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A drop of Blue Mesa’s fascinating story with David Primus on the Kooler Lifestyle Podcast Ep24

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00:00:00 David Primus
And it was like the biggest crowd the local library had ever had. We had to turn away people at the door. And it wasn’t because of me. It was because of the subject matter. And the subject matter interested old timers that remember the valley before the dam was. Created but also a lot of people like myself who never saw that valley before it was flooded, hopefully and and since then I’ve given many, many. Presentations all over the Western slope and I. Met a lot of old timers that were really gracious in sharing their stories and photos with me and my slideshow evolved. And eventually I thought I need to document all this in a book.

00:00:48 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Welcome to the Kooler Lifestyle podcast. I’m your host, Matt Kuehlhorn, and I’m excited to have you join me as I interview community members and business leaders from the communities in which I live, work, and serve through my business Kooler garage doors. We’re going to bring you highlights on characters in our communities. Why? Because Community matters, and I want to know more about who is behind our business and leadership in order to understand and support the Community. Fabric that our relationships make up, and collectively, we can build stronger communities that support our lifestyles, our youth, and our health. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Kooler Lifestyle Podcast. I’m your host, Matt Kuehlhorn. And today, I’m honored to have Dave Primus, local historian and author, joining us. And I’m excited to get in this conversation. Dave, thanks so much for your time.

00:01:43 David Primus
Thanks for having me.

00:01:44 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, Dave, you and I don’t know each other. And I’m curious, where did you grow up?

00:01:51 David Primus
I grew up in the Denver area. Right and. I came here to gut the gonna scenario when I was 21 to go to school, OK?

00:02:03 Matthew Kuehlhorn
So you’re a Western alumni?

00:02:06 David Primus
I am very good.

00:02:07 Matthew Kuehlhorn
What did you study?

00:02:10 David Primus
I studied chemistry and physics and. Graduated and never did a thing with either one. But when I was in high school I was really interested in computers and that was a while ago and so there was no formal training or anything in computers, but. Umm. I was in a kind of a club and taught by a couple of volunteer teachers after school and anyway I was really into that and and was able to get a job as a student in the computer department at Western right and then after I graduated I was hired full time. So basically my career since then has been in technology and luckily I was able to make it work through a handful of jobs. In the Gaussian.

00:03:08 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Country, yeah. Have you lived in the valley pretty much since coming to school?

00:03:12 David Primus
And and on. Yeah, I’ve lived here since 1978 and I’ve lived in the Gunnison area.

00:03:22 Matthew Kuehlhorn
What do you love about this area?

00:03:28 David Primus
A lot.

00:03:29 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, perfect. Fair answer.

00:03:30 David Primus
Yeah, I’ve been here a long time and, you know, initially I think was attracted to it because of its rural nature. My grandfather was kind of a mentor to me and he grew up in Steamboat Springs in the early part of the 1900s. And the his he made his living in Denver, but his heart was on the Western slope and. I went to Steamboat with him a lot of times when I was a kid. And and he used to hunt and fish in the gunneson countries, you know, his whole life. And so when I. I started out at CU in Boulder. I really didn’t like it very much and I dropped out for a year and then when I was looking for a place to go to school, they said I’m moving to the Western Slope and Gunnison for a variety of reasons. Pulled me in a little bit. And I’m really glad it did.

00:04:31 Matthew Kuehlhorn

00:04:32 Luke
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00:05:11 Matthew Kuehlhorn
And I can only imagine and I. Came out to this valley from Michigan in 1997. And in my time I’ve seen significant change and. In your time, how would you describe the changes that have been occurring in this valley? And really like all of Western slope, right? But.

00:05:34 David Primus
Yeah. I would say thankfully. The changes haven’t been as impactful as places like Telluride. And partly I think that’s because the the main town. Is right near the ski area. Of course, Crested Butte is near the Crested Butte ski area, but Gunnison’s the valley is big and relatively and Gunnison separated, you know, by 30 or 35 miles. Nina makes a difference. And you know, at dynamically, I guess there’s a lot of people. I used to work for Crested Butte Mountain Resort and I know that business intimately back in the 90s and they wished you would have grown faster, but it hasn’t grown as much as some places. Let me put it that way, Steamboat for me. About the same year, early 1960s, the ski area started in Steamboat. I skied there the first year when I was a kid. And Steamboat has changed so much more dramatically than the Gunnison country in my opinion. Again I think because steamboats like 3 miles from the ski area and so. Yeah, it’s changed, but not as much as it could have. And you know and and you know, Crested Butte really hasn’t grown as much as some of those places like Steamboat and Telluride in my opinion, yeah.

