Old cowboys in a new Evergreen

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By The Staff

Editor's note: Evergreen resident Bud Weare wrote this remembrance of Rodney Counselman for the Courier. It will appear in the March 26 printed edition.

When Rodney Counselman died on March 9, I lost a boyhood friend, an old cowboy I had known for all but six of his 70 years. We started school together, rode together and hunted together at a time when the elk were wild and so were the young men.

From a larger perspective, Rodney’s passing is more than personal; it symbolizes the passing of an era. When the grandchildren of our old-time families begin to fade away, we should appreciate that we are losing the last generation who knew those pioneers first-hand — who often lived in the same households with those who settled in Evergreen a hundred years ago.

So it was with Rodney. His grandparents, Josef and Carrie Stransky, came to Evergreen in 1915 and gradually put together a ranch above Brook Forest encompassing a thousand acres in three different counties. The ranch remains in family ownership, and it is comforting to know that this is where Rodney spent his best years, as well as his dying days.

Hank Alderfer has already provided Courier readers with a historical sketch of the Stransky family (and Rodney’s brief obituary appeared in the March 12 issue of the Courier), but the effort here is to link eulogy with geography, to link the life of Rodney with the life of Evergreen.

It is tempting to say that the bigger story is about the vanishing cowboy, but there are all kinds of cowboys: professional rodeo cowboys, trust fund cowboys and a precious few authentic cowboys who still can make a living tending land and cattle. Rodney was none of these. As Alderfer has explained, many of the early ranches in the Evergreen area could not support a family over the long haul, and their meager cash income came as much from lumber and lettuce as from cattle. The experience of Rodney’s grandparents offers a telling example. They struggled to survive, growing peas and potatoes, after a dreaded bovine disease (black leg) wiped out their herd during World War I, but ultimately they succeeded financially and preserved the ranch by opening a real estate business, horse stables and a liquor store in Evergreen. In the meantime, the family continued to work the ranch — hay and horses — in a part-time practice that would give rise to what we might call the Front Range cowboy.

And this would be Rodney, who out of necessity combined ranch life with other occupations. And this would be the Front Range economy (the new Evergreen), where mountain suburbanization rewarded Rodney and other cowboy-construction workers with good jobs at the same time it made them potentially dependent on an industry that threatened their ranches. Rodney spent more than 40 years pursuing parallel lives as cowboy-excavator and cowboy-electrician without acknowledging the tension. And perhaps there was none. Or perhaps this was the cowboy way.

Without trying (and this is the secret), Rodney could pass as the mythic cowboy, especially in the eyes of city women. Soft-spoken but firm, a man of few words, he evoked a bit of Gary Cooper. Lean, angular and relaxed, he looked good on a horse — in retrospect, a little too much like the Marlboro Man. Stoic, stubborn, and tough as rawhide, Rodney might have delayed the worst ravages of the tobacco habit, but in January 2007 he took a fall at the ranch. For nearly three months he refused to see a doctor — again, the cowboy way. But this was a bad horse he couldn’t get back on. God only knows (or maybe Joe Stransky) how Rodney stood the pain. (Grandfather Stransky once rode horseback an entire day with a boot full of blood after a sharp pine branch broke off deep in his thigh.)

In March 2007, a blood clot finally took Rodney to the emergency room, where X-rays revealed that he had broken his hip, completely severing the top of the femur, in the January fall. Unbelievable endurance, hip replacement, and heroic 24-hour care on the part of cousin Rash Hendryx extended Rodney’s short-term lease on life, giving him almost another year at the beloved ranch.

A fuller examination of Rodney’s life and that of his family would tell us a great deal about the history of Evergreen. For now, if you live in one of Evergreen’s subdivisions, check out your roads, your driveway, the excavation around your house, and ask about your electrical wiring. If the contours are perfect, the grade and drainage as they should be, and the wiring impresses the inspector, then you might have Rodney to thank. Such care was not always the cowboy way, but Rodney was special. He took as much pride in this part of his life’s work as he did in a well-trained horse or a pretty windrow of mountain hay. He was a good man and a good friend, who has ridden into the sunset astraddle the old Evergreen and the new Evergreen. We owe it to him to maintain the balance.

A memorial gathering for Rodney will be held from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. April 5 at the Evergreen Elks Club.