Shirley Ela, Wiliam Ela, and Steve Ela

Recorded September 14, 2009 Archived September 14, 2009 43:03 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: MBY005718


Steve Ela (46) talks with his parents, Shirley Ela (85) and William Ela (86) about their long standing family involvement in the fruit farming industry.

Subject Log / Time Code

The Ela family begins by explaining what brought them to the North Fork Valley. Shirley and Bill both talk about their family’s long heritage in fruit farming.
Shirley talks about meeting Bill after he returned from the US Navy.
Bill talks about his first entry into the fruit business as a box boy and a peach thinner. When he married Shirley is when he oficially came into the orchard business.
Shirley and Steve share their early memories of working on fruit orchards.
Bill served as a Judge in Colorado. He talks about his greatest accomplishment, bringing work release programs into Colorado.
All talk about the different changes that have happened and are happening in the fruit growing industry.
All talk about what they are most proud of. Shirley and Bill are most proud of their children, and their family’s honorable name. Steve is most proud of bringing smiles to people’s faces when they bite into delicious fruit!


  • Shirley Ela
  • Wiliam Ela
  • Steve Ela

Recording Location

MobileBooth West

Partnership Type



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00:06 I'm Steve Ela Ela. I'm 46 years old. Today's date is September 14th 2009. We're in Paonia, Colorado and I'm here with my mother and father.

00:18 I'm Shirley Ela and I'm 85 years old. Today is September 14th 2009 and we're here in Paonia, Colorado.

00:33 William mlila and my wife's middle name was Phillips for historical purposes. Today's date is September 14th. 2009 location is Paonia Colorado? And my relationship is father to Steve. I didn't say my relationship mother to Steve and wife to Bill. Also mother too far other children Steve is the youngest but I think we should start by just saying why are we here in the North Fork Valley? Anyway, we were all three born in Grand Junction Colorado and our parents and grandparents live there and raise their families there and so our routes were pretty deep down there. So then here we are living in Delta County now and loving living in the North Fork Valley.

01:33 So

01:35 I think there's a there's an answer to that that are Roots were in the in the Grand Valley in the fruit orchards and has the as Grand Junction grew out around our farm. We looked for other areas nearby where we could grow fruit then continue our heritage and we knew some of the Fruit Growers up here in the North Fork Valley and we we pulled up stakes from the Grand Valley moved up the North Fork Valley so that we could grow the same thing that we were going down there, but then be an environment where that was conducive to the grapefruit growing.

02:06 And is there any particular place here? I mean, why did we choose Rogers Mesa?

02:13 I think the the beauty of Colorado for growing is that it's all microclimates and everything is little pockets of this and that and you have some people grow vegetables and great spots and some people raised great cattle on their little 800000 acre Pockets were wonderful fruit can be grown in Rogers. Mesa is one of those for our original plan was in Grand Junction was another one of Paonia is another one. So we knew some of the Growers there and have a wonderful Farm came up for sale, but we always had our eye on and so we were able to to purchase that place and now been there for 22 years.

02:49 And leave behind

02:52 A large subdivision with about 4 or 400 Houser for 40 acres in the Grand Junction area

03:00 We were in the particular spot where the about six miles east of Grand Junction where it kept growing up around us and the subdivisions pretty soon surrounded us and urban and rural don't always mesh real. Well, especially when there's a four-lane highway separating two parts of your property and you have Machinery like that, but I think it was like you to talk a little bit about how we ended up down there then some of the history of the her how your grandparents and parents settled and started to grow fruit. Well and Gravel Road to a five Lane paved my grandparents came from Iowa in 19 5 or 6 and move their family and all their belongings and one of the first things they did was plants and fruit trees and to figure out how to get the water to them.

04:00 And then and my would have been my great-grandmother used to come out and it's I think it's a wonderful story and then Summers and dry fruit and take it back in those days. You got your flower in cloth flour sacks and she'd feel lots of those with dried fruit and put them in her trunk and take them on the train back to Iowa to have in the winter. Well, then my father of when he got out of the Navy after World War one, but an Orchards that was the one that continued in the family until we sold it when we moved up here and he was a very successful fruit grower all that time and an Innovative person that always tried

04:49 New things and all we had five children and after 12 bill is a lawyer went to when he got out of the Navy after World War II went to Harvard Law School came back decided Grand Junction was a place to live and then we bought a place next to my parents place where we raised our children and not quite to death, but they all learned how to work. Let's say so much so that the older for children decided that Orchards weren't for them. But Steve decided he wanted to try it and actually if it weren't for Steve we probably wouldn't be up here because he had an interest in continuing on and this seemed to be the good place to the continue with a family moved out here early onto was involved in agriculture before they branched out.

