Who's Minding the Store?
Russell Berry is here, leaning back in a rocker with his cup of coffee and can of chew, so it must be morning in Hillside. Time to get mail.
Six days a week, as regular as the sunrise, Berry putters from his 400-acre cattle ranch two miles away to this country post office, where he squeaks open his letter box and then settles down for a little chitchat.
"I'm too lazy to work," Berry chuckles, blue eyes shining like turquoise nuggets in a face as brown as buckskin. "But if I hurry, I can get my work done before dark."
Berry has been making this trip into town--what there is of it, anyway--almost every day for the past 62 years. If he had his way, he'd be coming back for 62 more. Visiting the post office is a Hillside tradition, one kept alive by local ranchers for almost a century. But while other visitors this Monday morning move along after checking their mail and trading a few wisecracks, Berry lingers for more than an hour, chatting with whomever walks in, including part-time postal worker Nancy Kendrick, retired engineer George Colgate and Eva Colgate, George's feisty wife.
They chatter about the stubble on Kendrick's legs.
"Getting ready for winter?" Berry guffaws.
They chatter about the rugged-looking, life-sized statue of a cowboy in the corner.
"He's one handsome dude."
"Maybe you can take him home."
And they chatter about the old general store. Always the old general store, which was hauled down from the defunct Rito Alto copper mine and reassembled off U.S. Highway 69 in a spot between Texas Creek and Westcliffe, twelve miles from either town. For almost a hundred years, that store was the center of town. Heck, it was the town: After a post office opened in the store in 1904, Hillside was born.
But today there's nothing left of the old store except a slab of gravel, a few stunted weeds and a handful of black-and-white photos. The man who owned the store, the man who owns the entire town, demolished the building two years ago as part of a grand remodeling scheme that ran out of time, money and energy.
This spring, Dan England put what's left of Hillside up for sale. The post office. The livery stable. The corral. The two cabins. The guest house. The parking lot. All 9.2 acres for $485,000.
Just thinking about it lights a fire under Eva, a Hillside resident off and on for 75 years.
"He destroyed the town," she bristles. "Everyone around here would like to shoot him."
To hear Dan England tell it, he was only trying to help. His story begins in 1995, when he considered retiring from his multi-million-dollar employment-agency empire in order to oversee a "gentleman's working cattleman's operation."
England, who is now 55, grew up in Dallas and spent most of his life shuttling between big cities. On weekends he escaped to Santa Fe, where he fell in love with the dramatic skies, wide-open landscape and sun-drenched lifestyle.
"I wanted to leave the concrete highways and glass buildings and the hustle and bustle of the city," England recalls. "Literally, for nine years, I had been commuting between Santa Fe and Dallas every weekend. When I retired, I thought, 'This is a beautiful opportunity to enjoy open spaces and sunsets.' I really believed that being a cowboy rancher was what I wanted to do. It's a magnificent, beautiful life. I'd hate to have to do it as a living, but it's a magnificent life."
England and his wife, Katie, who raised Tennessee walking horses, surveyed a few ranches in Wyoming and Colorado but couldn't find one they liked. Then a friend suggested they look at the Wet Mountain Valley near Canon City. "Man," England remembers thinking as he passed the pastoral village of Westcliffe. "What a great little town. This is like stepping back a hundred years. People still gather cattle on horseback."
Then he swung north onto scenic Highway 69, where the rolling ranchland and snowcapped Sangre de Cristo mountains look like a Marlboro advertisement. "Oh, my God," he thought. "It's still the old West. It really is the old West. This is where I want to be."
In the tiny town of Hillside, he found a ranch with everything he wanted, from a gurgling creek to fields of hay to herds of elk. He spent ten months convincing the owner of the 530-acre Golden Meadow ranch to sell him the place. When the owner finally did, England improved roads, built miles of new fence and refurbished the barn.
As he made his improvements, England kept passing the old general store, which stood some 300 yards from the road to his property. The store was old West, all right. Too old West. "It looked like trash," England recalls. "When you've got a little commercial business and it's dilapidated to begin with, there's no need to clean it up, and it just gets worse and worse and worse."
One day England shared his thoughts with a neighbor, who replied, "You're into rebuilding things. Why not buy the town?" The more he considered it, the more interested England became. A renovated store and its surrounding buildings would make a great bed-and-breakfast, restaurant and country store, he thought. There were groves of black willows around the property, postcard views of the mountains beyond.
So one day when England visited the old store to collect his mail, "hoping to get out before the place collapsed," he asked the owner if he wanted to sell. The owner, one of about eight in a long line who'd owned the place, said yes.
"I was very excited," England says. "Then the process began."
Paint was peeling off the town's few buildings, and the trees were overgrown. England hired schoolkids from Westcliffe to clean up the place. While they worked, a few neighbors even joined in.
"We had one heck of an event," England says. "One guy came with a dump truck and another one brought a backhoe. People were very excited."
Some of them, anyway.
