Who's Minding the Store?

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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."
The process.
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.
Big mistake.
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.

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Harrison Fletcher