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A Stitch in Time

The breeze moves across the creek, turns the corner by the old porch swing, dallies with the ancient lilac bush and settles where the ladies sit in rockers with their quilting hoops: A mother, an aunt and three daughters, all taking refuge from the heat of the eastern plains. The aunt, like the rest of the family, is a paying guest, but that has not stopped her from planting purple petunias in the dark-green-painted planters that line the porch where the women now sit, sewing and talking. Catherine Ramus, proprietor of the Blue Jay Inn, comes out onto the porch carrying several cushions that date to 1947, the year she bought the inn.

"Oh, thank you, Mrs. Ramus," the mother says, allowing herself to become even more comfortable.

"Oh, look, ladies," Mrs. Ramus remarks, "there's that little bird that's been circling about. Is it a wren?"

"It's hot in the sun," says the oldest daughter, who wears sunflower earrings made of paper. "But the breeze is awfully nice."

"Isn't it nice to just sit?" agrees Mrs. Ramus.
It is nice to sit and listen to the song of the possible wren and the creaking of rockers and the almost inaudible pop made when a needle enters and exits several layers of 100 percent cotton fabric and batting.

It is nice to quilt, away from husbands, children, jobs and hometown tasks. Lunch was more than nice--"the damask tablecloths she uses, and the beautiful silverware!" the middle daughter says--and whenever anyone gets thirsty, there's a nice pitcher of water from the spring deep below Buffalo Creek.

"Sitting here," the mother says, "you can picture so much what it would have been like decades ago--the people, the quiet, the sign above the sink that says, This is country plumbing please be careful. People who came on the train, mothers and children. They stayed all summer. Imagine people staying all summer!"

Mrs. Ramus overhears this, although strictly speaking, she is occupying her own rocker space slightly removed from the quilters. This is not because she has lost interest in quilting but because her eyes are failing. Needles and thread have become too slight, and putting together the lovely lunch, with the silverware and damask tablecloth, required considerable effort. Now it is nice to sit and think about staying in Buffalo Creek all summer, which is what she has done since 1921, when she was nine years old.

"All the families had flagpoles," Mrs. Ramus says. "Whoever ran their flag up first in the morning--that was whose house all the others would assemble at. For hiking! Or picnics! Picnics every day."

Hymn-singing every Sunday. Mr. Ramus, when he entered the picture, tying flies on the porch every evening. Lights out early. Hired girls in fancy aprons. Souvenir plates on the walls.

"One of them," Mrs. Ramus confides, "was given to me by such a nice young man from West Point, who gave it to me because his wife was mad at him." A flirtatious plate. Mrs. Ramus, who is 84, laughs her girlish laugh, and the quilters look up from their handiwork. (They range in age from 27 to 60, but none is the girlish-laugh type.)

Seeing that she has their attention, Mrs. Ramus ventures a story of country life.

"I looked out the window, ladies," she says, "and there was an elk, looking back at me!"

The quilters smile, then return to their family chatter.
Mrs. Ramus rocks a little, wondering when someone from one of the 25 families that live permanently in Buffalo Creek will come by to drive her to Green's Mercantile, where her post-office box is the oldest in continuous operation. Quite wisely, Mrs. Ramus recently stopped driving herself. So several weeks ago, when she came to the Blue Jay Inn to begin her regular three-month summer stay, a Denver neighbor dropped her off.

"Jenny and Jimmy came in to help me clean up, and they said I'd freeze to death in here, as it's been awfully cold," Mrs. Ramus remembers. "I said, I certainly will not freeze to death. I'll light the wood stove right quick, and I'll be fine."

What was not fine was Buffalo Creek. In mid-May, a forest fire ate up much of the land around the town. When it finally was over, 10,000 acres had succumbed, leaving a smattering of helicopters, a trail of exhausted firefighters and a strange landscape of blackened trees with burnt orange needles sitting amid heaps of silent silver ash. Cabins--and much grander buildings--that had been in Buffalo Creek families for five generations were destroyed. The fire came within a quarter-mile of the Blue Jay Inn but changed its mind.

And now the hotel's 116th summer begins.

Ask anyone. Buffalo Creek has always had its loyal corps of old ladies.
When Catherine Ramus, then the nine-year-old Catherine Davis, first summered here with her family, she relied on old ladies for her spending money.