00:07:05 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, I would agree with that.

00:07:07 David Primus
And, you know, I I just want to say that. One of the great things about the Gunners and country is the economy. Is has been fairly healthy through the entire time I’ve lived here. You know, go to a town in the Midwest that’s about the same size and it’s done it fair. So, you know. Growth and economic viability are not bad. Things. Measure less. They’re out of control. Yeah, my opinion.

00:07:37 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, I would agree. I do have my deets correct. Dave, you recently published a book beneath Blue Mesa that’s fairly recent. Is that correct?

00:07:47 David Primus
Yeah, I I published the book in got it done and published it in November. It’s called beneath Blue Mesa, the Gunnison River Valley before the reservoir and. Alright, yeah, I won’t bore you with the long story, but basically the story is I. I had been giving historic slideshows. My my passion is Colorado and especially Gunnison country history. And I’ve been giving. A slide shows at the local library for years, and. The library and asked me to do my railroad presentation again and I said, you know, I’ve done that a couple of times. I got this idea. But if we start at the Lake City Bridge and I find all the published pictures from the Lake City Bridge to the dam and put them in order, I’ll just do a slide show like that. She said I’m game and it was like the biggest crowd the local library had ever had. We had to turn away people at the door and it wasn’t because of me, it was because of the subject matter and the subject matter interested old timers that remember the valley before the dam was. Created but also a lot of people like myself who never saw that valley before it was flooded, hopefully and and since then I’ve given many, many. Presentations all over the Western slope and I. Met a lot of old timers that were really gracious in sharing their stories and photos with me and my slideshow evolved. And eventually I thought I need to document all this in a book because otherwise that history would be lost, you know, there was pieces and of of it published but but really not the detail and so. So anyway, I put together this book and you know, it was about a five year effort and I really had a great time doing it. And it’s a, it’s a, it’s intended to really tell the story of what was there before. And and you can, if you want to, you can use it as a tour and start at the Pioneer Museum and then by mile marker it’ll tell you where to stop and look at all the what’s covered up. Versus the pictures that you’re looking at in the book. It has over 200 pictures that most of which have never been published before. Wow. So anyway, it’s not. It’s been pretty successful in the Gunnison country so far, and I’m pretty excited about it. Thanks for asking.

00:10:25 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, I’m pretty fascinated by it. And the the timing is a little surreal in the sense that currently the Mesa is so low. Are there rare components in that history that are starting to? Reveal themselves physically.

00:10:43 David Primus
Oh, absolutely. I mean, especially in the upper parts of the reservoir in what I call the Isle of Basin, basically this side of the aisle boat ramp. Where there were ranches and. You know, on A and in that in the Gunnison River Valley also there was quite a few little resorts like Neversink and Coopers used to be resorts. Most of that stuff is not, you know, really visible anymore because it’s been removed. But but around Iola, the little town of Iowa, which was right at the Iowa boat ramp, there’s a fair amount of foundations that you know have been exposed for three or four years and may be exposed forever. And one of the most notable things that that Iola is the, the base of the schoolhouse flagpole, which is a concrete base that was put in, in in probably the 40s and it’s inscribed with the local school children’s initials and some cattle brands. And so that’s that’s an iconic landmark that’s really neat to see if you go down there.

00:11:55 Matthew Kuehlhorn
And when was the Mesa formed?

00:12:00 David Primus
Well, they really, they started construction in about 1961, OK. And it was completed in 1965 and it took five years to fill the first time. Yeah, until 1970, yeah.

00:12:17 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Are there? I guess my question is how in depth, how deep does that valley go? And you know from the an observer who’s never seen it, I can imagine he goes deep but. What are we? What?

