Sonny Carpenter was born and raised in a world that lots of people would call paradise. It's a world that is no more.
The site of Carpenter's Fishing Resort — built by Sonny's great-grandfather, J.J. Carpenter, and where Sonny was born — has been inundated by the waters of Blue Mesa since it began filling in 1965.
And although that world is gone, Sonny and his wife, Evonne, residents of Delta since 1994, have compiled a collection of photo albums and scrapbooks and published articles that tell a pioneer's story of the lost community of Cebolla, the Carpenter family's one-time home.
Sonny was born at home in 1936 just across the Gunnison River from Carpenter's Fishing Resort and the Sportsmen's Lodge. The first lodge building was constructed in 1889 but burned two years later. J.J. Carpenter received a $2,000 insurance settlement and immediately built a second lodge.
"It was built even before the railroad came in," Sonny says. "They cut the lumber for the lodge on Red Creek."
Later, J.J. and his sons — including Lloyd, who was Sonny's grandfather — did more lumber jacking on Red Creek for a contract to supply 2,000 ties for the railroad, Sonny said. Sonny's father was Hugh, and Sonny's given name is Hugh Jr.
The best money was made those days guiding fishing parties, Sonny says. Sonny and Evonne have photos showing trainloads of guests arriving at the resort and of visitors in genteel attire congregating on the lodge veranda.
These were the early days of Western Slope settlement and there were occasional groups of Indians who came through the area and sometimes would camp near the lodge for a time.
Sonny grew up in the out-of-doors and learned a self-reliant way of life from three generations of rugged men. His family were western Colorado pioneers who lived with the natural resources they had ready access to. They prospered in a land of bounty. The fish and the game thrived everywhere in an environment that was natural and open and more alive than even today's government-drawn boundaries can provide. Their pioneer spirit was nurtured and family bonds were strengthened in the unsettled land that favored the ready and the able bodied.
Good times were many. A short trip was all it took to fill a creel with enough fat trout to feed a family. "I can't remember ever going out that we didn't get a five-pounder as the smallest one. After a while you'd get tired of reeling them in," Sonny remembers.
A favorite food of the river's trout, a nymph known generally by anglers as the hellgrammite, was plentiful. Local anglers called the adult form a willowfly, and they would swarm "by the billions," Sonny recalls. He says he knows where habitat for this natural trout prey still exists in the area.
There was also the lodge's pet bear, Nellie, who was adopted as a very young orphaned cub. Known as "J.J. Carpenter's pet bear," Nellie "brought fame to the community (Cebolla) by her unusual traits ... Nellie's most picturesque feat was to sit on her haunches, grasp a bottle of beer between her front paws, and drink the liquid with a pleased facial expression," reads a newspaper account of her death around 1910 at about 15 years of age. Sonny recalls that Nellie's favorite brand was called Neps.
People learned to be tough when they needed to be because a life surrounded by wild lands could bring out untamed spirits in men, too. Family tragedy struck when Sonny's great uncle, Howard, was murdered while on a deer hunt in 1912. Howard was known as a top hunting guide in the area, and was the guide for a deer hunting party of five other men into the Steuben Creek area above Cebolla. It was Oct. 1, 1912.
According to published accounts, the party saw no deer that day, but during the hunt two shots were heard echoing through the canyons. Back in camp, one of the party said he had shot at a bird out of boredom. But no one ever accounted for that second shot, and Howard never returned to camp.
It would be nine years before Howard's body was finally found in 1921. Howard had been shot in the head and the tragedy was determined to be not accidental.
In 1938, a man living in Detroit, Mich., who had spent time in the Cebolla area, confessed to Howard's murder. He was acquitted of any crime because his story did not match up with facts, and Howard's murder remains unsolved to this day.
Sonny's interesting life has included encounters with some rich and famous people. In the late 1930s, Carpenter's Fishing Resort was sold to W.A. Moncrief, Sonny explains. Moncrief was one of the most successful of the early crude oil wildcatters in Oklahoma and Texas. The Moncrief family still has property in the area, Sonny said, and they are still in the oil business. The Carpenters retained fishing rights on their former property after the resort was sold, Sonny remembers.
Another famous acquaintance of Sonny's was America's first orbital astronaut, John Glenn. Lots of people have the image of Glenn as a smiling, silver-suited young space hero and, Sonny recalls, "He was a very pleasant man." Sonny had the chance to met Glenn while helping build his mountain home at Crested Butte.
Sonny's chosen trade as a skilled carpenter also brought him employment on the Blue Mesa Dam and Crystal Dam construction projects.
The Sportsmen's Lodge building — the stately, two-story landmark structure at Carpenter's Fishing Resort — was saved from the rising waters of Blue Mesa. It was moved into Gunnison where, Sonny says, it serves today as housing for college students near the town's City Market store.
Evonne grew up in Oklahoma. She and Sonny met when she was working at the Jointed Rod Resort. He proposed on their second date, and following tradition of the respectful generations that raised him, he also asked her father for permission to marry her. They met in August 1957, and have been married since December that same year.
Although Evonne didn't grow up in the western Colorado wild lands that Sonny knew so well, that life and the memories of it have become a part of her life, too. They have two grown daughters in Delta, and they enjoy an extended church family at Grand Mesa Southern Baptist Church in Cedaredge.
Evonne and Sonny are looking forward to a big Evans Family reunion that will take place in Gunnison at the end of June. Sonny's mother was an Evans, a family of pioneer homesteaders at Doyleville whose original cabin can still be seen still standing where it was built.
A highlight of the family reunion will feature a presentation and slide show by local Gunnison businessman and historian Dave Primus titled "Beneath Blue Mesa" about the history of the area including Sapinero, Iola, and Cebolla before the dam was built.
It will be a grand tour through the annals of local history, and it will stir many memories of the life Sonny grew up living – part of the history and heritage of a vanished paradise that once existed on the Western Slope.blog comments powered by Disqus