A double take on life in the Yampa Valley

The Balleck twins stick together for 90 years of homesteading, war, music and family

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Ninety years ago today Joe and Tony Balleck were born in Craig and taken to their home northwest of what is now Elkhead reservoir.

They sat down together Sunday to enjoy some cake and ice cream after nearly a century of rarely leaving each other's company.

"Those were the good ol' days," said Tony, reminiscing about growing up with seven siblings on a homestead in the hills south of Black Mountain. "We had to stick together to make it."

Stick together they did.

The brothers have lived and raised families on the same land they grew up on for all of their 90 years. Their houses stand 20 yards apart and are separated by a thin chain-linked fence.

The surroundings of the land tell of the evolution of the Balleck farm.

To the left of the winding road entering the farm is a collection of tractors and equipment that once groomed the hills.

To the right of Tony's house, which was initially built in 1912, are the remnants of buildings from the original farm.

One structure is the barn in which the family lived in until Tony's current house was built. As a contrast to the rotting wood and collapsing tin roofs of the original structures, a satellite dish overlooks the farm as a sign of modernity.

Settling in the homestead

Anton Balleck, the twin's father, came to America from Czechoslovakia in the 1890s. He settled in Rockvale, Colo., a town near Cañon City, where he owned a saloon that served the nearby mines.

After establishing himself, Balleck sent word back to his homeland that he was ready for a bride. When his 14-year-old bride-to-be arrived (Anton was 42), they moved to Northwest Colorado to start a family.

The land that Anton bought had a barn on it when they arrived, which was a luxury for most homesteaders.

"We were lucky to have a barn to start out in," Tony said. "Most people had to live in the sage brush until they had a house built."

Tony and Joe were born on Feb. 17, 1913, the fifth and sixth children in the family. When they were five, their mother died in a 1918 flu epidemic.

Their father would later remarry to a woman the children affectionately called "stepmother."

Growing up in cold Northwest Colorado was what legends are made of and something the two vividly remember.

For entertainment, Joe said he would occasionally break the ice in the Elkhead River (it was later turned into a reservoir) and go swimming.

"We had to walk to school barefoot for four miles with snow up to our chest," Tony said.

"They are probably the only ones that can actually tell that story and it was actually true," said Betty McIntyre, Joe's daughter.

The schoolhouse that the area children attended was a multi-cultural blend of Russians, Belgians, Germans and Slovaks. The children went to school only knowing the languages of their parents' homelands. At school, they learned to speak English as well as the other children's native languages. Still today, Tony and Joe are proud of their multilingualism.

"Which language would you like to do this interview in?" Tony asked with a smirk. "I can speak five different ones if you want me to."

As they grew up, the Ballecks worked wherever they could when they had time away from their own chores. Joe and Tony worked at a large cattle ranch called the Carey Ranch for $2 a day.

"Back then, when you had $2 in your pocket you were living well," Joe said. "We would go to the dances with $2 and we'd live it up."

As far as going to "town" for entertainment, the only store in Craig when the Ballecks were growing up was a saloon. The ranches were self sufficient except for the exotic products, such as sugar and coffee. They would go into town three or four times a year to order those supplies.

Each year, they would smoke six or seven hogs as a delicacy.

"The only thing we didn't save from the hog was the squeal," Joe said.

"We would have blood sausage and those old people knew how to cook it," Tony said. "You'd never taste anything better."

The War

When the nation called for its young men to go to World War II, the Balleck brothers answered.

Except one of them had to stay back to take care of the ranch.

They drew straws and Tony picked the shortest, which meant he had to stay home.

"I lost that one," he said. "I wanted to see the world."

Joe saw plenty of the world on his tour, including Utah Beach on D-Day, Europe during the Battle of the Bulge and Germany as his regiment, the 357th, guarded the riches of the Nazi government that had been hidden in underground salt mines.

According to Tony's son-in-law, Rich Foster, Joe didn't talk about his war experiences when he first came back. Now it's all he talks about.

"A lot of times I didn't think I was going to make it," Joe said. "There were so many close calls I can't count them."

Joe had the opportunity to be in Czechoslovakia, the land of his ancestors, as allied troops chased the Germans across Europe. His ability to speak the language won him popularity in the regiment.

"All of the officers would use me to speak to the Czech girls," he said. "I was always talking to the girls but it wasn't for me."

Another story Joe tells is when his regiment captured a German artillery gun so big that it could only be moved by way of railroad.

"They had that gun hid in the side of a mountain and they would wheel it out to shoot it and wheel it back to hide it," he said. "We were the first to capture one. You could crawl down into the barrel it was so big."

Joe also saw what life would have been like if his father hadn't left Czechoslovakia.

"It was beautiful country but I wouldn't live there for anything," he said. "They were so far behind, they were all poor."

The Fiddles

While his brothers went to war, Tony stayed in Colorado to work on the ranch. He counters Joe's stories of the war with tales of an art he learned from a mail-order kit -- making fiddles.

"I've made 53 fiddles," he said, while going around his house showing the different ones he still owns. "I would still make them if someone could get me the wood."

Tony's workshop is nestled in the south corner of the porch in his house. All of the tools remain, still waiting for a block of aged wood to chisel and form.

Tony is unsure of the whereabouts of all of his fiddles, as he traded many of them for other instruments or goods. But he believes the ones he still owns are priceless.

"I've been offered a lot of money for them," he said. "But they're not for sale."

Tony made fiddles to play in his band, the Balleck-Kawcak Band. He, along with his brother Steve, and Joe and Steve Paul Kawcak were the entertainment at the schoolhouse dances.

Tony also made fiddles for his children and their children.

"They don't have any more good wood so I don't make them any more," he said. "Would you like to see the ones in the closet?"

Living day by day

The names of the original settlers that Tony and Joe grew up with are still prominent in Craig. The Hillewaerts, Kawcaks and Ballecks take up their share of the telephone book, yet the twins are a few of the first generation remaining.

What's their secret?

"I don't worry about too much," Tony said. "I make sure we have our next meal and then we're happy."

What has kept them on the same farm for 90 years?

"We've got some of the best water in the county," Tony said. "You couldn't drag me from this place."

Joe said he and his brother are fortunate that their father took the chance to come to America.

"There were so many hardships back in Czechoslovakia," he said. "It was hard here, but not nearly as hard as back there."

The two have seen Craig grow from a one-saloon town to what it is today. They remember watching the railroad come in, going to cafes that sold 10-course meals for 45 cents and helping build Highway 40.

Now the years of hard work are generally over for the brothers. They still maintain the farm but they don't herd the cattle or throw hey like they did until their 80s.

Their hearing is slowly fading and a relative has to repeat questions to them in a louder voice. Yet, when the two speak in their regular voices to each other they can understand what is being said without an interpreter.

"Maybe they're on the same frequency," Foster said.

David Pressgrove can be reached at 824-7031 or dpressgrove@craigdailypress.com.

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