When England wrote the first of many letters explaining his intentions--"We're going to prune trees, plant shrubs, grass and flowers and convert Hillside into a 'showplace.' Not for tourists but for you, your family, your friends and the memory of your ancestors...Just give us a chance, you won't be disappointed..."--he raised eyebrows as well as doubts.
Hillside is the kind of close-knit place where residents once regarded anyone from beyond a fifty-mile radius as an outsider. Locals still weigh decisions carefully and move at a well-considered pace. When someone with big plans wants to make big changes, people tend to hold back a bit.
Especially when that someone is a wealthy man from Texas--a state that at one time was a dirty word in these parts. So much so that George Colgate's dad put the following stipulation on his property deed: "This ground shall never be sold to a Texan."
"We were skeptical at first," Russell Berry says. "We just wanted to wait and see what would happen."
England tried not to take it personally.
"Old ranchers like things just the way they are," he says. "They don't want you to clean windows and they don't want you to pick up trash. They'd say, 'Why don't you just leave it alone?' About 90 percent of the town was not very appreciative, or [were] opposed to what I was doing."
To put it mildly.
"We fought that man from the very minute he bought the store," says Eva Colgate. "He came to our little town, and he didn't understand us. He thought just because he came from Dallas, people would bow and scrape. But they did not bow and scrape. He swore that he'd never had any trouble before. But he got a pack of trouble here."
Still, "the other 10 percent were cheering me on," England says, so he persevered. "My dream was to take this hundred-year-old town and put it in shape to run maybe 100 or 200 more years. Maybe my wife and I would retire up there and run the general store and have a place where ranchers would come by in the morning, and three or four families could stay there in the cabins and bring their horses...Oh, don't get me started. I was just trying to create a little Western town."
But as England's crew began studying the little Western town that was already there, they determined it would be easier, and cheaper, to build a new store that looked old rather than fix up the old store.
"It was so dilapidated that it really was not something you could rebuild," England says. "It just wasn't safe. In order to rebuild it, and do it to county specifications and commercial codes, oh, my God, it would have cost a fortune."
So he tore it down.
The original store, with its creaky floors, cluttered shelves and musty odor, was as much a part of Hillside as the hills themselves.
Berry remembers the one-armed-bandit nickel slot machines that stood in the corner and the hand-cranked gas pumps that stood out front. He remembers store owners allowing ranchers to pay their monthly grocery bills by cutting ice blocks from nearby lakes. He remembers cowboys getting spruced up each afternoon for a dish of ice cream at the soda fountain.
More recently, as recently as the days before England tore down the store, locals would go there for their mail--sorted into Civil War-era mailboxes--and their fishing tackle, for motor oil and a bottle of milk, even to gas up their tractors as they moved from pasture to pasture. Depending on which part of the building they stood in, they were doing business either in Fremont County or Custer County: A black demarcation line ran down the middle of the building.
"It was kind of like an institution for us," Berry says. "This community pretty much revolved around that store. It was basically all there was."
As England's workers dismantled the store board by board and pitched the remains into a dumpster, his few supporters disappeared along with the rubble.
"Let me put it this way," George Colgate says. "If you have your building and you've had it for a hundred years, when someone tears it down, that doesn't sit well with you. You want your old building back."
"I wish he would have stayed in Texas," Eva grumbles.
Before he razed the store, England hired architects from New Mexico and Arizona to study and photograph the building inch by inch. "I was going to replicate it," he says. "I got all the permits and all the bids. I even got permits to put in gas pumps."
But getting Fremont County to sign off on those permits was about as easy as extracting new copper from the gutted old mines.
"I don't know if you know anything about Fremont County," England says. "But they are not very user-friendly. They are not very anxious to help you do much of anything with commercial development. Which is part of protecting the county. Which is fine. But I spent another year going through the system and trying to find support."
Planners looked over his blueprints and frowned. England invited them to visit Hillside, but they never did.
"All they said was, 'When I was a kid, I used to drive down a dirt road and visit the old store,'" England recalls. "Then they'd say, 'Is it still there?' And I'd say, 'No. I took it down.'"
Eventually, England was able to convince county planners that he wasn't interested in building a "huge commercial enterprise" but simply wanted to rebuild a piece of history. With their permission, he transformed an old storage building into a livery stable, added a corral and new landscaping and installed underground electrical, propane and telephone lines, as well as a new well and a commercial septic tank.
He even transformed one of the old houses into a new post office. They put in gleaming wooden floors, a tin roof and an upstairs loft. England repaired the antique mailboxes from the old store and installed them in the new post office, along with a copier, a fax machine, a sink and a refrigerator. He decorated the place with cowhide rugs, lace curtains and wooden snowshoes. He made sure there was always coffee ready when ranchers like Berry stopped in.
But those same ranchers now complain that England scrubbed, repainted, remodeled and destroyed whatever old West charm Hillside had. Practically every decorative item, from the portrait of an Indian warrior on the wall to the oak desk in the corner, has a price tag dangling from it. Not only that, but England cut the post office's hours from ten hours, six days a week to four hours, six days a week. He won't let postal workers stock the shelves with groceries. In fact, he won't let them install shelves.
