Tom Ross: Strong men, stronger grips |

Tom Ross: Strong men, stronger grips

Tom Ross

— Have you ever had your hand nearly mangled in a crushing handshake from a well-meaning farmer or rancher?

I have.

The biggest hands I've ever encountered belonged to elderly dairy farmers — the kind of guys who from an early age milked 32 cows each day by hand. A dairy farmer named Elmer Federwitz, whose hand I once shook, had fingers like bratwurst. He hurt me without meaning to.

Colorado ranchers have big hands, too, though they rarely do any milking any longer. Perhaps it comes from tossing hay bales off sleds all winter and jamming rough posts into an upright position while mending fences.

Steamboat resident and Colorado State University history Professor Emeritus Daniel Tyler reminded me this week of the powerful hands of ranchers and farmers during a talk at Library Hall in which he presented his newest book, "WD Farr, Cowboy in the Boardroom."

Tyler was introduced by Elk River rancher Jay Fetcher, who said the story of WD Farr's life reminded him a great deal of his late father John Fetcher, an engineer by training. The elder Fetcher came here to build a cattle ranch and wound up helping to pioneer a ski area and champion storage projects to conserve water in the upper drainages of the Yampa River for local agriculture and municipalities.

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Farr's story is eerily similar. As a teenager, he cowboyed for a couple of summers in California Park north of Hayden. Farr ranched near Carbondale with hard-won water from the Crystal River and went on to build stockyards in Greeley. He took a leading role in the creation of the Windy Gap water collection system on the upper Colorado, which ultimately delivered much-needed water to the Front Range.

WD Farr and John Fetcher had really big hands.

Fetcher's hands were knobby in his old age but no less strong, and he used them to great effect as he spoke and gestured in public meetings — always getting his point across.

Tyler begins a chapter in his new book by describing the pride that Farr took in his own set of hands.

"During the final years of his life, WD would often pause during interviews and hold up his hands, as if to offer an image that would communicate better than words the real nature of his youth," Tyler wrote. "Gnarled, calloused and roughened by time, the crooked fingers conveyed WD's enormous pride in the dignity of labor and the lessons he had learned from his father, Harry."

You can find Tyler's new book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.

And the next time you're introduced to an elderly gentleman with unusually large hands, brace yourself.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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