Steamboat Springs Kathleen Greco clearly remembered that ill-fated day in November 1927 as a nice fall evening in Oak Creek, where she sat doing homework in her living room with the breeze coming through the screen door.
It was then that her half-brother, Bill, burst into the house with the news that Oak Creek Town Marshal Clem Eller had been shot and killed.
According to town historian Mike Yurich, Eller is the only law enforcement officer in Oak Creek history to be killed in the line of duty.
It was W.R.M. Sullivan, also known as Manford “Fat” Collier, who was drunk and selling bootleg liquor at a school dance when the event’s sponsors called in the marshal.
According to the Oak Creek Times article about the incident, Eller and Mayor Frank Watt had managed to remove Collier from the dance, but once the young troublemaker was outside, he turned around and fatally shot Eller in the stomach.
Eller died that night at age 45, and Manford Collier was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison.
“Clem Eller was a good man,” Greco wrote in a letter to her niece and nephew, Vera and Punch George, in 2006. “He was one of the most respected law men in Colorado. Manford Collier was a no good punk.”
Greco recalled the ensuing service for the “tall, quiet John Wayne type” as one of the largest funerals she’d seen in Routt County.
“It was all so very sad,” Greco wrote in another letter to the Historical Society of Oak Creek and Phippsburg. “We in Oak Creek lost one of the finest lawman in Colorado and an asset to our community.”
Mining for history
Greco, who no longer lives in Colorado, sent several letters recalling the event in response to research by Yurich, who looked into Eller’s death about five years ago. That initial research led to Eller’s addition to the Colorado Law Enforcement Memorial at Camp George near Golden in May 2006.
This spring, Eller’s name was added to the list of 19,000 engraved on a wall at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. He and other fallen officers from across the country were honored Friday at an annual candlelight vigil.
Nita Naugle, Tracks and Trails Museum curator, said it’s not just the story of Eller’s death that has captured her interest.
“It’s just that years later, he’s not forgotten,” she said. “And I’m finding it fascinating because a lot of it relates back to these historical times and events.”
According to Yurich’s research, Eller moved to Oak Creek as a young boy, and his father worked at the Keystone Mine.
He married Bessie James, who remained in Oak Creek until her death in 1963. They never had children, and as far as Yurich could find, there are no living relatives of Eller or his brothers and sisters.
During his time in Oak Creek, Eller was much more than a law enforcement officer with a salary of $110 per month.
Greco said he was dedicated to his community, serving on several town committees and taking over as the water commissioner.
His appointment as town marshal in summer 1927 also was symbolic of a shift in power from the prevalence of the Ku Klux Klan in Oak Creek during that time.
“It was a great relief to the community because during the Klan years the town marshal was either a Klansman or controlled by the Klan,” Yurich wrote in a summary of his research. Eller “was well-liked.”
As for Collier, Greco alluded to rumors in her letters that he died in prison in Cañon City.
A lasting legacy
Eighty years later, it’s Oak Creek Police Officer Lance Dunaway who patrols the town of 800.
Although times have changed, Dunaway knows what it’s like to be the town’s lone law enforcement officer and the risks and frustrations that go with it.
“I think it’s great that he’s being remembered for what he did because it is a lot of work being the only cop in a town,” Dunaway said about Eller. “And I would imagine that back in those days, Oak Creek was quite a busy place.
“You think about all the resources we have now to do the job. It had to be a lot harder back then.”
In his summary, Yurich wrote about the tumultuous 1920s, characterized by a growing mining industry and social unrest.
“Considering the time period when Oak Creek was at its peak with numerous ethnic groups, coal miners, railroaders, gamblers, the red light district, bars and pool halls (about 15 of them), it was not easy being town marshal,” Yurich wrote. “But Marshal Eller was able, and did the job until that fateful night in November. The town lost one of its finest police officers.”
And although it happened decades ago, Dunaway doesn’t take the loss of an officer lightly, and he thinks it’s up to the town to keep Eller’s legacy of commitment to community alive.
“The reality is, there are departments much bigger than Oak Creek have never lost an officer,” Dunaway said. “I think the town should appreciate what this individual gave.”
— To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@SteamboatToday.com