"You see, there were no postcards to be had," Mrs. Ramus recalls. "You could buy views of Estes Park, and that was about it. So my mother started taking pictures the minute we landed, and my brothers and I sold them by the hundreds, six for a quarter, to all the old ladies in all the cabins."

In fact, it was one of Mrs. Ramus's favorite old ladies who brought the Davis family to Buffalo Creek in the first place.

"We lived in Topeka, Kansas," she says, "and my first-grade teacher--gee, she was wonderful--was Nanny Schenck. Very Dutch. And she had a Buffalo cabin, and we all came out to be near her. She was elderly, pleasant, not pretty at all. And her descendants still have that cabin."

Because Mrs. Ramus's father was a career engineer with the Colorado and Southern Railroad, his family was free to travel anywhere the rail lines went. At the time, Buffalo Creek was a stop on the way to Leadville. Though it had begun as a mining and ranching center for early white settlers, by the turn of the century the town's personality had changed. Buffalo Creek had become an enclave of summer cabins, where the air was cool and grownups could play at cowboys and Indians only a few decades after the real thing ended.

State records from 1902 reveal the anything-but-businesslike motives of a "company" called the Buffalo Park Association. According to its official bylaws, the association was dedicated to such pursuits as: "sitting in the sun, sitting in the shade, angling for trout, the noble game of bridge, ping pong, sitting around the bonfire, playing the banjo, singing, wading in the brook, sleeping in the hammock, making love, eating green apples.

"Stargazing"--it continues, after an elegant pause--"drinking highballs, climbing mountains, reading detective stories, wearing old shoes, making mudpies, gathering wild flowers, taking photographs, going in swimming, dancing in the barn, and doing what you please." Furthermore, the founders continued, the association would "strive for the suppression of telephones, tickers, nerves, creditors, banks, newspapers...and all improvement societies."

Not long after these noble goals were committed to paper, the Buffalo Park Improvement Association was founded. To this day, its chief purpose remains hosting pancake breakfasts and square dances--the kind of "improvement" that has always met with the least resistance around Buffalo Creek.

Mrs. Ramus remembers other diversions from those early Buffalo Creek summers: "We'd walk [three miles] to Pine, then take the train back home. That was fun. We hiked every few days, up to the first rock beyond Green's Mercantile, and that was all of one mile. We would wade in the creek every little while, and the boys took their baths there, but it was just like ice. Too cold for us."

By the time she reached her teens, Catherine was the preferred organist at Sunday-night hymn sings and the Davises had a cabin of their own. The first few seasons they'd stayed at a long-gone hotel--at the princely rate of $100, per family, per season, meals included. The Blue Jay Inn was not available at the time; a railroad hotel when it opened in 1880, since 1907 it had been owned by the Young Girl's Friendly Society, an Episcopal church group, and it served as a clean, wholesome summer retreat for unmarried young women.

Perhaps it was their example that inspired Mrs. Ramus in her twenties and thirties. After four years of college and several more working as a counselor at a rustic boys' camp in New Hampshire, she had no great desire to start a family of her own or to enter a career that would take her much further from Topeka than Buffalo Creek.

"I was just running around seeing the sights with Mother--very free and easy," Mrs. Ramus recalls. "It beat marriage, I thought."

Those free and easy days ended in 1947, when she and her mother heard that the Blue Jay Inn was for sale. "During the war, transportation was difficult, and they just sat around with the few gals who could get to the inn," Mrs. Ramus explains. "It was getting pretty decrepit. So we thought, why not? Father thought we were crazy, and we still bought it with his money. And all that fall, we made many trips from Topeka with furniture and necessities. Everything churchy around here was Episcopalian from their day. All the rest of it is ours."

Even though train service had been discontinued in the late Thirties and the postwar years were not as conducive to contemplative porch-swinging, the hotel filled up almost immediately--and stayed that way. "The first summer we had an elevator-company executive who sat on the porch watching range cattle wandering around in the creek," Mrs. Ramus recalls. "He'd say, 'Why, Miss Davis, that's money on the hoof!' As if we were supposed to do something about it."