05:46 People love my grandfather and his brother were in the banking business and Manchester New Hampshire and they came out to look after a bunch of cattle that the bank had a loan on and no idea where the cows were. They were out the open range on Glade Park West to Grand Junction.

06:12 Oh, that was 1881 the same year that Grand Junction was founded.

06:20 I guess I'd like to say that.

06:25 That family that I came from I was one of five boys in the family and when brother well all five of us got into the service sooner or later and my brother window was 14 months older than I am and he was killed in the Marines on Okinawa are being in the Marines from Guadalcanal All the Way North my my oldest brother Deke was a captain in the US Navy educated at Annapolis in a mighty and he did a lot of great things. But I think one of the most important was that he engineered engineered to get the Polaris missile out of a submarine 200 feet under the surface and ignite the electric got out of the water.

07:25 Andrei Fritz flight there books been written about that Polaris missile

07:33 The importance of the Navy for me was the I think the Navy for my Destroyer Duty in the Atlantic and Pacific for two big items. Number one provided for me hearing aids that I'm wearing today and in need of I might not have otherwise gotten them except for the VA and a new bride and

08:05 Time with the GI bill on a full-ride support to go to Harvard Law School to pave the way for a good life and it has as it has been for me and for Barack Obama. I think I should clarify that the Navy didn't provide his bride from the Navy. Actually. We went to high school together. And so he look pretty Handsome when he came back with his Lieutenant JG uniform and it's going off to Harvard Law School when I thought this might be a good catch but am I doing down on the farm? But anyway, we came back and just did get back to the farm. And actually I think you might with all this other say you did have a little experience with orchards when you were growing up at used to be when we were growing up down there working.

09:05 Fruit was almost ride a passage for Country Kids City kids everybody because that was where they could make a little money and there was lots of Labor needs and they infect wouldn't start school till a lot time still after the end of peach Harvest. So anyway tell about your early experience and I suppose I was ten and much too early to be a child labor, but I did get by in the fall with peach Harvest with being a box boy in the Attic of a Packing Shed where I did much much didn't do much more than put boxes down to the Packers out of a huge stockpile.

09:58 But the from that I went to Peachland e in the in the summer and I would camp out on the 10th for two weeks at a time and walk stilts to send Peaches on Orchard Mesa down to Mesa County and after that I married into the orchard business, which is tremendously affected my life from that Steve. I think you're early memories of life on the where we lived at being involved and we had my daddy told on Packing Shed and then my brother onda Richardson was involved in took that over so Steve grew up with that and from the time he was

10:58 A toddler was carried over to sit down in the Packing Shed and at that time we used cardboard boxes, but the the lids for the 14 lb boxes were pretty easy to put together. I didn't have to have a lot of strength. So I think I don't know talk about child labor, but he was pretty young when he'd sit there and fold those boxes and then go down to his grandmother's house and take a nap. But Steve what are some of your earliest memories and I guess what influenced you to want to be continued on with the in an Archer doesn't have done it for that folding boxes in the end of the day when we all the Packers are packing course, that's when you were Rat Pack in pairs. Well repair was wrapped in a piece of tissue paper and placed in the box and exact pack.

11:57 I'm just the stacks of boxes the lines in the back corner of the Packing Shed always the thing at the end of the day was the load the truck so I could load all these boxes on pallets on the truck so they could go up to the warehouse and then be shipped out words, but I just remember those piles getting longer and longer and all the boxes you made all the hard work that a gun into it and there's always kind of satisfying at the end of the day. We saw the truck drive out of the driveway with that day's work on it head off the market and I think that you have those memories and still menu. You drive a truck out here to see you. LOL fruit go out. It's a it's a great memory.

12:33 And I was like everything you know that the fruit industry is stayed the same and it's changed so much. But certainly the technology has changed in many ways that many ways it stayed the same we've moved from wooden boxes to cardboard boxes from wrap packing every piece of fruit be on a specific pattern to a bulk pack in some cases. But Mom, I guess what what were your favorite memory as a kid growing up in the fruit orchards Harvest always it was everybody it was chaotic and and everybody works so hard but actually a feeling that you were actually contributing something to the world. I mean you weren't just pushing papers around or you here was food and here was in in the camaraderie of the people working together for a common purpose and end the I think the fun sometimes of seeing how you

13:33 Get more efficient or how you could how many boxes could you do an hour and Carson High School and I was thinking a pack and that's how we paid money to Victorian.