"He won't have a blue post-office box outside because it doesn't look pretty," Eva Colgate says. "There's no way you can mail a letter at that post office after 11 a.m. And did you notice that there's no ZIP code on the post office sign? He thought that would be too tacky. What he calls tacky, I call antique. We can't even get a bottle of milk in Hillside anymore. I'd just like to buy my bottle of milk."
When England held a grand opening for the new post office, seventy people attended--but he still couldn't please them. England had invited one of Hillside's oldest residents, Virgie Koch, to cut the ribbon, but neglected to arrange a ride for her to the event.
"To me, that was an example of how out of touch he was with the area," says Kit Shy, whose parents owned the old store from 1973 to 1981. "If you want to honor someone as a longtime resident, you ought to at least go and get them. And she's in her eighties. Then, after the ceremony, he gets in his car and leaves, and we're all standing there wondering what's next. It seemed to me almost like it was a display for his own edification."
Rumor has it that England spent over $1,000 on that life-sized cowboy statue that he dedicated to local ranchers. The ranchers wish he'd spent the money fixing up the old store instead.
"It upsets me, to tell the truth, to go by there and not see that building," Shy says. "I don't know why a person would do what he did. Maybe his motives were good in the beginning, but he took a landmark that was getting along okay and ran it into the ground. A wealthy man with a temper tantrum tore down a landmark. I honestly believe if he had a little less ego and more understanding, he'd have been able to deal with [county planners] and not tear it down."
But he tried, England insists. He kept the locals informed. He bent over backward to meet county codes. And although he could have closed Hillside's post office altogether and saved himself time, trouble and money, he opened a new one and hired locals to run it.
"Old ranchers don't care about anything but going there to get soda pop, cigarettes, a candy bar and mail," he complains. "They didn't care that I owned the town. They just wanted to go there in the morning like they always had."
All told, England spent $343,000 and three long years trying to fix up Hillside. Then he gave up. This spring, he put both the town and his ranch on the market.
"It was too much redevelopment," England says from his home in Santa Fe. "I just flat ran out of steam. My final plan was for a restaurant that we'd call Wet Whiskers. We'd sell our own Black Angus beef...I could go on forever. And I'm still interested. Once in a while I think about going to some of the neighbors and forming a corporation and selling shares and finishing the town, but I just don't spend any time up there anymore. It's been twelve months. But now someone else can come in and pick up where I left off and change it to accommodate their own dream. The infrastructure is all there. All they have to do is finish it. Everything is so close. And today it just sits there."
Kind of like the post-office regulars, who are disappointed--but philosophical--about the way things turned out.
"I kind of admired him for what he was trying to do," Berry says. "You've got to have a certain amount of progress. I was born and raised on the ranch, so I know you can't always do what you say you're going to do. I know how that goes. I know how business is run. They really tried, but it just didn't work out. I just wished they could have finished."
"He had good ideas," George Colgate says. "But he moved too fast for this community. He got bad advice. That's what I think: bad advice. And he never talked to people. All he said was, 'This is what I'm going to do.' And old ranchers don't like being told 'This is what you're going to do.' He didn't work with the community."
"He did stupid things," Eva Colgate interjects. "He put a fence on a county road and tried to keep people from driving on it. It was his attitude. He was obnoxious from the beginning. I mean to tell you, it's been a joy. Oh, he's a gem. We just love him to death. We hope someone in Dallas shoots him."
Although they aren't thrilled at the prospect of spending another few years without a real store--new or old--the post-office regulars realize they don't have much choice.
"We want our store back," says postmistress Barb Koch, who's lived in Hillside eighteen years. "But the only way we're going to get one is if someone buys the town and builds it."
England's realtor, John Watson, has advertised Hillside in newspapers and on the Internet, attracting prospective buyers from Denver to Luxembourg. Country-and-Western singer Michael Martin Murphey has even taken a peek.
"We're just one movie star away from being overrun," says Watson, who moved to Hillside from California six years ago. "Once they come, watch out."
That kind of talk doesn't make the old-timers rest any easier. "We used to be afraid of Texans with big guns," George Colgate says. "Now we're afraid of Californians with U-Hauls."
Still, they say they're willing to work with whomever winds up owning the town, ready to begin another chapter in Hillside's history.
"There's a whole new personality to our community and a lot of new people," Shy says. "I'd like to see something there. Maybe we can start again."
"It doesn't have to be like the old one," Berry agrees. "Just somewhere to get a loaf of bread and whatnot. That wouldn't bother me a bit. Whatever happens I can live with. But I'd like to see another store there."
Until it appears, he and the others will sip their coffee, sort their mail and wait. And when they need a bottle of milk, they'll drive twelve miles to get one.
"It's just a joke," Eva Colgate says. "We're all furious. But there's nothing to do now but laugh.
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