Gabriel Scarlett, The Denver Post Emory Townsend, 93, stops for a lunch break while delivering the mail on June 20, 2017 on his route from the Somerset, CO post office. After 60 years of delivering mail and many other jobs, Townsend says that it is more of a vacation than a job.
SOMERSET — Emory Townsend pulls his Kia Sorento off Colorado 133 near a mailbox and fills it with letters and packages, just as he has twice a week for the last 60 years. He turns his gaze toward the Raggeds Wilderness, its serrated ridges furrowing into lush benches of aspen and spruce.
It was about 25 years ago when Townsend returned home from his mail route and announced to his wife, Beebe, that Ragged Mountain was very likely the oldest in Colorado.
“She kinda looked at me all puzzled like a wife does when she can’t figure ya out and she asked me, ‘What makes you figure that’s oldest mountain in Colorado?’ ” he says, his blue eyes twinkling with a pending punchline. “I said, ‘Well, I was just looking at it today on the mail route and I decided it had more wrinkles than any other mountain in the state.’ ”
He unleashes a guffaw with that one. The ever-jovial 93-year-old storyteller has been delivering letters and packages under the shadow of Ragged Mountain since 1957, long before there was a Colorado 133 or a Raggeds Wilderness. He likely is the oldest mailman in the game. He is one of the longest serving employees with the U.S. Postal Service.
And has he got stories to tell.
Emory Townsend, 93, loads a mailbox on June 20, 2017 on his route from the Somerset post office.
“He has an amazing recollection for being 93 years old,” says Matt Davis, his co-worker at the tiny, wood-paneled Somerset post office. “He is just spot-on, to the dime.”
He and Beebe decided to sign up for some part-time postal delivery work in 1957. It was, he says, for “a little bit of money to buy groceries.”
He was running an orchard of 2,000 apple trees. She was a boss at the Pan American Seed Co. in Paonia. They were raising two girls and a boy. Twice a week, they drove their 1947 Willys Jeep CJ — the same style he drove for the Army in 1945 in Japan — the roughly 100-mile route together, getting to know their mountain neighbors and admiring the dramatic peaks and bucolic ranchland of the North Fork Valley.
“It’s such a beautiful trip past the mountains I never tire of,” he says, stopping at every mailbox to share stories with a visitor. “This is something that keeps me young. I guess that’s why I keep doing it.”
Townsend was one of eight kids. He is the only one left now. Dad was a pastor in Kansas and Oklahoma before he tried his luck as a farmer, homesteading a plot in southeast Colorado’s Baca County, where he grew broom corn.
But dust drove the family out of the region in 1933. Townsend was about 10 when he saw the first dust storm of many that would decimate the Great Plains. It was about 60 feet tall, dark black and preceded by a herd of stampeding jackrabbits.
“That was a sight I will never forget,” Townsend says.
The family huddled in their farmhouse with dampened kerchiefs over their faces.
“I remember dad lighting a match and holding in our face and we couldn’t even see it,” he says.
The Townsend family escaped for the hills in a camper shell built on the back of an old Model T, taking three weeks to drive to Paonia, where his dad heard a church needed pastoring.
Along the way, the kids hopped out and pushed the rig up Old Monarch Pass, where they camped at the top and Mom did laundry and they ate eggs laid by chickens in crates strapped to the side of the camper.
They spent their last 13 cents on gasoline in Delta and arrived penniless in Paonia. The family picked cherries and thinned sugar beets to scrape by that first winter, living with dozens of other Depression-ravaged families in a makeshift campground.
Townsend was working at a Paonia dairy when he married Beebe on Aug. 1, 1943. It was a Sunday. They honeymooned in Ouray, swimming in the hot springs pool on Monday. He was back milking 21 cows before dawn on Tuesday morning.
Beebe died in August two years ago. They were married for 72 years.
“We were hoping to make 75 years but … ,” he says. His list of departed friends and family is long.
Emory Townsend, 93, stops for a lunch break with his dog Molly while delivering the mail on June 20, 2017 on his route from the Somerset post office.
Today, he drives his route with an 8-year-old spaniel named Molly in his lap.
“She’ll wave at you. Come here, Molly. Wave,” he says, as his pocket-sized pal balances on her back legs and shakes her front paws.
Over the years, he served in the Army, ran the apple orchard, worked as mechanic at the U.S. Steel coal mine in Somerset, and delivered Pan American Seed Co. petunias to Florida, California and Oregon.
In 1945, he was in Japan.
“Boy, Hiroshima was really tore up,” he says of his visit mere weeks after the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city. “Everything was just flat. It was pitiful. But everyone there was really nice to us.”
He also ran a trail-building crew for the Forest Service on the Raggeds Trail after the region was designated as wilderness in 1985.
His adventures in central Colorado are the stuff of legend. He captained old Jeeps and Model A’s up Beckwith and Oh-Be-Joyful passes to hunt elk and fish for trout for several decades before those roads closed to vehicles. He’s led packhorses up Spud Pass and the Devil’s Stairway from Dark Creek and along the furrowed ridges of Ragged Mountain.
“You can ride a horse up there, but it’s gotta be a good horse,” he says.
There was the time he rode up on a blushing nude woman bathing in North Anthracite Creek. He remembers vividly the black mountain lion he saw several decades ago pouncing on rabbits in the dead of winter next to the long dormant Ragged Mountain schoolhouse that in his youth was a dance hall. One day a bald eagle hovered not 20 feet above the hood of his car as he delivered mail. A friend told him it was God guiding him home.
He remembers when dozens and dozens of small farms lined Muddy Creek and East Muddy Creek in the north end of the valley. Back then he delivered mail to more than a hundred mailboxes. Now it’s a handful of mega ranches, with even the smallest selling for more than a million and a half dollars and his route covers about 30 permanent residents, some the third-generation of families he went to school with in Paonia.
“Life sure is different now,” he says. “The most significant change is the change I don’t like. It’s people and their selfishness.There’s too much focus on self-gratification.
“When I grew up, the week’s highlight was Sunday dinner with the neighbors and maybe an afternoon ball game,” he says. “I wonder if people today don’t realize the simple enjoyment of being with friends and being a good friend and being helpful to people is the most gratifying thing in life. It isn’t about making the most money.”
This month, the U.S. Postal Service had a party to celebrate his 60th year of work. His three kids were there. They live within a couple minutes of his home near Paonia. Most of his 10 grandkids were there, too. As were his 24 great-grandkids. And his 16 great-great-grandkids. There are six Emorys in the family.
“These 60 years have been quite fantastic and rewarding. Not money-wise but to my life,” he says. “I realize it’s kind of the frosting on the cake of all my other jobs and activities in my life.”
Emory Townsend, 93, stops for a break while delivering the mail on June 20, 2017 on his route from the Somerset post office.