Moffat County Locals: Coal miner Dennis Balleck starts new chapter, retiring to ranch
December 23, 2018
What’s a coal miner to do after four decades in the industry?
In Northwest Colorado, at least one retired miner is planning to spend more time ranching.
On Nov. 28, 1977, Dennis Balleck, taking the advice of his friends, began work at Colowyo Mine south of Craig.
He had previously worked with the Forest Service, but he didn't want to be "stuck sitting behind a desk six months out of the year," he said.
His new work as a loop truck driver had him spending time out of the office.
"At that time, it was one of the best paying jobs around here. I had a couple of friends who were hired and said it was pretty good money," he said.
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From driving trucks, Dennis moved to repairing them.
"I was a mechanic in the shop for light vehicles and worked on the dozer crew rebuilding dozers," he said.
By 1992, he had qualified to become a leadman after completing the tests from the Mine Safety Health Administration.
As his list of accomplishments grew, so, too, did the size of the equipment used at the mine.
The fleet of 12 Caterpillar bulldozers was upgraded from 120-ton to 240-ton trucks, he said, adding, “It’s more economical to run the larger pieces of equipment.”
Eventually, operations changed, and all the mechanics moved into a combined shop, where Dennis has spent the past five years supervising a crew of 11.
The crew performed regular service on equipment and addressed "running breakdowns," he said. Not all work was done in the shop, as "pit mechanics went out and worked in the field," he added.
He and his crew underwent continual training to keep up with technology.
"So much of the troubleshooting is with a laptop," he said.
Much of the training was done locally, but one of his most interesting training trips was in 2001. At the time, the mine was owned by Rio Tinto, an Australian-based company that flew him to Western Australia for a 6-week front-line interchange program.
Near the end of the program, terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, resulting in global travel disruptions that stranded Dennis in Australia for an extra week.
Earlier this year — after almost 41 years — he decided it was time to retire and spend time ranching and with his family.
"I thought about staying the extra couple months to make it exactly 41 years, but I decided not to stay," he said.
The dedication and commitment associated with spending 41 years working for the same company is something worth celebrating, and during the summer, Dennis enjoyed a crew party at Loudy-Simpson Park and a luncheon at the mine.
Now, he and wife, Shirley, are looking forward to spending time ticking items off their bucket list, including a visit to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and an Alaskan cruise.
The couple has been married 43 years. On April 5, they will celebrate their 44th anniversary.
"We function like a well-oiled machine, and away we go," said Shirley. She used to own the Flower Mine and Gift Shop, where Dennis and their four sons would dress in tuxedos to deliver flowers on Mother’s Day and Valentine's Day.
Shirley retired about a year ago after selling her business.
The mine operates seven days per week, 24-hours per day, "unless visibility or road conditions shut things down for a time," he explained.
Dennis said the rotating shifts and "having to put up through storms, weather and holidays," are parts of the job he won't miss.
"Some days, we'd wave at each other as we passed each other on the road going in on different shifts," Shirley said.
For this family, retiring means carrying on the work required to manage a 680-acre Angus cattle ranch and wheat farms shared among the Ballecks, including Dennis' brothers and sisters.
Living in the county, however, comes with its own set of challenges.
"Occasionally, I pull him out of the ditch in the winter or when he'd get a tractor buried," Shirley said.
Fortunately, the cattle don't keep the same demanding schedule as the mine, so while Dennis said he plans to "finish fixing fences," he added, "I won't have to be in a hurry. I have all the time in the world, and I plan to hang out with the grandkids."
Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.