00:12:31 David Primus
Are we talking about now 350 feet at the dam? So at the at the very West End, it’s about 350 feet deep. And of course at the upper end when even when it’s full, the the town of Viola is underneath about 80 feet of water if it’s completely full and of course it’s not full now, so that’s exposed. But you know the the interesting thing to me topographically I guess is that. With you. You’re in this big valley in in Gunnison. And then you go West and you go through the Gunnison River Canyon. And that’s a Canyon. Yeah. And then it opens up into Isle of Meadows and then it closes down again into a in a Canyon that goes past Elk Creek Marina. Then it opens up into the Bay of chickens, another big Meadow where the little town of Saboya was. And and then it closes down again. You don’t realize this really, but at the middle bridge, that’s a little Canyon. OK. Yeah. And then it kind of curves around the river, curves around underneath the Dillon pinnacles and then you get to the little town of Sapinero which is another open valley and then of course you have the Black Canyon. So, so there was a series of canyons through the entire 23 mile stretch that are. Covered up and you don’t really realize it unless you are on a boat with a depth Finder and you. Yeah. And you know and you can kind of tell, yeah, that you’re in a little Canyon, yeah.

00:14:00 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Fascinating. Fascinating. Do you have historical knowledge of when that dam was being put into place? Was there was it contentious or folks in this area all for it?

00:14:14 David Primus
Yeah. A lot of people ask me that. A lot of Anon tried pretty hard to figure that out, and to the best of my knowledge and what I’ve been told by people that lived in Gunnison or Crested Butte or Montrose was that for the most part, though, the local people here were fine with it. Because, you know, there was this big promise of all the recreation dollars it would bring to Gunnison and in the early 1960s and late 50s. You know, Ghana, there was no ski area in the late 50s. And the railroad had pulled out in 1954 and so beyond US and was a little economically depressed as certainly was Crested Butte because the big mine closed. Yeah, and. And so people were eager for anything that might, you know, help their pocketbook a little bit. That said, of course, the. People that had been ranching underneath or what’s now underneath the reservoir, many of them have been ranching for four or five generations. When their ranches like Old Stevens, there’s a pull out there, that’s the Stevens ranch. And they’d been ranching there for, you know, multiple generations just sitting in in about 1876 and so. That was hard for those people and the the people. And then there was, you know. You know, 15 or 20 resorts that were covered up and so there was a fair amount of people making a living with either ranching or running resorts or both. That, you know, had the rug pulled out from under them. And. And both emotionally and financially. And one of the reasons this is is because. That dam had been threatened since the 1930s. And you know about 1935, we had this success, if you could call it that, of building Hoover Dam, which is like need and true, and then the Bureau reclamation. Started looking all over the West for canyons to plug at and and Ricky Santorelli, a friend of mine that grew up in in Saponaro. Told me, you know that his grandfather remembers these burette people coming in and and staying overnight and had all these maps spread out in the dining room in their hotel. And made no secret of the fact that they were gonna damn it. So for 30 years that dam was threatened. And because it was threatened, the ranches and the businesses and the resorts that were down there couldn’t get bank loans because the bank would say now not, well, loan you any money. You know, and and land land sales halted for 30 years. So when the government came in with them in a domain and paid fair market value that that whole Rand was depressed economically because there was no recent sales and so people didn’t even get a fair shake. For their businesses and ranches and so forth. So it was a really sad thing for. You know, two 300 people that made their living there. Wow. And of course they are. You know, many of them have passed on, but certainly people are still alive that were in, you know, 15 years to 20 years old at the time and remember it well and they are very bitter about it for understandable reasons.

00:18:16 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, that is understandable. Interesting. I’m going to test my ignorance a little bit here and my understanding with some of the dams and some of the canyons that have been plugged. Was that there was maybe a A 60 70 80 year lifespan to some of the infrastructure that went in. With regards to the Blue Mesa Dam. Is this an piece of infrastructure that’s set up for the long term? Are we going to, you know, we’ll ask the historian in the future? I guess the question is, you know, with regards to the Blue Mesa Dam and its functionality, is this set up to run? Is there, is there silk building up to take out some of the? The functionality of it.