That winter the Colorado Rural Electric Association ran the first power lines into Buffalo Creek, and they hired an electrician to wire the old hotel. "He brought his wife, and she was British, and we'd all listen to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on the radio as we ran those wires through the house," Mrs. Ramus says. "The dear man never understood why all these women would want all these outlets. In any case, the night the electricity was hooked up, we plugged in everything we could think of, and it all came on, and then two seconds later everyone in Buffalo Park blew a fuse and all the appliances went off again, and we went back to using candles and never gave it a second thought."

Soon the new innkeepers were considered leading citizens of the Buffalo Creek/Pine area. They made a point of keeping up with the local families and cabin-holders, and they never missed an evening of games or song at the Improvement Association hall. The inn itself became known for its chicken dinners and its gift shop, which featured handmade aprons sewn by the dining-room girls when they weren't busy waiting on tables. It was understood that the kind of woman who would come to work at a family place like the Blue Jay Inn would be not just hardworking, but of the most sterling character. "We had one woman come to us because it was out of the range of the hay fever and because we served no liquor," Mrs. Ramus recalls. "She didn't want a rough kind of place."

(There still are no bars in Buffalo Creek, but the occasional noisy party irks Mrs. Ramus just as thoroughly as if there were. "The rock and roll at the ranger station," she'll complain. "It goes on till nine o'clock at night! Horrible, shrieking loudspeakers! It's their privilege, but must they broadcast it so loud?")

In 1950 she married Charles Ramus, whom she had known since her early teens. By now a prominent art professor at the University of Denver, Mr. Ramus spent winters in Denver and summers in Buffalo Creek, where he was known as perhaps the most enthusiastic fisherman ever to tie a fly.

"He kept a record of every fish he ever caught," Mrs. Ramus remembers. "I think it approached 17,000 or so. When we married, it was too late to think about children, so we came up to Buffalo every weekend after school and we fished--all over the Northwest and Colorado."

Mr. Ramus gave up his cabin and became a fixture on the porch of the Blue Jay Inn, where he tied flies long into the night. Mrs. Ramus became a fixture with DU Women, a social club. "I was very active, of course," she says. "And even after Mr. Ramus died in 1979, I'd have them up here to the inn. They always want to buy the antiques right off the walls, and I always don't allow them to."

Besides, where would they start? The waist-high pile of Life magazines, circa 1947? The pitcher and basin that serve the role of sink in each upstairs room? The three ancient gas stoves? The basket of tourism brochures that read "Royal Gorge, 1961"? Century-old pressed wildflowers of the Rockies? The glass globes full of red liquid nailed high in each room?

"Oh, those," Mrs. Ramus says dismissively. "The Red Comet Company of Littleton sold us all that. Supposedly, they were fire extinguishers, but I don't think they ever worked. We have to leave them up or there'd be holes in the walls."

The walls are hardly pristine. After a hard wind--or a forest fire--a fine layer of dust will sometimes cover every horizontal surface in every upstairs bedroom. And as for the roof, even the most casual motorist driving down Route 126 toward Deckers will note that it is riddled with holes.

None of that matters to the Blue Jay's current clientele, people who prefer a sense of true history to such modern conveniences as more than one shared bathtub. Many of them are quilters, who came to know Mrs. Ramus--which is what they all call her--when she began selling books on sewing and handcrafts from her homes in Denver and Buffalo Creek.

"I was on the Colorado quilt council," Mrs. Ramus says proudly. "So they all know me. I have a group from Morrison coming in July. One from Montrose in August. And, of course, there are the gals from Yuma. They wouldn't miss it."

The gals from Yuma are more formally known--especially on their annual commemorative T-shirts--as the Old Cotton Batts. All of them have been looking forward to this weekend for months.

"The first thing we do, the minute we get here, is run upstairs and each pick out a room," says Monnie Segelke, who currently lives in Northern California and is the aunt of Arlene Smith, leader of the Old Cotton Batts. The first quilting weekend, held four years ago, was convened to celebrate Segelke's fiftieth birthday. In this family, Segelke is known for her fondness of bright colors and her incredible feats of applique, which have included a life-sized elk, eagle, owl and "a huge cow with free udders." Right now she is working on Olympic Spirit, a patriotic-theme quilt featuring ethnically diverse children marching in a parade. "And I have to sew all around their tiny feet and tiny dresses," she says. "I didn't get a good look at the fabric till I got home, and then I opened it up and my head was pounding."

