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."
"Haw, haw."

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."