'Hazel the Hermit' captivates local author Joe Colwell
By Tamie Meck
Published Thursday, October 27, 2016 9:38 am
Photo by Tamie Meck Samples of some of the tools and household items were part of an Oct. 1 presentation at the Hotchkiss-Crawford Museum by Joe Colwell (second from left) on Redlands Mesa homesteader Hazel Short. Colwell and wife Kathryn (seated at cente
Who was Hazel Short, what was she like, and how did she live?
Those questions have puzzled Joe and Kathryn Colwell since 1990 when they purchased 40 acres on Redlands Mesa where Short lived for almost 50 years.
A few things are known about Short, at one time Hazel Kossler, including the fact she obtained the Redlands Mesa property overlooking the area from the West Elks to the Uncompahgre Plateau in 1940 through the Homestead Act.
The Colwells purchased the land for their retirement about two years after Short moved. Signs of her daily life were recorded in the old buildings and the thousands of items that littered the property. While the massive amount of trash, most of it hauled to the dump, created a great deal of work for the Colwells, it also offered a serendipitous opportunity to learn more about Short's life.
"Hazel was a very private person," said Colwell during an Oct. 1 presentation at the Hotchkiss-Crawford Historical Museum titled "Hermit of Bean Ridge: A Story of Hazel Short and Redlands Mesa." The talk was part of the museum's continuing series of presentations on local history.
While sorting through the debris, Joe Colwell tried to imagine how she lived, what her days were like, and the kind of a person she was. In peering into her past, Colwell said he often felt like a peeping Tom. He learned what she ate, where she slept, and what animals she kept. Numerous past-due tax bills indicate that Hazel and her husband, Walt Short, were prone to paying their taxes late.
Colwell, who retired after 27 years with the U.S. Forest Service, has authored two books. While considering a novel about Short and life on Redlands Mesa, he interviewed a long list of relatives and neighbors, assembling an oral history of her life during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. He learned that she was a descendent of Captain Theophilus "Cap" Head (1823-1920), a Civil War veteran and the Gunnison marshal at the end of the 20th century. He is buried in Delta County.
While he found a lot of conflicting information, he discovered one common thread. "Virtually no one knew much about Hazel," said Colwell.
Relatives interviewed shared that she had lots of cats and dogs and raised pigs and chickens. She was also known to run people off her property with a shotgun. She probably didn't like kids, or people in general. She is believed to have met Ronald Reagan on a beach while living for a short time in California. She and husband Walt built their cabin from logs hauled in from Leroux Creek. Walt was always dragging old car parts onto the land, most of which the Colwells hauled away.
Short is referenced in Colwell's most recent book, "Zephyr of Time: Meditations on Time and Nature" (Lichen Rock Press). He imagines that Short would be angry at all of the attention he's giving her.
The interviews also gave the Colwells some insights into the history of Redlands Mesa, its school houses, roads, the post office that once served the area, and an old stage road. The mesa was dubbed Bean Ridge, said Colwell, because many of the inhabitants were so poor they lived on beans, and their land was so dry that they could only grow beans. Short's mother, Dora, lived on the mesa and stayed with her daughter late in her life.
Other remnants of Short's life include lilacs and yellow rose bushes, matrimony vine, an assortment of bulbs and other flowers. Great horned owls are also believed to have nested on the property during her time and still do.
She was also a bit eccentric. A family member told Colwell that when she died, $7,000 in cash was found on the property, which paid for her funeral.
The Colwells have been unable to find a photo of Short and are also curious to know what she looked like. Joe is hoping that one of her relatives may have one they are willing to share. He would also like to know more about early life on Redlands Mesa.