My husband’s family, the Dickinsons, fascinate me. Originally from Texas, they relocated to Colorado in the 1950’s and made their livelihood from horses, cattle and dairy cows. In June 1997 we traveled to Ellicott to celebrate Frank Dickinson’s 80th birthday. On the high plains outside of Colorado Springs, Ellicott is really just a highway intersection surrounded by endless fields and dirt roads. But for the Dickinsons, this has long been home. Frank’s birthday party is like a scene from a documentary, complete with a live country band, southern Baptist preachers, a local congressman, and blue cream punch. His friends and family tell stories and testimonials that move us all, especially Frank. He sits quietly on the stage in his denim shirt and white cowboy hat, tears in his eyes as one person after another comes to the microphone to tell their part of his life. It’s obvious that this is a man who has made a profound impact on his small community. People nod and clap, showing their love and appreciation.
Frank and his wife Rhonda are handsome people – a black and white photo of a teenage Frank appears to have been stolen from the set of a 1930’s movie. His rugged good looks must have sent many young women’s hearts into overdrive. At eighty, he is still handsome. In the dim light of the barn, with a wide shadow stripe across his face, he looks like a handsome man of forty. Ronda is still beautiful, with a sweet smile that spreads easily across her aged face. She makes elegant clothes and lacy pillows, her style overflowing in Southern femininity. Their living room is filled with framed bible verses, wood cutouts of cows, and Frank’s quarter horse championship trophies. This house has seen a dairy farm, hundreds of animals, the meteoric rise of a world-famous horse, and the growth of a fruitful family – all within sight of its front porch.
Chisman’s gas and grocery store is across the highway from Frank and Rhonda’s and until recently was the only gas service in the 74 miles between Colorado Springs and Punkin Center, another high plains town to the east. The old building is cluttered with candy, stuffed birds, cow skulls and postcards that haven’t been replaced since the early 70’s. Many of the postcards are of Silky Fox, Frank’s best quarter horse and local star. Kitty corner to the gas station is the home where Frank’s son, Darol, started a successful longhorn cattle company which he later moved to Ohio. A deserted blacksmith shop is the only other building at the crossroads, the Dickinson cattle brand barely visible in the peeling paint of the old front door.
Ellicott does not have wide horizons, yet its roots run deep and the stories run long. There’s the farmer who burned his barn for the insurance money, another resident who was tricked out of money by a striptease dancer, and the town nut who regularly piled decaying cows in other people’s pastures. There’s the road engineer who moonlights as a sex novelist, and the trusted farmhand who turned out to be a cocaine dealer. The characters are larger than life here – perhaps even more so against the backdrop of a two-minute town.
I notice that my husband fits in here, not in an overt way, with a country accent or honed cattle roping techniques, but in a subtle, bone-knowledge way that even I can recognize. He exudes a certain satisfaction that is new to me. He strides across the ranch driveway in his boots, pointing out old buildings, childhood haunts, and recounting tales about his cousins. Stories spring up like flowers after a heavy rain, rich and colorful, and I sit and listen, watching the sun set over the high plains.