bought a fully enclosed 1917 model T Ford from the doctor in Denver which they used to bring George back to Antelope a week after he was born.  The car got stuck in the snow going up Rosita Road, where it stayed until the next spring. It was unusual to have a fully enclosed car with glass windows and a hard top at that time.  Most cars were still open sided.

Later as George was growing up, he remembered that the car did not have much power.   The family often had to get out of the car and push it up the hills.  The roads in Rosita have changed and used to be steeper.

George’s grandparents were both born in Germany and immigrated to America sometime around the 1880-90’s so his father could avoid becoming conscripted into the German army.   The family lived in Antelope for the first few years of his life.  In 1929, when George was about 10 years old, the family sold the property in Antelope and moved to the current ranch on highway 69 six miles south of Westcliffe.  This is where George lived the rest of his life.

He and his brother Leonard eventually took over the operation of the ranch from their parents and did so until 2001 when Leonard passed away.   In the early years they raised Hereford beef cattle.   In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s they added some Charolais-Black Angus Cross heifers to the herd.   At the height of the cattle era, they had about one-thousand animals, counting cows, calves, and yearlings.   The herd was later reduced to a more manageable number and for many years ran about 230 cow-calf pairs.   The herd was severally reduced to about 70 cow-calf pairs during the drought cycles from 2002 to 2012.  It was painful to him and other ranchers to be forced to send so many good breeding animals to slaughter.  George was fortunate to be able to keep at least some of his herd.  There were a lot of ranchers from Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas during this drought that were forced to totally eliminate their cowherd due to grass, hay, and water shortages.

George went to school in a one room schoolhouse for his first two years in Antelope.  After moving to the current ranch property, he attended school with about eight other children in the Knuth one room schoolhouse, located at Colfax and Horn Road, where he finished his grade school years. He learned to ice skate on grape creek which was next to the school.  On one cold evening, he was skating on grape creek about a half-mile above the school (above where Miles and Donna Coleman now live) when he fell through the ice.  He took his pants off, wrung out the water, put them back on, and then skated and walked about a mile to get back home.  His pants were “stiff as boards” by the time he made it to his house where he stood by the woodstove fire until his pants thawed out.

He then attended all four of his high school years in the school in Westcliffe.  He “batched” the first half of his Freshman year in town.  There were no school buses at that time, so his parents rented a room for him in a house in town.  George and one other student from the Knuth school stayed in this house.  This room was in the house one house east of the current liquor store at highway 69 and Main Street.    The lady that lived there did provide them with some meals, but they also cooked most of their own meals.  The other student quit school after Christmas break and never returned.  After Christmas, George’s parents did not want him to stay in town by himself, so they arranged for a ride with a neighbor, Wilbur Vickerman, who had the use of a Model A Ford and who would stop by and pick up George on his way to school.   Wilbur gave George a ride to school everyday for the next few years.   He graduated from Westcliffe high school in 1939.   There were 29 kids in his class.

The Westcliffe school only had one sport which was basketball.   George had never seen a basketball until he began attending high school.  George played on the basketball team competing against other schools like Cotopaxi, South Park, and Fairplay.  Because there was no school bus, they had to travel to away games in private cars.  His team posted a record of some wins and some losses.   The ball they played with was memorable because the team never had a very good ball.   The school had a small gymnasium which was in a hole down two flights of stairs which George likened to playing in a cellar.

Most people stayed home most of the time; however, the whole family did go to town once a week on Saturdays in the Model T Ford to get groceries and to socialize. They raised most of their own food so they usually only spent around five dollars for a few grocery items like sugar and flour.  From George’s perspective, it seemed like their parents always had a lot of people to visit with and spent most of the time talking and little time getting groceries.  They talked with neighbors out on the street or in the stores, wherever they happened to be.  The country kids did not socialize much as they did not know the town kids.   They never saw many town kids at all.  There was no heater in the Model T and there was no anti-freeze.  Every time they went to town they had to put water in the car and then drain it back out when they got home in order to keep it from freezing.  Lucky it only took a few minutes to drain.

For water, there was a well located just outside the kitchen wall that had a pipe that went through the wall, and ran into a sink in the corner of the kitchen.  In order to have running water, they had to go outside, hand pump the well, and then water would flow into the sink inside the house.  This was rather fancy as they did not have to carry buckets of water from the well to the house.

The ranch was one of the last places in the valley to get electricity.  They were using carbide lights and did not need the electricity.   There was an underground tank that they would fill up with water and carbide powder, which produced a gas. The gas powered the lights.  There was one light in each room in the house and one light in the barn.  The light was not very bright, but was good enough to be able to see around the room.

His family used teams of horses for the majority of the ranch work.  His parents had about 70-100 head of cattle.  It took almost all morning to feed the cattle using a Belgian horse team and wagon.  They grew about five acres of potatoes and five acres of peas.  The kids had to weed the potato and pea patches and hand pick the peas when they were ready for harvest.   They also cut, raked, and stacked the hay using horse teams.

They had eight milkcows which he had to milk before walking to school.  He also had to clean the horse barn for eight draft horses when he got home from school.  His mother sold extra cream, milk, and chicken eggs in town or traded them for sugar and flour. They butchered one beef in the fall for meat.  The beef was always butchered in the fall as there was no refrigeration and it had to be cold enough to keep the meat from deteriorating.  The sides of meat were hung up in the house in one of the upstairs rooms.  They cut smaller pieces of meat off as needed for meals.  They also butchered five pigs every year.  The pig meat was soaked in barrels of salt water and then smoked.    They needed lard for cooking and the pigs were well fed so they put on plenty of fat.  They ate pork most of the year since the cured pork would last longer than the beef.