13:56 You know, you packed the first day and you think okay I've made enough for my student body tickets. Okay, then you'd pack a few minutes. Okay, there's a, you know a new dress and on and on but I don't know just the whole.

14:11 All of it putting together and actually course. I I love The Archers I love being out in them. And I think this is may or may not be true. But I was they say a very fussy baby and my mother was not well and that they say they put me out and picking box in the orchard with the hired man who was a very good hired man. And so I think maybe I just from early on had the feeling of loving to be in the Orchard and I think that's why we feel so kind of blessed that Steve wanted to go and do this and Avondale retired from the bench and at the time when he he wasn't totally retired because he still did senior judge shippen traveled around but it meant she didn't have to stay in the same spot all the time and that we had a chance to move up again and be living in an orchard.

15:11 And with it and do you remember when you graduated from the picking box into the size where you could catch a cantaloupe being tossed to the wagon by your dad and somebody else? I was a little kid experiences in my dad was such a wonderful man with such a hard worker and this really went through the depression and and and he was deeply in debt, but and I think you just can't admire him enough because he was urged to take bankruptcy and all I need refused and said, no he borrowed from people that trusted him and if they would wait he would pay them back and it took him twenty years to completely pay them back and I just think it's been such an example.

16:08 For me anyway and and Bill's dad was a man of great integrity to in the bank and wonderful stories about how he helped people out but or how he, you know, didn't turn this girl fighting cut and stuff and I think that it is so wonderful to have a Heritage of people that were that genuine and that honest and hardworking and but

16:37 I think I don't know. It's just stuff.

16:43 I like living with trees before filling.

16:47 But it's also very hard work. And I guess I have a question and I guess for both Bill and Steve that they might like to answer and Bill who did come back started law practice in with a very good form and then was appointed to the bench and in doing that. He took quite a cut in pay and knew that he would never make as much in that as he could just an individual law practice. He had a five children at that point. But why were you willing to or what made you want to do that instead of taking the easier paths in the quicker money at the Harvard Law School was to educate you to where you could make the best contribution to the legal profession and

17:46 And I thought after 16 years in the mining business uranium boom law practice that I could be more intellectual and use my background better if I tried to get on the bench.

18:05 And that worked out through a very

18:10 Transitional point in Colorado law where we change from JP courts where the judges were paid by the amount of fines. They have assessed to a system where we have Merit system appointment to the bench and then you run against yourself.

18:29 I guess while I'm on the bench. I better mention what I think was my best my greatest accomplishment on the contribution to the legal system was it I had learned about work release programs when I went to the judicial College out in Reno, Nevada. I came back to Colorado where work release programs didn't exist and I went to work with the sheriff and we approached the County Commissioners and decided that we would like to try a work release program where prisoners instead of going to the penitentiary could just stay in our community live in a residential facility where they could leave every day and go to a job.

19:21 Come back and then State weekends in detention and they could have marital visits and their paychecks went first to pay for the room and board to a great extent offset. Whatever. Otherwise would it cost to have you in jail and then family support and then pay debts and there's something left over you had a small pocketbook from a change to start a new job when you were released or you could stay on with a job that you got your own work release. It took a lot of cooperation local and then we had to work with the state legislatures authorized it and I work for the House of Representative television band with Chad and stream the state senator, and we got legislation passed and we

20:21 The first work release program in the state of Colorado starting to 10 beds and now they're over 200 beds in operation in Mesa County.

20:33 And it's all over the state and Community Corrections program and sweat. It's years ago when it first started he was referred to as the father of the Community Corrections, which has a really great honor and I don't think people associated with it now, but it was a great thing to start and it

20:55 We took the risk and the County commissioners before they accept the program decided to publish the story in the paper and look for support and rejections the trial bike upset by having prison labor compete with them in the market. There wasn't a single

21:25 Objection from anybody and we went ahead with the program.

