The North Fork Valley has lost one of its richest sources of local history. Lee McMurtry "Chuck" Farmer passed away Nov. 3. Farmer shared his passion for local history through presentations, field trips, and for the past few years, as president of the Hotchkiss-Crawford Historical Society.
Friends immediately began recalling his sharp memory and ability to readily pull facts to the surface. "He had a mind like a steel trap," said Hotchkiss-Crawford Historical Museum volunteer and society board member Karen Martin. He also had a knack for research, was always digging up something interesting, and knew his way around the World Wide Web.
Farmer also knew people around the country who were connected with history and would book them to give presentations at the historical society's annual meetings, which always attracted a big crowd.
"His pet peeve was history that was erroneously written in newspapers or books," recalled longtime friend Kathy McKee in an email. "He was a stickler for being sure of the facts." Or as he would say when a story of unknown authenticity was printed, "As the story goes..." added McKee.
McKee, a fourth-generation North Fork area native who has written extensively about local history, joined the historical society to learn more about her ancestry. She soon found herself learning about the history of the entire area, thanks to Farmer. "Immediately Chuck helped find some information of my grandmother's brother who had died in the flu epidemic of 1918," wrote McKee. She was soon volunteering at the museum, ultimately becoming historical society secretary and museum curator.
Where he got his passion for local history, no one could say for sure. But some believe it had something to do with the fact that wife Mary Louise is a descendent of the local Hotchkiss family that first settled the area in the early 1880s, and for whom the town is named. Chuck and Mary Louise were married in 1960 in Montana and moved to the Hotchkiss area in 1975. They documented the Hotchkiss family history and their paths to the North Fork area in the self-published 2009 book, In the Footsteps of the Hotchkiss Brothers, one of many local and regional history books available at the museum.
"For someone who never grew up in this area, he probably knew more about the history of this area than any native," said McKee.
"He was well-rounded, he knew a lot," said museum membership coordinator Karen Lacey. She also cut his hair for the past 20 or so years. When her son was little and learning to play baseball, Farmer offered up some advice on the art of pitching that helped him become a better player.
Lacey said she nominated Farmer for the Hotchkiss Chamber's Citizen of the Year award many years ago. Because he isn't out in public a lot, he wasn't that well known around town and didn't get selected, said Lacey. But a lot of people called upon him when they needed help with a genealogy or history question.
She called him the "investigative guy... You can't believe how many people from out of state call the museum and ask him to help," she said.
"He worked hard to promote history and its value so that people have a better way of understanding it," said Paonia author and historian, David Bradford. "He was like a walking encyclopedia, always pulling out facts."
He also had great organizational skills, said Bradford, who for the past four years worked with Farmer and other local historians, including McKee, on a project to document the history of Black Mesa, using Danny Cotten's vast collection of historical photographs. Cotten passed away in 2015.
"It is our hope that it still can be a dream come true in the near future with those who have worked with Chuck on the project," wrote McKee.
She also shared that Farmer researched extensively at the Delta County Court House, and at the Delta County Museum with close friend Jim Wetzel, who recently retired.
Farmer was always willing to lead field trips to cemeteries and homesteads and other interesting sites of historical interest. He often gave talks on local history, portrayed characters from the past, and even led educational walks through downtown Hotchkiss, sharing the history of the old buildings. Shortly before he fell ill in late October, he was scheduled to lead a group on a tour of the petroglyphs in Smith Fork Canyon.
Friend Susan Grover responded to the news of Farmer's passing with a text about how he inspired her husband Phil's genealogical research. She quoted a favorite saying of Farmer's: "Get at least two sources to confirm a 'fact.'"
"Phil also admired Chuck's curiosity and willingness to delve into far corners," wrote Grover. "We can only imagine how huge his contributions to the Historical Society and how the community will miss him."
Farmer presided over his last historical society board meeting on Oct. 8, two days before his 80th birthday, recalled McKee. Mary requested that everyone sing Happy Birthday. "Cupcakes were baked, coffee made and cider served," wrote McKee. "We gave him cards and listened to him talk of his childhood and life beyond."
The family suggests memorial contributions go to the Hotchkiss-Crawford Historical Society or to HopeWest Hospice in Delta. Farmer's obituary can be found on page A6.