Moffat County Locals: McCandless family — 80 years of caring for Moffat County animals
December 22, 2018
Sometimes, great successes arise from humble beginnings.
Consider the following: It's a safe bet that anyone in Moffat County who's ever had a sick or injured animal is familiar with the name "McCandless." In fact, it's a safe bet that more residents know the name than don't, whether they live in the company of animals or not.
For some 80 years, give or take, retired Craig veterinarian Neil McCandless and his father — the late Leon Sumner "L.S." McCandless (or "Ted," to some) — were essentially the only veterinarians in Moffat County, and between them, a Dr. McCandless has tended to Moffat County's livestock from the early 1920s until the younger McCandless entered full retirement in 2006.
"At one point, we were the longest standing business in Moffat County," McCandless said during a recent interview at his home in Craig. "Shepherd and Sons were a year or two behind us, and then they surpassed us when I sold out."
But the reach of the McCandless name extends far beyond tending to the county's veterinary needs.
Both father and son were deeply involved in many other facets of the county's development.
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In 1929, L.S. McCandless partnered with C.A. Stoddard to operate the newly combined Craig Courier and Craig Empire, and that unlikely alliance between a vocal Democrat (McCandless) and a staunch Republican (Stoddard) resulted in the birth of an uncommonly fair and balanced newspaper. The elder McCandless also wrote the popular column for the Empire-Courier, "Shot of Scotch,” which became one of the most quoted columns in the United States.
Neil McCandless served on the Moffat County Board of County Commissioners from 1972 to 1976, the time of one of Moffat County's most pivotal projects — the construction of Craig Station.
So "McCandless" is a name most everyone around here knows.
But, sometimes, great successes arise from humble beginnings, and this story doesen't begin with one of the longest standing businesses in Moffat County history, nor does it begin with a name pretty much everyone in the area knows and respects.
It begins back in 1909, with the kindness and care one Moffat County family extended to an orphaned boy.
The kindness of strangers
L.S. McCandless — then known as "Ted" — arrived in Craig in 1909 as an orphan and was promptly taken in by the Hoy family, who lived at the foot of what is today known as Cemetery Hill.
"He would work for his living there, but he got to where they considered him family," McCandless said. "They were so good to him. He went through high school, finished high school, and I'm sure that they helped him financially to go to vet school."
After graduating with his veterinary degree in the early 1920s, the elder McCandless initially operated a "mobile practice," traveling across the county — from ranch to home to ranch to home — to treat residents' animals.
"Highway 40 hadn't been constructed yet in those days, and in the summer, a lot of work still was with a horse-drawn type of wagon and in the winter, sometimes, a horse-drawn cutter." McCandless said.
He explained that was the only way to run a rural veterinary practice in the first half of the 20th century. And in those days, veterinary care in the American West was not always easy to come by.
"For several years, even the Steamboat area didn't have a veterinarian," he said.
The elder McCandless would continue according to the mobile model for nearly 40 years, until his son, following in his father's footsteps, graduated veterinary school himself and returned to Craig to join the practice.
Father and son
After the younger McCandless' 1956 graduation from Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University) with a doctor of veterinary medine degree, father and son opened what is today Bear Creek Animal Hospital on the two-acres of property upon which their home sat.
"… It had a house on it and then an older building that we remodeled and made into what is now the clinic," he recalled. "Out of a barn, we made some stalls and then had it covered. … In those days, most animals were brought into us in two-ton trucks with stock racks, and then gradually, of course, it became horse trailers and livestock trailers."
By that time, the elder McCandless was in his early 60s, and "he just kept it going a little bit until I could graduate, and then, it went very well, because there was a need for veterinarians in those days."
He said his father "supported" him for a very brief time during his early days of practice.
"We called it (the clinic) McCandless and McCandless," he recalled. "He was paying me, supporting me, until I could make enough money to support my wife, and we had one child soon after that, that fall, actually, and it took two months until I was supporting myself here in this area."
McCandless worked out of the new clinic, but also kept up his father's mobile practice.
"I operated a lot on Little Snake River, because it was without a veterinary service." A veterinarian from southern Wyoming had been coming in to provide services, but McCandless said that, once he began taking care of the area, "… he (the Wyoming vet) was glad to have me move in. He didn't resent me at all."
Much of McCandless' early business came from his mobile practice. In a 2006 interview with the Moffat County Morning News' magazine, "Rural Living," he said traveling the county vaccinating and testing cattle is what supported his family through the winter of 1956-57.
But residents soon discovered it was more economical to come to the clinic than to order a house call.
"It didn't take too many years, however, until they found out if they only had an individual animal sick, it was less expensive to haul a cut horse or a sick milk cow into the clinic," he said.
Practicing veterinary medicine, in those days, was a difficult prospect.
"We had a well and septic system," he recalled. "… In fact, I was on a party line," a fact that often complicated running a business.
"It was hard to run a business along a party line, and I'm sure it became very annoying to the other members on the party line, because in those days, there were a lot of people on the different party lines."
McCandless sold the practice to current Bear Creek owner Dr. Kelly Hepworth, originally of Laramie, Wyoming, in 1999, but continued working until 2006.
"I had to fulfill my 50 years strenuous labor," he said with a wry grin.
But the life of a rural veterinarian sometimes goes a little beyond "strenuous."
During his five-decades of practice, he's had his leg broken by a cow — "Knocked me down, then stepped on me" — and his neck broken by a horse.
Yet, even after all the difficulties, struggles, and physical injuries, he still carries a deep love for animals, and when asked if he ever misses his life as a veterinarian, his answer is a single, heartfelt word: "Terribly."
After a moment's consideration, he added: "But there just comes a time you should quit. I did."
Life in retirement
These days, McCandless' life is a good bit less exciting, but he seems to enjoy it that way.
The face of a clock hanging on the wall of his home office presents all the numbers in a pile at the bottom of the face, accompanied by the words, "Retired. Who cares?"
But his cozy home office is also testament to his days as a veterinarian, with diplomas, news articles, photos, and most impressive, a miniature replica of his clinic, built by Jill, his wife of 65 years.
The couple has three daughters, including former Moffat County Clerk and Recorder Elaine Sullivan, as well as seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
In retirement, McCandless said he enjoys spending time at his son-in-law's ranch in the mountains, and, until old injuries from his veterinary years caught up to him, he was an avid golfer.
"I've had so many bruises and breaks, I've got an arm now that won't let me golf," he said. "It would be a joke if I were golfing anyway."
He also retains a lifelong passion for antique cars, particularly the Model A Coupe with a rumbleseat. He's owned six Model As in his lifetime — including his first car — but never the Model A Coupe with a rumbleseat, the car he owns now. His affinity for that particular model dates back to his youth.
"When I was a boy, my older sister was going with a young man who had a Model A, and of course, I was the one who rode in the rumbleseat, and I thought it was so much fun, and that was what I wanted to have," he said. "I'd never had a Model A coupe with a rumbleseat, and so I wanted to end my days owning a Model A Coupe with a rumbleseat. It's a Model A Sport Coupe, they call them, and it does has a rumbleseat."
With a grin, he asks: "Do you want to see it?"
And out in the garage, there it sits — a Model A Coupe with a rumbleseat. It's old, for a fact, but at the same time, it's proud; stately, almost; meticulously maintained and carrying quite few more miles beneath its gleaming hood.
And looking at the vehicle, it begins to feel like it might be a fitting metaphor for its owner.
Old, yes, but proud, solid, stately — and still more than good enough for a spin or two around the block.