When Emery Townsend first began making swift completion of his appointed rounds as a highway contractor for the U.S. Postal Service in Somerset, a gallon of gas cost 24 cents, cars with big tail fins were popular, and Slinkys and Hula Hoops were the top selling toys. That year the Soviet Union launched the first successful spacecraft, and the long-running television show "Perry Mason" debuted.
It was April of 1957. A woman by the name of Towns was starting the second year of a four-year highway contract for the area above Somerset when she needed to move. Townsend took over her contract.
Since then he has submitted the only bid on the four-year contract. Twice a week he ensures that letters and packages are delivered to the people living in the Ragged Mountain area. His roughly 100-mile route takes him "quite a ways" up the Muddy Creek area along County Road 265. He delivers as far as the old Flying M Ranch, now the Lazy CF Ranch, at the headwaters of West Muddy Creek in summer. In winter months the last six miles of his route along the Muddy are closed due to lack of maintenance.
When he started the job the roads were a little less civilized. A year earlier the Paonia Project, which included the Paonia Dam and Reservoir, was authorized and construction was beginning.
His first vehicle was a 1947 Jeep CJ 2A, modeled after the Jeep he drove in the Army Infantry during the final days of World War II, said Townsend. To drive two days a week he was paid $62 or $63 per month, which bought groceries for him, wife Beebe, and eventually, their three children. "It wasn't much money, but compared to a civilian job paying one dollar an hour, I suppose, it was good money," he said.
Early on, before the Somerset Post Office was built, he picked the mail up at the house of Elizabeth Bartolo, whose front porch was the designated post office. Pete Tullio built the new post office, said Townsend, and in 1963, unincorporated Somerset was assigned the ZIP Code of 81434.
Townsend grew up in Paonia and in 1943 married Beebe, a North Fork native and Hotchkiss High School graduate. They raised two sons and a daughter. His parents, his older brother and three sisters arrived from Baca County late in 1933 when he was 9 years old. It was during the Dust Bowl era and Baca County got hit hard, said Townsend, recalling being engulfed in 60-foot-high walls of dust that turned daylight into almost complete darkness.
They escaped in a camper his dad made out of a Ford Model T and drywall board, and headed for Paonia, a trip that took four years. His dad, Charles Townsend, was a minister. In 1933, said Emery Townsend, Paonia was known for having more churches per capita than any other town, and his dad was called by the Lord to go there. He found the Friends Church, which had been closed for 18 years, and re-established the congregation. After living in the camper a few weeks, the family moved into the church basement, recalled Townsend.
Their first spring the whole family found work thinning sugar beets for Shorty Leonard, who hauled them up to his place in a wagon pulled by mules. Everything was so green and there was so much water, said Townsend. After the dust storms of Baca County, "It was like heaven to us."
Townsend remembers that in 1934, his dad performed the marriage of Earl Clock and Laura Shaeffer in a grove of aspen trees near the West Muddy. When Charles got home, he told the family that it was the most beautiful wedding he'd ever seen.
In fall, his dad would haul apples to neighboring states. But in 1936, while delivering apples in Texas, he was killed instantly when, while working underneath his truck, it fell off of the jack. The townspeople responded with so much kindness, said Emery. "I've never seen, as a little boy, such a town that went to our aid as they did."
Townsend has worked many other jobs over the years. After the war he and Beebe worked for 14 years at the Pan American Seed Company in Paonia, where they earned 75 cents an hour. When he first started his route, he and his brother-in-law tended 2,000 apple trees at the old Fornier place on Garvin Mesa and sold apples to the truckers. At the time, he said, apples sold for 60 cents a bushel. "We had plenty of apples," he said. But the money from the route bought the groceries.
He also worked 13 years in the Somerset Mine. During those years, when he would often work the graveyard shift, Beebe would drive the route. After U.S. Steel closed the mine he performed trail work for eight summers for the U.S. Forest Service. They understood he needed to keep his route and let him work deliveries into his schedule.
