Matron of the Valley

Elaine Gay keeps the West alive

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The farmhouse that sits at the end of County Road 18C hosts no strangers. Its front steps welcome no unwanted visitors.

Its kitchen serves no uninvited guests.

The woman who lives there wouldn't stand for it.

Newcomers and old friends hold little distinction to Elaine Gay, an 83-year-old Routt County rancher who happily extends an invitation for food and fellowship to everyone who comes to the ranch where she and her son, Bill, work.

No guest of Elaine Gay leaves without having experienced graciousness at its best, local historian Jayne Hill said.

"It's just the hospitality of the West that she exudes," Hill said.

Gay attributed that hospitality to her late husband, Bob.

He never allowed anyone, regardless of background, to leave the ranch around mealtimes without first joining them for a meal, she said.

He believed in offering an empty seat to both friends and unfamiliar passersby, she added.

"It could have been an old bum or a walk-in, and he would have asked them just the same," Gay said.

Decades ago when the Yampa Valley showed few signs of development, travelers faced a difficult task of finding a place to eat and sleep, she said.

People traditionally followed the custom of asking strangers to stay awhile and rest before heading out again, Gay said.

"It was one that Bob loved, and he wanted to keep alive here," she said.

Gay continues to honor her husband's practice of extending a warm welcome to her visitors.

She still holds large dinners for friends and neighbors and takes great care to ensure her guests depart with a full stomach and light heart.

Cooking for larger groups allows her to experiment with new recipes, she said.

At the suggestion of one admirer, Gay entered a few of her creations in the Routt County Fair last fall.

C.J. Mucklow, Routt County Extension Service director, asked this summer if she wouldn't mind submitting a few recipes for the fair when entries appeared to be low.

Gay received an award a few years ago from 4-H members for her commitment to 4-H programs.

"She's a real matriarch for the community," Mucklow said. "And she makes a mean banana cream pie."

Gay holds the respect of many in the valley for her unrelenting commitment to preserving the land around her home.

Bob and Elaine Gay for 25 years opposed a plan that originally called for the construction of a large ski resort in the Lake Catamount area.

Their outspoken opposition to a development that could have brought 10,000 new people to the valley led to substantial conservation efforts on the land that surrounds their ranch.

But Gay would rather share coffee and rolls with people who know little about the decades-long dispute than share how she stood up to developers who viewed the Lake Catamount area as a prime location for skiers.

She said she doesn't understand what the fuss is all about.

Gay visits local fourth-grade classes every year to offer children a first-hand account of ranching in the Yampa Valley during an earlier era.

Don Schwartz, a fourth-grade teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary School, said Gay's stories hold his students' attention.

"The kids were enamored with her," Schwartz said.

As a storyteller, she speaks in a way that would put her at ease with any audience, he added.

Gay and her son, Bill, offer children who have never been exposed to their way of life an opportunity to see ranching in a different light, Hill said.

Children who view ranches solely as places to ride horses, leave with a fresh perspective of the historical importance of ranching to the Yampa Valley, she said.

"When they leave, the kids know that there is a whole lot more to (ranching)," Hill said.

"The wonderful gift that they give these children is that it's a privilege to be a rancher."

Living on a ranch with three young children in the dead of winter taught her to be self-sufficient, Gay said.

Her farmhouse's location off the main road kept the number of winter trips into town to a minimum.

Bob Gay would saddle a horse and head to town for groceries, but his wife and children stayed behind.

"You couldn't get out, you couldn't get to town, you couldn't get away, so you just stayed," she said.

Gay milked cows, churned butter, canned fruit, raised a garden, helped in the hay fields and cooked for hired help.

"But you had to," she said. "Nearly every ranch woman had to do this at that time, so I wasn't exceptional at all."

During the winter and spring months, Bob and Elaine Gay usually left their car by their mailbox, which sat along a main road. They used a horse-drawn sleigh to go back and forth between their car and their house.

When their car sat outside their farmhouse and could not make it through the snow or mud to the main road, they used horsepower.

With a team of horses hitched to the car, one person sat on the car radiator and drove the team while the other person sat in the car and tried to prevent the car from running over the horses' heels.

Their rudimentary method of getting around hardly mirrors today's convenient modes of transportation, Gay said.

"People don't know what winter is like because they have all kinds of stuff that comes right to your door," she said. "In those days you had to pick your days."

Regardless of the weather, Gay said she and her husband faithfully attended the Saturday night dances held at the country schools.

"That was people's entertainment before they kept the roads open," said neighbor Vernon Summer.

Summer, who lives a few miles down the road from Gay, first met her in grade school in the late 1920s.

He said he often sat down to a meal with his former classmate and her husband.

"She's just a likeable person and a good cook," Summer said.

As much as she has witnessed a gradual transformation in the appearance of the valley she has lived in for so long, Gay said, she has not observed a change in its residents' behavior.

Newcomers, who eagerly extend a hand of friendship, have replaced neighbors who have moved on or passed away she said.

"I think they do that wanting it to stay like it used to be, and I think that is why you find them to be so nice," Gay said.

Western hospitality still thrives in the place she said will always be her home.

"In this valley, I would have to say very much so."

To reach Danie Harrelson call 871-4208

or e-mail dharrelson@steamboatpilot.com

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