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Dad ran the Conoco station and the electric plant

Article by Thomas Wills

Villa Grove – May 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

I’VE BEEN THINKING about my father this past month. Maybe getting to be middle-aged has something to do with it; that and I’m beginning to realize that my father and I are a lot alike in some ways. Both of us are stubborn and terminally self-employed for one thing.

The interesting thing in my family is that my father could have been my grandfather — in age that is. My father would have been 102 years old this year. He was born on a homestead south of Joplin, Missouri, in 1899. His name, William Henry Wills, was the same as his father’s.

Born in the 19th century, my father lived through a good portion of the 20th, dying in 1969 when I was 12 after suffering from a decade of chronic emphysema. William, or Bill, as everyone called him, inexplicably missed being drafted into the horrors of World War I, though he was in his late teens at the time.

He might have been just a year too young, being 17 in 1917. Or it might have had something to do with the fact that he had no birth certificate. My father was born at home, and the birth date was entered into a family Bible (as were many people in those days), but the government may not have known he existed until he got married, bought real estate, or paid taxes.

He was drafted into World War II, however, when he was 44 — just a couple of years younger than I am now. Since he was a few years too old and not educated, (he’d gone to school only through the third grade), he was not sent into combat with the infantry after basic training, but was sent to work in the wheat fields of Nebraska instead — taking the place of younger farmhands who had been sent off to war.

Later, my Dad blamed his emphysema on his short stint in uniform. Telling a story of the recruits being subjected to the old-style mustard gas as part of their training, my Dad claimed that he’d been issued a faulty gas mask and that his lungs had been scarred by the experience. But probably his nearly life-long habit of smoking hand-rolled cigarettes made from dry, harsh, Bull Durham tobacco also had something to do with it.

My father was an extremely frugal man his whole life, or at least he was after his Army and wheat-worker years. I have no details about what he did during the depression of the 1930s, but it had something to do with a first failed marriage (one of four marriages) — and that resulted in his being drafted into the Army, a childless, single man without much in the way of worldly goods.

Later, he proudly recalled having saved nearly every cent he made while in the Army and in Nebraska, and after the war he partnered with a friend and bought a gas station back in Joplin. This didn’t work out (something to do with his partner’s lack of sense and a pistol loaded with blanks), and the late ’40s found him in Colorado with a new wife and a gas station in Buena Vista.

This was apparently my father’s life’s work. He was a mechanic, the old-fashioned kind, who pumped gas, changed tires, sold you a cold soda pop, and could rebuild your engine if it needed it. He would have been lost in today’s world of high-tech auto electronics, but he was a master at keeping old cars on the road. While in Buena Vista his wife inherited a little money and he bought the car he would have until his death — a 1937 Willy’s Coupe painted a sort of serious dark gray; with a single seat and a big trunk that had the capacity of a modern compact pickup.

Then the second wife died and there was an extremely brief marriage to a third wife, a school teacher from Alamosa. Afterwards, my father came to rest in the tiny town of Villa Grove.

[Villa Grove from Memory by Thomas Wills]

VILLA GROVE WAS ONCE on the narrow-gauge line of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, where ore was loaded from the mining district around Bonanza. By the early 50s, the tracks were gone, and the town was seen by travelers as just a dusty wide spot on the state highway.

Villa Grove: A dozen wind-weathered homes, a bar unofficially called “Louie’s Beer Joint,” a general store, and a Conoco station. A post office in the front room of a house with a sign that also proclaimed it was the Trailways bus station. All in the shadow of the nearly vertical Sangre de Cristo mountains, at 8,000 feet, where the high desert winters brought only a couple feet of snow a year but the winds drifted against anything taller than the scrubby native sagebrush.

The diesel semi trucks roared through town at 65 miles an hour. There was no reduction in the speed limit because Villa Grove, although being an officially platted town, was never incorporated. To the highway department, it was just a small cluster of buildings that just happened to be next to their highway. Occasionally, a slow or inebriated soul coming from Louie’s late at night would fail to make it across the highway in time.

Dad ran the Villa Grove Conoco station and drove the school bus to Bonanza every weekday morning to pick up and deliver the few scattered ranch kids who went to school in Saguache. Every afternoon, he hauled them back.

About 1953 or so, he hired a tomboyish 21-year-old named Lila Mae Winn to pump gas and sell candy bars and pop while he was busy working on cars or driving the school bus. He also needed help with his bookkeeping, which apparently only consisted of books of carbon receipts. He had never seen the need to keep much in the way of records, or file his income tax returns for that matter.

Lila proved useful and soon they were married — 54-year-old Bill Wills and 22-year-old Lila Winn. My sister, also named Lila, was born soon thereafter. The idea of a child was a shock to my dad, who despite three marriages had never fathered any offspring. He’d thought that he was sterile as a result of a childhood accident. As it turned out he wasn’t, and now he was, late in life, a father.