No matter the weather or how busy they were, they have never missed a delivery. He credits Beebe, who was a big part of carrying the route. On occasion they asked a family member to help out. When a massive mudslide happened on Ragged Mountain in 1986 and closed off Highway 133 above Paonia Reservoir, Townsend was granted access over private property across the base of Ragged Mountain. During one particularly heavy snow year he delivered mail by snowmobile. He never did get to deliver mail by horseback, which he said would have been a nice tribute to the Pony Express.
Except for the time he slid off the road and got a five-dollar fine for having bald tires, in 60 years of driving the route Townsend said they only had one accident that resulted in any damage.
It was fall and he'd set up a hunting camp on Kebler Pass. Beebe was planning to drive up once she finished the route. On her way down she passed a hunter's camp off to the side of the road, and coming down the road was a topless Jeep with a bunch of guys in it, heading straight for her. They were all scanning the hillside and not watching the road, he said. As the Jeep headed her way, she ran off the road and into the bar ditch, but the Jeep managed to hit the vehicle anyway. She was fine, but she had a concussion and the people from the camp took care of her.
He says the money has been nice, but his greatest reward was in getting to know the people and becoming a part of the Ragged Mountain community, where he delivered mail to three generations of ranching families, including the Sperrys, McIntyres and Volks.
Driving the route gave him the opportunity to meet and get to know some very interesting people. He and Beebe got to know Emma Kanzler, an early settler who arrived with her husband by way of Kebler Pass in a covered wagon. Kanzler is a bit of a legend in the area, said Townsend, and they knew more about her than anyone.
Kanzler and her husband originally homesteaded in the area now known as Crystal Meadows. They eventually settled downstream along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Her husband, who traveled a lot, died young, and she spent her final years living on her own. Townsend said she welcomed a lot of people into her home and served a lot of meals to the sheepherders and cattlemen passing through the area. In her later years he and Beebe would look out for her and take her out to eat once a month.
He's also seen a lot of wildlife. One February morning while eating lunch at the old Creek School House he thought he saw a black lab on the hillside. After closer inspection he discovered it was a black mountain lion with three white stocking feet. He said that while he ate lunch the cat crouched down and sprang, coming up with a rabbit. He watched as it ate the rabbit and hunted a while longer.
About a week ago he was driving about 30 mph along the highway, not in any real hurry, when a bald eagle appeared maybe 15 feet in front of his car, appearing to escort his car. The eagle flew ahead of him for about a half mile. "It was the most beautiful experience," he said.
While he's seen some changes, including the building of the Paonia Dam and Reservoir, some things stayed much the same, including his route. One thing he's glad to see is that the big ranches where he made his deliveries weren't all split off into subdivisions or 40-acre parcels and still remain intact, although some were sold. He gives credit to the gas companies, which he said have taken good care of the people and the land. Their drivers also are courteous and always give him the right of way.
He's also had the pleasure of working for several postmasters, most of them "really nice women." When he started his deliveries, Shirley Wardlaw was postmaster. Later it was Billie Ungaro, then Barbara Barnes. There were some temporary postmasters in between, including one man who oversaw the transition to computers.
Asked about the biggest changes he's seen in his 60 years, he said those changes are happening right now with the mine closures. Until recently his contract went up to bid every four years. Now he has to bid every two years. These days he drives his route in a Kia SUV with front-wheel drive and all the safety features. He says it gets around really well.
His 1947 Jeep, he said, has been promised to the grandkids.
He also lost Beebe in 2015. In her last few years when he'd run the route she'd ride along.
The Somerset Post Office is planning a celebration for Townsend this month to mark his 60 years of service. They celebrated his 50th anniversary, too, said Townsend. One of the higher-ups from the Grand Junction office was there and, thinking it was a retirement party, asked him what he planned to do.
He said he planned to keep working. "It fits in well with a guy that's supposed to be retired," he said. It keeps him busy a few hours and puts a few dollars in his pocket. He also plans to keep bidding for the route as long as he can. "If my eyes betray me, then I would retire."
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, the Delta County Board of Commissioners called a special meeting to consider the board's response to the Bureau of Land Management's preliminary Environmental Assessment (EA) concerning the lease parcels proposed for the December BLM sale.
Several people from the North Fork were present to provide input.