00:19:07 David Primus
You know, I’m not an expert on dam construction, but I have obviously read and researched a lot of that. And so my my comment on that is that Blue Mesa is an earthen filled dam. In other words, it’s not a concrete structure. And so you know it’s 350 feet deep so it, you know, it’s about 400 feet tall or something like that and you know and you don’t really realize that I guess you can look off off the downstream. Edge of it and kind of see the rock kind of making a, you know, very slight slow. Yeah. And there’s a identical slight slope on the upstream side. And so it’s a huge earthen dam and if built right, earthen dams last. I’m not going to say forever, but a long time. So I don’t think that damn itself will fail in the near, you know, future or even the far future. Yeah, yeah, it silts up and you can tell that by, you know, the Isle of Basin. And there used to be like a railroad grade through there that was, you know, four or five feet above the surface of the metal. And that’s pretty much invisible. So there’s four or five feet of silk at least. In the Isle of Basin. But I again I’m not an expert but my my thinking is is that we are so close to the headwaters so that Taylor the Gunnison, the East River, there’s not a tremendous amount of silt load in that 30 or 40 miles of a river up above it. To silt it up like say Powell Powell is a whole different story as is made and. You know, so those things, especially Powell because it’s going to trap all the silt behind its dam before it gets to me. Yeah, those will silt up far ahead of, I think Blue Mesa. So I think in terms of physically, I think it’s a long term. A piece of infrastructure, I think. Politically and. Really, whether it really was ever necessary to begin with, as a much better question, I was given a tour where the the former Superintendent of Curecanti was on my tour and he commented to the group. He said, you know, today this would never have been built. And I said, well, of course, environmental reasons, Gunnison, sage grouse, those types of reasons. He says, yeah, that, but that’s the one I’m talking about. He says this is too small. Of a drop of water to make a difference with the entire Colorado River drench. And that I think we’ll see shortly in the next 10 years. To the point that, in my opinion, in order to save Paul and Mead and allow them to continue to generate hydropower. They may make some interesting decisions about upstream reservoirs like flaming gorge and Blue Mesa and Navajo and really pull those down to the point that they may not even generate our in order to save the downstream reservoirs. You know, no one knows what’s gonna happen. Yeah. But, you know, it’s kind of sad also in terms of, you know, the some of the best fly fishing. Around the world, many people say, was in that stretch of river that was covered up. That’s right. It’s really sad if we really didn’t need this reservoir that it was built to begin with.

00:23:00 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Fascinating water and the management of it. I mean, there’s definitely politics that play economics. Water is a is a resource that is becoming more and more important especially in the in the dry West and.

00:23:17 David Primus
Yeah, absolutely.

00:23:18 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Knows what’s gonna play out forward. I love the. I love the history. I think it’s important for us to remember and and to know the history because there’s this lineage and and. There’s a there’s a connection there. And Dave, my question is what would you like people to know about our history? What might be? Something that we don’t currently know.

00:23:44 David Primus
Well, I think, I think the first thing that comes to my mind is. We all, and I’ll just call them European settlers of North America, kind of think that. We came here and we settled this nation. But. We didn’t. They’ll you know, I mean, we. You know, there was 10,500 years ago there were Native American Folsom people on top of W Mountain, probably living there year round, and of course. The entire, you know, 10,000 years when when we came here. You know the the youths were were all over this area and this was this the Gunnison Valley and and kind of southwestern Colorado was was their home. And and they lived here in a way that was in my mind kind of symbiotic with the environment and. And successfully. And they were, you know, nomadic people a little bit. They’d move around. They may not have been in the Gunnison country in the winter, but you know, they were here in, you know, in the summer. And, you know, we came here and. Drastically changed things in the last 200 years and. And so I think that’s the perspective I think people should think about when they think about. You know. The Gunnison valley. But also, you know, the nation in general, I guess, is that, you know, we are. We’re newcomers here and we haven’t necessarily. Done a lot of good, you know, and you know, we have all this technology and sometimes we regret maybe what we get. I mean dam building is. Is great for hydropower and flood control and irrigation and and growing the food we need to to survive. But I think. We went overboard in that in the West, you know, and I think that we’re still not now with with you know dams being considered for decommissioning and and. You know, I don’t know. I think that’s kind of that the historical perspective I think people should have and certainly the. The history since they about 1850 when the first explorers came through here is really interesting to me and the history prior to that is. Yeah, this is not written and so there’s less information about it. But the more I realize about the goes to country, the more I have, I guess, a lot of respect for the Native Americans and how they were able to. Ohh. You know. Live. In this land successfully, yeah.

00:26:54 Matthew Kuehlhorn
I love that perspective and this morning I saw some temperature readings of negative 20s and I can only imagine what it could be like on top of W Mountain.

00:27:04 David Primus
Right. But remember W mountains about 10 or 15 degrees warmer because it’s higher. That’s right. And so that that’s right. That’s maybe not a lot when it’s 20 below, but it’s something.

00:27:14 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, the microclimates are real, that’s for sure. Yeah. Dave, what are you excited about over the next few years? You know, kind of pulling on history, seeing what we’ve learned, what we know and and what’s coming forth and.

