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Who's Minding the Store?

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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."

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Harrison Fletcher