Born on a ranch in the Colorado Rockies, George Decker never knew his mother. She died of uremic poisoning two days after his birth. As was custom in those early times, relatives stepped in to care for the infant. Baby George was sent to live with his maternal aunt and uncle, first for a few days, then weeks. His stay eventually stretched to 19 years.
Decker, now 82, recently completed a memoir, detailing the life of a young boy who grew up cowboying in the rapidly fading American West. His adventures are detailed in straight talk right out of a cheap drugstore novel.
Adventures on the ranch
Decker became an authentic cowboy on his adopted ranch, learning to care for sheep and cattle, and developing a love for the West. He rode his first pony at about age 3, helped tend the “bum lambs” that had also lost their mothers and eventually traded up to run a small herd of cattle. He spent all his spare time exploring the streams and canyons of the small ranch and nearby Bureau of Land Management property.
“Myrtle and Ormand [Hurt] were my mom and dad as I was growing up,” Decker wrote, “and their subsequent children, Orville, Walter and Nettie Mae, became my brothers and sister.”
The Hurts also cared for another boy, Bud Pross, the son of Decker’s great-uncle. Quite a bit older than Decker, Pross helped keep an eye on the little cowpoke and brought him along on his chores, once allowing the little boy to nap in the shade while he built a fence.
“One day he came back and I was gone,” Decker wrote. “Hearing a commotion, he checked. There I was, trying to walk up to a wild range cow to pet her on the face. He said she was blowing snot all over me but didn’t have nerve to continue the charge as I kept advancing.”
Decker tagged along for all kinds of adventures on the ranch, shadowing an eccentric shepherd named Tex Reams as he herded the sheep wherever he could find pasture—including on BLM land.
“I loved to stay with Tex in the sheep camps, and he would, of course, tell me instances of things that happened to him,” wrote Decker. “One was about being asleep in the tent and hearing a noise. When he rolled over to pick up his .30-30, instead of feeling the cold steel of the rifle, he came up with a handful of warm fur. It was a curious mountain lion that nearly tore the tent down getting out. Tex said he didn’t know who was the most startled, he or the lion.”
Decker continues to explore, although he’s left cowboying behind for amateur archaeology. He and his wife live on a small horse property overlooking the Colorado River, and his home reflects his love of all things old. His research has led him to areas around Mesa, Delta and Montrose counties, where the long history of the Ute tribes reveals itself in petroglyphs carved into the Indian sandstone. Occasionally, he leads trips out to study the ancient carvings.
Exploring, preserving the past
Decker and his trusty old dog, Durango, recently lead a ragtag group of older explorers eager to see what could be found on Whitewater’s cliffsides.
The group went through an old fence, then jumped over a small creek as nimbly as possible and began the trek up a sloping hillside, dodging low piñon tree brushes and stands of cactus. Decker led the way to a spot with numerous petroglyphs carved above small caves that may have served as temporary shelter for early humans.
This part of the country was well traveled by tribes going back and forth seeking game. The types of drawings and their sophistication led Decker to believe that talented and not-so-talented artists left their marks to indicate the types of animals in the area and leave maps.
Along the trail, those with sharp eyes regularly picked up evidence of granite flecks that could have been left behind during the making of spear points and arrowheads. Any real evidence of these items has long since disappeared from the area. Decker refers to items of historical significance as “leave ‘ems,” admiring what he finds but leaving it in its place.
Today, evidence of wildlife can still be seen along the minimally marked trail. Decker took the opportunity to regale the group with the story of the time he came upon a large wolf while exploring a creek bed as a youngster.
“He looked at me and I looked at him,” Decker said. “I was really small and young. I guess he decided I wasn’t worth the trouble and ran off. Those days are gone now. You don’t see those animals around here anymore”
His voice sounded a little wistful— it was that of a cowboy remembering days gone by.
Want to learn more about western Colorado’s archaeological sites?
The Chipeta Archaeological Society meets at 7 p.m. the last Wednesday of the month at the Montrose United Methodist Church. For more information, email Decker at email@example.com or call Dennis DeVore at 256-7887.
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