While he was single he had lived in a single room in the back of the gas station complete with a cot and wood-burning cookstove. But once he and my mother married they moved into an old turn-of-the-century clapboard house that was located directly behind it. Heat was provided by coal-burning stoves, but the place was so poorly insulated that a jug of water once froze while sitting mere feet from the blazing potbelly.

IT GETS COLD in the San Luis Valley. There were thirty-below days in the middle of January, and both my sister and I were born in January; she in 1954 and I in 1957. Fate was with our family when my dad and mother made it to the hospital in Salida over snowy roads in their old Willy’s when each child was born. My brother, William Henry Wills the Third (it actually says “the Third” rather than III on his birth certificate) was born in June of 1960; a more conventional spring baby.

Dad’s second avocation was as a silver miner. He staked a mining claim in a gulch off of Kerber Creek about ten miles out of town in the Cochetopa Hills. Over the space of a decade he blasted and dug in his spare time, sometimes with the help of his younger brother, James Thomas, but he never found much in the way of silver. He did build hundreds of feet of damp tunnel and a mine dump and trestle where one could roll the single hand-pushed mine car out on narrow steel tracks.

HE ALSO BUILT A SMALL CABIN on the property, fenced off a field next to the creek and planted potatoes every summer. With such improvements, in a few years he was able to “patent” the mine and receive a deed for the claim from the government by paying $2.50 per acre as required by a mining law that went into effect in 1873.

What I remember most is going up to the cabin and walking around the mine dump with its small mountain of yellow crushed rock that smelled like gunpowder. Across the mine tunnel entrance was a locked steel bar gate that was there not so much to keep trespassers out as it was to keep bears from living in the tunnel. Often my mother stood at the screen door of the small cabin with the children, keeping us corralled as my father disposed of gophers who seemed determined to invade his potatoes every year.

He did this with the tools of his part-time trade as a silver miner; specifically, dynamite. When he discovered a new gopher hole in the potato patch he remedied the situation by shoving in a quarter stick of dynamite with a long fuse attached. Then he would light the fuse and run for the safety of the cabin where we watched. Inevitably, just before he arrived a WHUMP and a huge shower of flying dirt would rise up behind him.

My father was also an honest and very direct man who said what he thought, kept his word, and expected everyone else to do the same. Once a local resident failed to pay his gas-station bill as promised — and apparently he made it very clear that he had no intention of ever paying his bill before he started buying his gas elsewhere. My father retaliated by painting a large sign which he put on the highway out front so that everyone in the upper valley would drive by it every day. The sign said: (The man’s name) is a Liar and a Cheat. I think that man finally paid up.

In a community of about two dozen residents, my father was the big wheel. He owned the entire center of town plus several lots on the other side of the highway. There had been an old house on one of the lots, but a man my father rented it to accidentally burned it down one winter night.

BEFORE THEY WERE MARRIED, my mother asked my father about his finances, rightly concerned about his ability to support a wife and possible family. He told her he “made a good living.” She soon found out that “a good living” amounted to an average of about $60 a month plus what he made driving the school bus. Today’s equivalent would be about $600 in actual spending power. Not a lot for the town’s big wheel.

My dad was certainly not an opportunistic capitalist. For example, when the Rural Electric Administration brought electricity to the San Luis Valley — nearly the last place in the state to get it — the people of Villa Grove said “no thanks.” They did this because of my father who provided electric power to the town at a very low cost (a lot less than REA wanted) with two diesel generator “light plants” that were installed in the back of the Conoco station.

THE POWER WAS PROVIDED on a co√∂perative basis. My dad owned the generators and kept them running, but everyone in town was only asked to pay an equal share per home or business for the cost of fuel and maintenance. The power was kept on until 9 p.m., at which time dad would flash the lights by cutting the power several times. This was a warning that the generators would be shut off in 20 minutes and you’d better finish up what you were doing and light a kerosene lantern if you were staying up late.

When my father became seriously ill in 1963, we moved to Grand Junction so he could be near the Veteran’s Hospital. Some townspeople were reported1y upset when the next owner of the gas station discontinued the cheap electrical service and everyone had to hook up to the REA at some expense.

The Conoco station, the empty lots and the silver mine were all sold to a former state senator from the valley for about $10,000 total. With most of that amount, my parents eventually purchased a five-acre farm on the outskirts of Fruita. My father died at the Veteran’s Hospital in Grand Junction in 1969 and my mother went on to become the librarian at the Fruita Public Library, a job she kept for over 30 years.

In the meantime there haven’t been any growth booms in Villa Grove. The population is still about the same as it was in the 1950s. Louie’s Beer Joint has closed, but the gas station and general store are still there.

Thomas Wills is an artist and the owner of Wills’ Gallery and Books in Hotchkiss, Colo. This originally appeared in the monthly Valley Chronicle, P.O. Box 1412, Paonia, Colo. 81428,, 970-872-2153. Subscriptions are $15 a year.