Strange how life sometimes takes a turn, as it did for Jeanne and Roger Tilkemeier. And this was a good turn. No. Rather, a great turn! When Roger returned home from the Korean War, having served four years with the Navy, Roger and Jeanne anticipated Roger working with Jeanne’s uncle who owned ranches in Nevada and California.
“Her uncle’s superintendent was 68 years old and wanted to retire,” explains Roger. “I was interested in the agricultural business and her uncle suggested that I be his super’s understudy and learn how to run the ranches. Jeanne had grown up with horses and this would have been perfect.”
But, before Roger began working, Jeanne’s uncle died and everything was disbursed. And the couple’s life took that turn.
Roger took a job with Kaiser Aluminum in Los Angeles, then Denver, where he was involved in marketing the very first aluminum beer can for Coors Brewing Company, before moving to Vail. The couple moved to Vail in 1970, where Roger took a job with Vail Associates and, at one time, was responsible for Meadow Mountain.
“There was a livery stable and a little rodeo grounds on Meadow Mountain at the time,” recalls Roger. “The equipment wasn’t good; the horses weren’t as healthy as they might have been. Nobody really paid any attention to the place. The people that managed it had a continuing lease, but they had to notify us six weeks prior to its expiration in order to automatically renew—and they missed the date.
“I called a friend who ran Cheley Colorado Camp in Estes Park, who ran about 200 horses and said that we had a problem and an opportunity. At first he said he was too busy, but when I told him that I would be his partner, he agreed to work with me,” he shares.
So, the “partners” bought equipment and about 50 horses and hired someone to run the new place. They called it Grouse Creek Livery and the brand was a “GL” with a bar below the letters. “There was a house on the mountain at the time, so we used it for the employees,” says Roger. “We rehabbed a real chuck wagon and did a chuck-wagon dinner.
We also provided jeep tour service that brought folks to the dinner where I would do a monologue on Western history and the how the chuck wagon came about.” Eventually, Vail Associates sold Meadow Mountain to the U.S. Forest Service, who wouldn’t allow a stable to be there anymore. “So, we had to find another place,” says Roger. “The forest service took me up to Spraddle Creek where they had the rights to a small spring in the area, which they had developed. They had also built fences and had flattened an area, which was perfect for a new stable.” And, soon the stable had a new home.
By that time, like his wife, Roger had become a very accomplished horseman and was training his employees. “I learned what to look for and how to evaluate a horse for a ‘dude’ operation,” says, Roger with a smile in his eyes. “To begin, it had to be rock solid. It had to be gentle, bomb proof. So, if someone throws a fire cracker, [the horse] looks at it and thinks, ‘Yeah, that’s all right.’ ”
Eventually, the stable was sold to a couple who, after graduating from Kansas State University had come as wranglers, even spending their honeymoon in a sheep camp wagon at the stable. They ran the operation for 25 years.
By this time, Roger was hooked on a ranching life. “It was within me, and I found a way to be involved with everyone who owned a ranch,” he says. One of those men was rancher, Perry Olson who owned 4 Eagle Ranch. “Perry was what we call a ‘livestock man,’” Roger says. “He ran a no-frills operation and didn’t have anything at his ranch that he didn’t need. He was my mentor when it came to the livestock business. He would call me for help in the middle of the night and I’d saddle my horse and meet him at his ranch. And we go places in that truck that I would not have driven in a jeep.
“He’d tell me what needed to be done and if what I did was wrong, he’d correct me. And I learned. He was an amazing teacher.
“Early Vail was a wonderful time,” says Roger, reflectively. “I am old school and the culture of Vail and the people who started it are inside of me. It was a time when people depended on each other and helped one another. I remember, early on, driving from Denver to Aspen to ski at Aspen, when Jeanne and I noticed a ‘thing’ going on in the Gore Creek Valley when we came down Vail Pass. Of course, it was the beginning of Vail.”
Roger and Jeanne were some of the lucky ones—the ones who came to live in Vail when the town was in its infancy. It was a time when everybody knew each other. When EagleVail was “Eagle Vail” and people thought that the place was too far out of town for anyone to want to live there! “We moved here at a time when every resident worked in every way to make this area strong in every way,” Roger says quietly.
“The people who come here today have no idea of what it was like in the beginning. I am so happy that Jeanne and I were able to be part of it all.”