Perry Van Dorn bears witness to nearly 100 years of growth, change in Moffat County
February 18, 2011
Moffat County is almost 100 years old, and Perry Van Dorn has lived within its borders for most of those years.
"I've been here mostly for 95 years," Perry said. "I was gone for four years during the Second World War, and then we moved away for a little while to Grand Junction.
"But, we came back."
He was born July 16, 1915 in Oak Creek and moved with his family to Craig shortly afterward.
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He has witnessed the county grow out of the homesteader days, through the booms and busts of industry, and into the new millennium.
He has seen firsthand the changes in technology, transportation, weather and fashion.
"Back in those days, all the men wore hats," Perry said of the first half of the 1900s. "If you worked on a ranch, you wore a cowboy hat. If you worked in town — if you were a businessman — you wore a narrow-brimmed hat, like a fedora."
The men in Perry's family wore both.
His father, Carl Van Dorn, was a businessman and a rancher.
The elder Van Dorn moved to Craig in 1903. A newspaperman from Nebraska, Carl got a job at the Craig Empire, an early iteration of the present-day Craig Daily Press.
"In fact, he owned the Empire at one time, from 1915 to '17. He and his partner," Perry said of his father.
Perry's mother, Myrtle Van Dorn, moved to Craig much earlier.
"She was born in Silver Cliff, Colorado, and came here in 1885 with her mother and father, and her grandmother and some aunts and uncles," Perry said.
Land in the early 1900s was dirt cheap, Perry said.
In fact, one could acquire free land for a signature and a promise to fence and cultivate. The practice was known as homesteading.
Perry's mother signed papers on 160 acres, and his father homesteaded an adjacent 80-acre parcel. The family built two structures along the adjoining property line, and lived in one.
The home, Perry said, was 12 feet by 20 feet.
"Six of us lived in that," Perry said.
Later, Perry's father built an addition that nearly doubled the living space.
"He built a kitchen in that," Perry said of the addition. "Mother had a cupboard in it."
The Van Dorn homestead was at the present-day location of Tenth Street, east of Legion Street, at the base of the sand rocks. What used to be a barren, sandy land inhabited by cattle and chickens is now crisscrossed by city streets and dotted by homes and grassy lawns.
Nonetheless, the landscape still bears a lasting mark from Van Dorn labors.
Tucked into the sand rocks is the so-called Indian Cave — a hole in the rock face. The cave was manmade, Perry said, but not by Native Americans.
"We dug it," Perry said of his family. "I helped dig it. Not very much, but I maybe got a wheelbarrow or two of stuff out of there."
When it was finished, the cave was boarded over and used as a chicken coop.
The homestead was rich with another geological feature. Perry's father had a personal coal mine on the property.
"It was his homestead, and he had a coal mine up there," he said. "It wasn't very good coal, but if he'd have gotten far enough into it, it might have been.
"It was pretty punky coal, but we kept warm with it."
When Perry was 11, the family moved to a ranch three miles north of town. Craig was wired for electricity at the time, but the outskirts of town weren't.
Without electricity, the family couldn't keep food from spoiling, so they harvested only what they could eat for each day.
"What was left over, that's what the dogs and pigs got," Perry said. "Sometimes the cats would eat it, if they could get any."
There was an abundance of food in those days, Perry said.
"We always had chicken and eggs to eat. We'd milk the cows. We had plenty of milk," he said.
Sometimes, however, the cows and chickens would get into mischief.
"If the cows got into the wild onions, you'd just feed (the milk) to the pigs, which happened every spring," Perry said. "It was just horrible to try to drink after those cows ate the wild onions.
"And, we had a weed — they called it fan weed. If the cows got into that, it'd be three or four days before you could use the milk."
The chickens, too, would get into the fan weed, he said.
"You couldn't even eat the chickens or the eggs after that," Perry said. "It was gross, if that explains it."
Transportation was also limited in the early years.
Perry said there were few automobiles in the county, and he, like most others, got around by horse.
"I've done lots and lots of traveling with a team and a wagon or a sled — looking at the south end of a horse going north," he said. "I've done a lot of that."
The train could provide transportation to Denver, but it was unreliable, Perry said.
Tunnel collapses, avalanches and deep snow would sometimes shut down the train for months at a time.
"It was very undependable because it came up over the mountains," he said of the railroad. "And, in the wintertime, they'd fight that snow.
"You know how tall a train engine is? Sometimes the snow would be level with the top of the train."
Perry said the county received heavier snowfall in the early days, too, without today's modern convenience of snow removal.
"This one is the snowiest season we've had for quite a few years," Perry said of 2011. "But, I've seen it — more than once — where we'd get 42 inches of snow in one storm.
"We didn't have snow plows or snow shovels. You'd just climb on top of it, mostly."
While on the ranch north of town, Perry attended a one-room schoolhouse.
He said 22 students spanning eight grades crammed into small quarters to get their education.
"The building was maybe 20 (feet) by 30 (feet)," Perry said. "I doubt if it was that big, but I don't know. It burned down many years ago."
Perry said the school didn't provide transportation for its students, so the pupils made due.
"We all walked to school, so we didn't have any obese kids," he said.
Perry left the ranch when he married his first wife, Gloria Miller, in 1939. The couple rented a farm at Elkhead and experienced hard times.
The farm didn't produce, and the economy was depressed.
"We just about starved to death," Perry said. "If you could find any work at all, it was a dollar a day, maybe.
"I worked many, many days for a dollar a day, sometimes for board and room and sometimes not.
"We couldn't make a living on a dry farm, and so we just decided we'd go to California."
The year was 1941.
A few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Perry got a job building wooden ship-to-shore boats for the U.S. Navy.
Three years later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was sent to Camp Hood, Texas, but returned to Craig soon after.
"The war was all over with about the time I got halfway through," he said of his Army days.
Perry settled into a job at the Craig Post Office, where he remained for the duration of his working years. There, he continued to watch the county grow.
"This town's pretty much had a history of booms and busts," he said. "During the Depression, it busted pretty much. And, after the Second World War, it boomed for a while."
Perry's father died in 1963, and his mother in 1976. Perry's siblings were bequeathed 1,280 acres in Moffat County at the time of Myrtle's death.
In the late 1970s, Perry's brother sold the homestead land to developers.
Perry said the land sale saddened him.
"I was pretty unhappy about it, but it doesn't bother me any more," he said.
In 1996, Perry's wife died of cancer. Two years later, he married Gloria's younger sister, Elizabeth.
"Elizabeth lost her husband, so we just drifted together," he said.
The couple now lives in a comfortable home on Ranney Street.
Despite the automatic heat, electricity and plumbing in his modern home, Perry said he sometimes prefers the good old days.
"In lots of ways it was better then because we didn't have the crime that we have nowadays," he said. "We didn't have the drugs. It's everywhere now."
Perry also said family life has changed, and not for the better.
"Discipline was mostly taken care of in the home, it wasn't left to the schools to do," he said. "And, in our home, when mealtime came, you were expected to be there. We sat down and we ate our meals, and if for some reason you needed to be somewhere else, you asked to be excused.
"Nowadays, maybe a kid'll take a bite or maybe he won't."
However, despite nearly a century of growth, what some called progress, and change, Perry said he still has affection for Moffat County.
"No place else is home," he said.