21:31 When I think the beauty of that story is that and it was in response to Mom's question was also that I mean it was you made less money, but you're had more things you could do and that was one of them you saw where you could do good things and where opportunities were and then you could move forward and to take advantage that wear if you weren't been in private practice that might not have been so easy and I think and I think that from both mom and dad and your granddad's and grandparents, I think that's what you know, the answer. The question for me is the same that that why do you become a fruit or when there's many other things you can do? I think it's the challenge in the the stimulation and the how can you do things better? How can we work to make the environment better as well while we're growing people's food? And that's the only it's it's not life is not always about just money. It's about what you can do and

22:31 I can be your best at I think when Steve came into the a real managing into Fruit growing. Was it a terrible time in the in the 1990s before that? A lot of times Fruit Growers could raise a lot of fruit. Take it to the Packing Shed ship it off and then get your check. Well that kind of thing kind of went South and it was you could raise a lot of fruit and the Packing Shed might or might not get rid of it. They might or might not make you a prophet and so things were changing so much and it took a lot of different thinking and Steve. I think you might

23:21 How coming into that and how you begin to see if you're going to make it so you had to find some other way so we can get we tell people now that is a fourth generation and we've been going through for over a hundred years in Colorado. Now that we've seen it all and they're not all motorcycles in and my next questions you I'm going to answer this but is it is to talk a little bit about Granddad going to Denver but we saw you with an opportunity to wholesale markets. So just do that make life a little easier than those markets became commoditized where we weren't making very much money or or any of it all and I think we all sit down and so does this mean you're growing in her blood but are we going to continue doing this? We can't you can't infinitely Finance something. That's not that pay me back.

24:16 And I think that's where we're kind of going back to our roots for we decide to do a lot more direct marketing and going to farmers markets again and in the Front Range Denver to Fort Collins in direct sales to wholesale account some even her own processing but that really is no different than what Granddad did, you know, the Fruit Stand that we had where I first learned to make change for the customers box to the car, but I think that's what was so fascinating is that always you know, I think what made me look at things differently was that that you always step back and said, what do we need to do and let steak and let's not cry over spilled milk and say oh, woe is me. We're not making you money if it is stable. Where are the opportunities? And where do we need to go to be different to be able to survive and to continue doing what we want to do?

25:09 I think we always found it was good to deal directly with people to we used to sell from well, we had to pack and ship there but we always sold directly and and I had a fruit stand there and then a retail market and it grew in the first farmers markets down in Grand Junction. We were involved in but to deal with a customer directly to give my body your fruit to be responsible for that fruit and say Haley can grow as good or better fruit than anybody and try us and of course, I always loved being able especially people that couldn't afford the number one perfect fruit because all fruit doesn't come perfect even though some people think that's the only way it should but the sort out a lot of Miss just cosmetic and if you can get that for half the price and you have a family and in

26:09 Is earlier days do a lot of people can do a lot and dried a lot and it was always very gratifying to me to have somebody able to come and get some of that fruit which was really good but be able to get it for a cheaper price if they can afford to get more of and make use of I think we've come a long way though talking about the quality of fruit. And when I was growing up in those very very early years. And in fact, when I first started packing we could pack fruit pears and apples with worms in them and we called it off grade, but we had our basket that was the number one fruit and we had her basket that had the off grapefruit and it could take up to two worms. I think it was and you you know, and it's sold for that. Well, then they managed to do, you know to get better control in and do things but I think going clear back too and to my dad

27:09 I didn't have things have changed and spraying he used to have a team of horses that pulled a spray or through the Orchards and the team was trained that by voice commands, but he and his helper told these very heavy spray nozzles and and but anyways hoses hoses and sprayed with those but they sprayed with arsenate of lead and they were exposed to it and all and then that was good. It did help kill the body mass in the worms, but also it left a residue. So when you get to the Packing Shed that had to be cut and so you had a self Uric Acid Bath you put it through to begin with and then rinsed it and packed it but things have come such a long ways in the packaging is now and every year the packaging kind of chain.

28:09 Just a little bit obscure mention Kami on my countertop this morning. It was 14 and pint jars of homemade ketchup and it is tremendously good and Shirley still cans like 40 quarts of hand grown tomatoes every year. I think that's because Steve, you know, the thing that came down to the family, what's both their honesty and integrity and I think that's why we're enjoying our customers so much is that you want to see people week after week or year after year and you want to get to know them and feel like you're providing a service not just of sales but an actual service to them and and doing it with integrity.

29:09 And that they can trust you and if there's a problem they can come back to you and then then make it right, you know, I know growing up we saw families grew up in her fruit. And and now when we do the markets in Denver, no receipt kids grow up and be on the seven years, we've been over their head off to college and we send gift packs out to him at college. And so I think that's the that's the non-monetary benefit of it's nice to see your hard work being appreciated. You might mention something about your support for organic.