00:27:28 David Primus
Well, I I think personally what I’m excited about. Is diving into some sort of new historical research project, and I’ve been concentrating on the Blue Mesa area for like 20 years just because of. Happenstance in a way. But you know, I’ve got some ideas about. Taking some of the first written records of of of people coming through the goddess and country, as I said there in the 1850s, actually there are three exploration expeditions and those are fairly well documented and talking about what they were seeing and I’m really intrigued about. Up them often mentioning, you know, stir up high grasses where and it’s hard to exactly pinpoint exactly where they were. But in that general area now, it’s not a stir of high grasses, it’s more sagebrush. And so I’m interested in maybe doing a deep dive into trying to get a glance at what this country looked like when European settlers first came here and documented it. Yeah, so that. That’s kind of. Kind of where I’m pointing my own, you know, efforts in the next couple of years. And you know, I I guess I’m also because of the blue maser research, I’m really interested in water in the West and the entire Colorado River drainage, the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Long long term law of the first first person that makes a claim to water. As long as they continue to use that, water has that right and I’ll be interested to see. How that transpires all you know and evolves over time because in the West that makes made some sense then, but does it really make sense now? And it’s a sticky situation and it’s, I’m really interested in kind of following that a little bit, yeah.

00:29:47 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, that’s a that’s a whole other conversation as far as water, water rights and and I agree, right, there is some stickiness there. And Oh yeah, the populations grow around, you know, in our desert climates it’s only going to become more and more stickier.

00:30:01 David Primus
Yeah, there’s a saying. You’ve probably heard that whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting. Yes, yes.

00:30:13 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Dave, you’ve been giving a few slideshows and I’ve seen, um, you know, events on where people can learn about the the book and some of the information that you’ve uncovered and are there more of those coming up? Do you have any other events in the near future?

00:30:30 David Primus
Umm. I just did one at the local library and I’ll probably do more of those of either at the library. Have also talked to some of the people at Western and they’ve talked about having me doing one at at Western. So nothing’s really I’m doing one at the, you know, at the nursing home in a few weeks, just, you know, for some of those people I’m sure that’ll be fun. Because a lot of people there probably remember it. Yeah. But they’ll, you know, watch the newspaper. And I’ll probably do one in Crested Butte fairly soon too, so awesome. But watch the papers and I’m sure you’ll be able to catch one, yeah.

00:31:15 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Where’s the best place to pick up your book?

00:31:20 David Primus
The best place to pick up the book is at Abracadabra, which is used to be called the Bookworm in Gunnison on Main Street. I think it’s at the Crested Butte bookstore, or at least they can order it for you. And then it’s also on Amazon. But I would appreciate, you know, giving the business to the. The local vendors first. If you live in the goddess in area, yeah. You don’t order it on Amazon, yeah. And it’s also available on Amazon in Kindle format, so you can put it on your device and actually kind of take it with you as you drive. So that might be a option.

00:32:00 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Awesome, awesome. Alright, well for the listeners, watch the newspapers, see when the events are coming up for for Dave and live presentations, and then the books are at local bookstores. And if you need the audible or another route, Amazon is it. Dave, any closing thoughts for listeners?

00:32:26 David Primus
I guess my. The closing thought, I suppose is you asked me earlier what I really like about the Gunnison country. I’m not sure I exactly answered the question. Because you know. I love the opportunities for recreation. I love how rural it is, how I can go out South of town into the sagebrush and not see anybody all day long if I want. But what I really like is this community and and that’s what. You know, keeps me here and I think it’s what keeps a lot of people here. I’ve known a lot of people that Boomerang moved away. Few years later they came back. And you know what I think as of the people here and that, you know, the the, the college or now the university with the young people there and I I just think it’s a great community. And I guess my closing thought is, you know, don’t forget that. That’s what holds us all together. It’s this community of people. Yeah, and. Yeah.

00:33:35 Matthew Kuehlhorn
That’s, I love that, Dave. Thank you for mentioning that. And you know, I’m going to pull in the knowledge of history and knowing this traditional kind of. Component that goes into our current day community even to the point of beyond the European settlers like all of this, threads together to where we are today. So beautiful. I appreciate your work and I’m glad you’re out there uncovering the stories and bringing them forth and. Certainly appreciated your time and and talking with you.

00:34:09 David Primus
Thanks again for having me. I really appreciate.

00:34:11 Matthew Kuehlhorn
It enjoy your day.

00:34:13 David Primus
You too.