Such tales of quilting derring-do are common on this porch. All of the Old Cotton Batts know that Segelke is up to the task, but they laugh appreciatively: She's been doing this long enough to have earned the right to pretend she can barely handle the requirements of her latest project.

She learned the art from a maiden aunt and enjoyed spending the winter sewing with her. "Women don't do that anymore," Segelke says, "really work on something together. After that first quilt, I didn't try again until I was given some old quilts my grandmother had never finished. And working on them, it was as if she were sitting beside me. I learned all about her just from seeing her work. She was meticulous, and an artist, and I had all that was left of her."

While Segelke was feeding her quilting addiction in California, her niece Arlene, now 37, was following a parallel path. During a brief separation from her family, she joined a quilting class to fight loneliness. Smith has long since returned to Yuma and taken on a full-time job with the Monfort cattle concern, but she's never working on fewer than twenty quilts at a time.

"Usually I don't even count," Smith admits. "Whatever you're in the mood for or whatever the deadline is for--we quilt for babies and weddings and all like that. I don't like to keep my quilts, either. I own less than ten."

Segelke agrees that it's more fun to give quilts away. "The greatest compliment would be to see one of my quilts all in shreds because it was being used so hard," she says. "And I hate when people hang them up. How can you cover your friends with love when they hang your quilt on the wall?"

Various members of Segelke's family, all of whom are sitting and sewing, nod their heads. Smith is working on a pattern known as Love Ring--a variation of Drunkard's Path. Her mother, Ruth Segelke, is finishing up a Checkers and Rails design "for a boy's room," she says--but in this family, there are no gender distinctions when it comes to sewing. Smith's husband, whose other hobby is hunting elk, has made several quilts. Her sister, Naomi James, is married to a man acknowledged to be the family expert at "embroiderying."

"Did anyone see that How to Make an American Quilt movie?" James asks.
"Well, I saw it, but I don't think my husband would appreciate it," her sister Kim Vondy replies. "The older people were all quilting, but the youngest one was a little too modern for my tastes."

"The older ones were awfully modern, too," Segelke says. "I don't know why that was necessary."

"Did you hear, ladies?" Mrs. Ramus interjects, her hostess instincts kicking in at the slightest suggestion of disagreement. "Over the years, we had a bear and a little fox, and a mountain lion who ate up the dear little angora goats. We've had an awful lot of animals here."

"Oh, it's nice here," Ruth Segelke says. "I thought this weekend would never come."

"You gals," Mrs. Ramus says. "You drive all the way from Yuma, stopping at any store along the way that might have even one piece of quilting fabric."

The companionable silence descends again until it is punctured by Cathy Robson, a retired teacher in her seventies who has come to the inn for an unspecified amount of time to help Mrs. Ramus. Robson is wearing old polyester pants, new white tennis shoes, a T-shirt that reads "World Rhubarb Festival" and thick prescription glasses. She has the air of someone who is never happier than when she is in the mountains.

"I have a quilt," she offers. "I found one my mother quilted. I'm using it even though it's not finished and it's full of pins. So what," she concludes.

Robson has been busy washing the lunch dishes. The Blue Jay's kitchen is the kind of place where you might suddenly discover a trove of photographs from 1953 along with several souvenir plates sent from Alaska by friends, but you might have no luck in locating a dish towel.

"I finally found one to use, Catherine," Robson says, "and I used it, but it had a big hunk out of it."

"That's fine," Mrs. Ramus replies. "And do you know, when we make toast tomorrow morning, we're going to have to unplug all those heaters or the fuses will all blow. Do you know, I was here in 1947, when a dear little man wired the inn for electricity."

"Really," says Robson, who loves Mrs. Ramus's stories.
"Have you looked at the plates on the walls in the dining room?" Mrs. Ramus asks. "They are all very interesting, and some of them are very old."

A lace curtain moves in the breeze. A scent of lilac passes through. A snatch of talk drifts in from the porch.

"We meant to tell you," Monnie Segelke is saying, "that everyone in our family very much enjoys reading the Bible. And we very much like to sing the old hymns. On Sunday. Together."

"That's fine," Mrs. Ramus replies. "Our old cottage organ works just fine. It was in the 1903 flood in Topeka, you know. We are happy to play it on Sundays," she adds, "if you wish.