Updated: March 2, 2014 at 4:42 pm
Talk about your living history.
To most Colorado Springs residents, the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site is a place to see an authentic homestead ranch where 19th century pioneers and then 20th century cowboys lived and worked cattle and raised crops in rustic conditions.
Many times I've walked through and tried to imagine what it was like to cook on a coal-burning stove that doubled as the furnace for your home. Or to milk cows each day. Or ride horses as you round up cows and calves.
Doris Dillie doesn't have to imagine what it was like. She lived in the Rock Ledge house.
The 91-year-old Dillie recalls vividly her life there from 1946-53 and she has shared her memories in the new book "Rock Ledge Ranch (As I knew it) The White House Years" published by the city.
The 80-page book details her life as a young wife and mother living in the house with her beloved cowboy husband, Donald, their daughter, Connie, and son, Meldon.
But more than just an account of events on the sprawling cattle ranch and farm, Dillie has written a love story that is funny and painful and absorbing and left me wanting to know much more about the life she and Donald shared during their 60-year marriage, which ended in 2001 with his death at age 80.
So I called her up and spent a morning with her. I left urging her to write more about her life.
Turns out Doris and Donald shared an even more compelling, often tragic, life story.
Both came from broken families and were abandoned by their parents.
Beginning at age 4, Donald was bounced from one foster family to another after his father accidently shot himself to death with a shotgun, leaving his mother with four small children and no way to raise them.
"He lived with 11 different families," Doris said. "He never did live with his parents."
Life started out just as poorly for Doris, whose father abandoned her mother with five children.
"She had an eighth-grade education and no money," Doris said. "She had no choice but to put us in the Myron Stratton Home."
Doris lived at the Stratton home for Colorado Springs' poor and needy on the city's south edge from age 7 to 13. And while she was treated well, it was a painful experience.
"At first, we were all there together," Doris said. "But I spent the last two years there alone. I couldn't understand why I was left there."
Her mother eventually remarried but she was slow to reclaim all her children.
"I knew I was loved," Doris said in a voice that revealed the pain of the distant memory. "But I couldn't understand why she didn't want me."
When her long-lost father resurfaced and tried to take her out of the home, Doris said she rebelled and caused the home to expel her, forcing her mother and step-father to take her back. Doris wiped her eyes recalling the events.
Her step-father and mother tried to farm near Hanover but were forced to move to Fountain as the Great Depression, coupled with drought, windstorms and a plague of grasshoppers left them broke.
It was a fortuitous move for Doris because she enrolled at Fountain High School and soon met a handsome young cowboy: Donald Dillie.
"I saw him and I fell in love," she said, smiling wide at the memory. "He was the handsomest . . ."
Again she wiped her eyes as she thought of Donald.
"It was love for him, too," she said. "Neither of us ever dated anyone else."
She wasn't deterred even when her brother-in-law warned her to avoid the rough-and-tumble Donald.
"He was too old for me," she said. "He said: 'Stay away from that Donald Dillie.' But I didn't listen."
Donald graduated and got a job while Doris started her senior year. But before she graduated, they decided to elope to Raton, N.M.
"Everybody said we were way too young and it would never last," she said. "It was 1940 and we knew war was close. Donald would have to go and we didn't think we'd have much time."
They married and Donald was drafted, ending up in the Army as a chemical weapons expert and infantryman serving in England, France and Germany.
Doris was home with their newborn, working a job and living with her two sisters. They lived together until the war was over and troops came home. For Donald, that was December 1945 and that's where the book begins.
It recounts how they ended up on the ranch - Donald was hired as ranch foreman - the conditions they found in the house and a series of events they experienced that were funny, frightening and even enlightening.
Doris vividly recalls calf-wrestling in the kitchen, a Shetland pony Donald wrangled up the stairs of the house, Snooks the dog saving the ranch, the painful ordeal of Cowboy the horse, a near-tragic swim party in the reservoir out back, a great flood on Camp Creek, Donald's crippling accident and much more. (You have to buy the book to learn the details!)
But I was even more captivated by life events like daughter Connie, who was 4 when they moved in, and the arrival of their son, Meldon, who was handed to the couple by a relative bent on abandoning the boy much the way Doris and Donald were bounced around as children.
The reaction of Doris and Donald made perfect sense once I knew their own heartbreaking childhood stories.
The book ends when the ranch was sold in 1953 and the Dillies moved to Calhan to a farm owned by a relative.
But, of course, there was so much more to the lives of Doris and Donald. There were hard times when the Calhan farm failed forcing them to move to Colorado Springs and take jobs. And there were successes, including Donald opening a landscaping business with Meldon a few years after his return from serving in the Marine Corps in 1968.
Most of all, there was plenty of love between them, which came through when Doris recalls in the book their final words to each other. As I said, it's quite a love story.
And the story extends to her children still today. Doris now shares her home with Connie, now 72, and Meldon, 67.
"I'm happy to have them with me," Doris said. "They seem happy. I'm very lucky."
Actually, I was the lucky one to meet them all and hear their stories.
Hopefully, Doris will keep writing and tell everyone the rest of her story.
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