Wheeler family dedicated to keeping memories, historic schoolhouse alive in Hahns Peak Village
ROUTT COUNTY — The summer wind blowing off Steamboat Lake whistles through the pines as a lone hiker climbs the Tombstone Nature Trail above the shimmering water.
Sure enough, a tombstone can be found along the trail. Readers of the tombstone can become disconcerted when they realize the bones of two newborns lie underneath the dreamy carpet of native grass and flowers.
While the family’s original cabin is now covered by Steamboat Lake, the descendants of James and Rose Wheeler still return almost every year to tell tales of their grandparents’ joys and miseries after settling the area.
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This summer, they continued a tradition of painting the historic Hahns Peak Schoolhouse, first built in 1911, and where their parents and uncles and aunt attended school.
Darlene Wheeler Kemery, her sister, their children and grandchildren came to North Routt from various states including Washington, Kansas and Arizona.
“It’s on the National Historic Register, so there’s only so much we can do with repairs, so we decided to come back every 10 years or so to repaint the school,” said Wheeler Kemery.
With buckets of paint and supplies donated by Ace Hardware, 12 of the Wheeler descendants went to work in mid-July, proudly wearing their family reunion T-shirts.
Wheeler Kemery said, in 1921, her grandfather and grandmother drove their Model T from Sterling to Hahns Peak Village with three children in tow. They had only visited the area in the summer, and the first winter was quite a shock.
“They built a little cabin,” Wheeler Kemery said. “There was no work, no money. They fed themselves by hunting grouse and snowshoe rabbit … and that’s what they ate.”
The Wheelers would go on to have seven boys and one girl in addition to burying two of their babies who died at birth.
Though the Wheelers later sold out as big ranchers bought up land and the Wheelers’ sons went off to fight in WWII, their history lives on in the local museum and in the book “God’s Mountain,” written by their grandmother Rose Marie Wheeler.
Even after all these years, Wheeler Kemery can guide her own grandchildren to her grandparent’s original garden near Tombstone Trail.
“There’s still some rhubarb growing. It’s the only thing that’s left,” Wheeler Kemery said.
With much of their old homestead now Steamboat Lake State Park, the Wheelers pass on their heritage through stories, many surrounding the little historic schoolhouse they repainted in July.
One of Wheeler Kemery’s favorite stories involved a mischievous student who threw some rifle cartridges in the little school’s woodstove, blowing it up.
“The teacher expelled him, and the boy’s mother showed up and said ‘you can’t expel my little Johnny’ and picked up a coal bucket and threw it at the teacher,” said Wheeler Kemery, laughing.
In fact, until recently, she could show her grandkids the gouge in the old door frame at the schoolhouse, where the coal bucket hit.
“When I was there this time, someone had carefully replaced the trim,” she said.
Widowed when her own two boys were still relatively young, Wheeler Kemery told the story of how her oldest son asked to change his last name from Kemery to Wheeler, so that he could carry on the Wheeler family name. His son is now named James Wheeler, the same as the original homesteader.
Wheeler Kemery said her 11-year-old grandson was thrilled to see the family’s history on display at the little Hahns Peak Museum during this summer’s visit.
“I took my grandson to the museum, and he looks straight forward, and he sees my grandmother’s books and letters and music books,” Wheeler Kemery said. “He just gasped. I couldn’t have wished for a better expression.”
The Wheelers say they hope to repaint the Hahns Peak Schoolhouse every five years instead of waiting another 10 years.
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