History in Focus — A Western Life
The vast majority of humans live and die outside of recorded history. More often than not, lives that are well-lived quickly retreat into the past. George Eller, an early 20th century cowboy of northwest Colorado, is such a life and is a prime example of the rugged western spirit of Moffat County.
George was born in 1878 in Erie, Kansas, and how he came to northwest Colorado is unknown. The pivotal moment of his life came on a bitterly cold night in January of 1911. While working as a teamster in the Steamboat and Oak Creek area, he suffered severe frostbite in his arms and legs that would plague him the rest of his life.
Over the next 16 years George would face 17 surgeries to remove various toes, fingers, bones, and, in 1922, his right foot and left leg just below the knee. Finally, in 1927, his right arm was amputated (Craig Empire Courier, Feb. 16, 1927). Through these setbacks and sufferings he forged ahead and overcame his physical limitations.
After his first divorce from Ada Mitchell in 1912, a round of surgeries to remove some toes in 1914-15, and a nearly fatal bout of pneumonia, George decided he needed a change of scenery and moved down valley to the warmer climate of Sunbeam. Until his death in 1927, he worked for several ranches including the famous “Sevens” ranch, one of the era’s massive open range cattle operations, and as a foreman for the Bar LX and King Ranch (Craig Courier June 12, 1918 and Craig Empire, Feb. 16, 1927).
While adapting to an ever-increasing loss of digits and limbs, snippets in the papers attest to Eller’s capabilities. Newsy reports of the era report on his no frills lifestyle and hard work: haying, branding, gathering horses, trading horses, loading grain, and even picking buffalo berries along the Snake River.
Through it all, George kept moving forward, and even found time to fall in love and start a second marriage to Freda Fisher in June of 1913, which ultimately dissolved in 1920.
Eller also had a love for the rodeo. The 1919 Independence Day rodeo in Steamboat was one of the largest events up to that time in northwest Colorado, drawing folks from Snake River, Moffat and Routt counties, North Park, and Grand County.
George competed in horse racing, steer wrestling, and bucking broncos. He was thrown by a bronc named “The Kaiser,” which was later re-christened “General Pershing” in a nod to the victorious American general of WWI, since the bronc defeated every cowboy that weekend. George didn’t win any events, but that’s not the point…he competed (Routt County Sentinel, Juyl 11, 1919).
In 1922, the nagging impact of the frostbite further weakened his limbs, and he was forced to amputate his right foot and part of his left leg below the knee. George wore prosthetics to walk but removed them to ride and work. To overcome these losses, Eller developed a unique technique to rope and tie off a steer.
In a letter from his third wife, Beatrice Bunker, (married in 1923) to her Mother, Beatrice described his technique. After he roped a steer, the horse kept the rope taut. George would dismount, slide down the rope to the steer, and then hogtie the animal. Next, he would command the horse to approach, tap it on the leg, and the horse would drop to his knees and roll to his side allowing George to remount. “I’m always afraid for him to do it, but he never thinks of getting hurt,” Beatrice nervously remarked.
In November of 1926 a daughter, Chloe, was born, but George’s lingering injuries continued to flare up. In late January of 1927, his withered right arm was amputated, but this time, George went into shock and died two weeks later at the age of 49. .
George Eller faced the unexpected trials of life with a can-do attitude, and he is an example of the frontier spirit we imagine in ourselves. He isn’t famous and is just one life, but when put together with many other lives, pride is created and developed; in a family, a community, and our local history, which ultimately forms our unique western identity.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at email@example.com. Thanks to Beth Gilchrist for her research and interview about the life of her grandfather, George Eller.
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