His mom raised a number of chickens and turkeys.  She would buy baby chicks to raise in the summer.  They ate the roosters and kept the hens for laying eggs.

They butchered the turkeys one time per year, usually around Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Plucking the turkeys was memorable since it seemed to him like he plucked a hundred of them each day and it took several days to get them all processed.  He’s not sure if there really was several hundred of them, but to him it sure seemed like it.   After they butchered the turkeys, his parents hauled them off in the truck to the turkey association in Pueblo to sell.    They never purchased baby turkeys.  When they needed more young turkeys, they let the turkeys hatch out some of their own eggs.  They would occasionally eat turkey eggs, if they had some extra eggs that they did not need for hatching.

They later had an International truck with side racks which was one of the first trucks in the valley.  The truck was used to haul their potatoes to Walsenburg where they sold or traded with the miners from the nearby coal camps to obtain sugar, flour, coal oil, and coal oil lamps.   On these trips, George and his brothers enjoyed each gathering up a pile of small stones, standing up in the back of the truck, leaning over the side racks, and throwing stones at objects next to the road, including prairie dogs, as they travelled down the road.   Their aim was never good enough to be successful in hitting any prairie dogs.  One time when they were near Gardner, he threw a stone at a pole next to the road, the stone ricocheted off the pole back to the truck, hitting and breaking the side mirror of the truck.  His parents did not let the kids have any stones for sometime after this incident.

The family bought their first tractors in 1941 and 1943.   They continued to use the horse and wagon teams along with the tractors for the next seven or eight years.  George continued to use riding horses to run cattle in the mountain pastures until he was in his mid 70’s.   He was still running the squeeze chute at branding time in his mid 80’s.   In the fall of 2018, just before he went into the nursing home, he was still using a hoe to weed the garden and chop weeds around the edge of the house.  He also still occasionally rode his 4-wheeler out in the pasture to inspect his cows and the hay crop.

When he was young, there were only a few holidays.  They celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the 4th of July.   Since they raised turkeys, they always had a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  They never celebrated Labor Day weekend, Memorial Day Weekend, or Halloween, as they had never heard of these holidays.

Sometimes they stayed home for the 4th of July, but sometimes the whole family went on fun picnics in the forest around Rye or Beulah with friends, taking various dishes with them.  Since the cars were slow,  it took about one and a half hours of travel time to get there.

They celebrated Easter, but did not know anything about the Easter Bunny.  They might get some extra goodies on Easter.   School did not allow them any extra time off.

His family had candles on the Christmas tree, but if the sun shone on them, the candles would melt and the top would curve over.  If they curved over, they could not be lit because the wax would melt all over the floor.    He liked the fruitcake that his mother made every year, even if it was dried out and hard.   The fruit was little pieces of candied lemon and oranges.   He did not know about Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.  He did know about Santa Clause.  The family attended the Christmas program at the Methodist Community Church where Santa gave the kids oranges, candy, nuts, and popcorn balls.

Christmas toys were ordered out of the Montgomery Ward catalogue.  One of the most special gifts he received was a red wagon.   When the siblings all got a little older, they received several toboggans. They never had roller skates since there was no cement available to skate on.  They did get ice skates.   They had some bicycles, but the bike tires were not very good at that time, did not last very long, and had a lot of flats.   A brand new tire would go flat within a few days.  They tried to fix their tires, but the patch never held very well.

One of the worst gifts he and his siblings received was a set of skis.  They did not know anything about them, did not know anyone who could provide proper instruction on them, and were left on their own to learn to use them.  Learning on their own did not work out so well as their feet kept going out from under them.   Skis did not have bindings like today; They were made of a board with a loop on it.  It was easy for their feet to slip out of the loop.  It was also hard to climb back up the snowy hills which took the fun out of the whole experience.

As an adult, he liked to take motion pictures of family activities on a Bell and Howell 8-millimeter movie camera.   He would show the film on a projector for family movie night.  It was great fun when played the film in reverse.   Kids in bicycle wrecks flew back onto their bikes, the Westcliffe town parade went backwards up the street, snow that had been plowed was pulled back into the field, and swimmers jumped backwards out of the swimming pool and up onto the diving board.   George ran the film projector while the kids ate popcorn and drank pop.   This was great entertainment since there were only three fuzzy television channels available by antenna.  When the kids wanted to change the television channel, George would go outside and turn the antenna to a different direction using a wrench.  He refused to change the channel more than one time per day.    In the winter time, the antenna would freeze in place, and there was only one television station available until the spring thaw.   The kids had to decide which channel they wanted to watch all winter and that was where he positioned the antenna.

Tractors, pickups, trucks, 4-wheelers, running water, electricity, landlines, cell phones, antenna television, satellite television, computers, video recorders, digital cameras, gas furnaces, airplanes, helicopters, advanced medicine, indoor toilets, and paved roads were all some of the modern conveniences that he saw develop in his lifetime.   He lived through the Great Depression and Dust Bowl and saw family members serve in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

George was blessed with a healthy and long life.  Those who knew him best remember the twinkle in his eye and his mischievous smile.  He was a good father and husband and will be greatly missed by his family.

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