29:43 Well, I think and that's something that Granddad and I mean all through in in in law and work release as well that you look for the Innovations and you look at where things are going. You don't just you don't stay static and I think that grew up with that kind of Mantra with mom and her brother always looking for a more efficient way to do things are better way to do things or how can we make this easier work better? And so and then I also think you know, it's important to note that the farming side of the family is coming through mom's side on Dad's side. My grandmother was an avid Audubon member in one of the first round-the-world female burgers. And so there is a very strong environmental ethic there. And so, you know, it was natural I think over time for us to look at organic production because we had the marriage of environmentalism and Firming coming from both sides of the family and now you've grown to be the president of the organic.

30:43 Verizon research and Research Foundation

30:49 But I think but I think the important part is just as mom was mentioning the use of arsenate of lead. And then of course when DDT came in to be it was the only God sending me ways because it did help control those worms. And now we've moved from that era into a biological Arrow where were using different methods that are all new technology as well to do a better job that softer on the environment and to still provide food for people big bugs that eat little ones big bugs be little ones for little bugzy big bucks to but in Maumelle you talk about waking up in Fairplay to eat breakfast is Granddad was driving over to Denver and and yeah, that's where when I drive most of the night to get through to Denver. It says I'm on a four-lane highway with a cushion seat in the radio and tape deck and you know if nice lights and I think your granddad probably didn't have quite that comfortable ride a semi.

31:49 Steve goes out with his semi on Friday night late do shows a lot of the girls, but Dad way back and and this again, you know back in the depression trying hard to support a family and that that would make three trips to Denver a week with a load of fruit while he was running the place at home and he got very little sleep, but he pull out and that was a long trip to Denver then because they didn't have the passes. You didn't have Vail Pass. You didn't you went around the long way and so it was sucks, but he'd go over there and he had markets over there that want to just fruit and it to you would take two and then come home and

32:37 Watch picking through the packing fruit and stuff and load up and and go again and I went with him a time or two and it was one time too and and going up State Bridge tell if people familiar with that but the old road when you go through Kremmling and around cuz you couldn't go through Els putting rocks behind the wheels of the loaded truck it was steep enough and to keep it from rolling back. So it wasn't all the now it's Steve toltz out and in the semi but it's not all fun and games either asking about chaining up in a snowstorm over but I'd like to have the conversation is the history of the threads that commonly through with his fruit growing or law or or whatever that that that says. There's certain things that we are taught and carried on and you're helping other

33:37 People will you help yourself? And now you have a family to two small children? What are your hopes or how do you envision the future and all I mean, can you visit just going on and it'll be their choice? What they want to do in season has an apple in her mouth all the time to grow up with you and and see that and then drop with us on the farm and and learn that work ethic and the age of six site and see will out there making boxes in the Packing Shed that play Ronnie gets pretty distraught when he comes out and sees that the the been dumped is up and he hasn't been home to help started. So so I think that's the you know, whatever they decide to do.

34:37 Part of the game and they'll grow up working and then learning some of that and hopefully that will help them in whatever they do.

34:46 Well, I think anybody engaged in farming or agriculture has to that's not a single-track mind. They have to be marketers. They have to beat mechanics. They have to be bookkeepers. They have to do everything on the flyer now with electronics and stuff. It is a little harder. So maybe we'll can concentrate on the computer makes you think that's one of the the fun things about a farm as it's all very hard work and it's some long hours and sometimes some short hours but is that it's constantly changing and you don't get up in the morning and go down to the assembly line and do the same thing over and over that, you know, 52 weeks a year and hope for your vacation you do something for a couple weeks.

35:46 The season changes a little bit in the clock ticks on and do something different for the next few weeks and then the next few weeks and that culminates in Harvest and after harvest you hit a reset button the kind of starts everything over again in the cycle goes again, but you're not always doing the same thing and no season is the same Nature by nature always. She's the boss. Then you just respond to what she does. I think we haven't touched done and it ain't much but that the labor has changed so much over the years in the and especially as you get a bigger.

36:26 Organizations in a little bit and you need labor and we used to rely a lot on families and I don't know how many cousins and second cousins and aunts and uncles and now you just don't have that and it's a whole different game when it comes to the labor market worker program for Mexico the big things that needs to be solved her help their realized to when I'm over the markets we still run into people. I call my sister worked on the phone like the trailers and kind of not just within our own family, but that behind it is well, at least tell me your works now and even the ones that we have the other day. It's due a work order some

37:26 Can take some pride in what they do and I told Steve when he came home today and one of their fellows said well she was gone, but they work Saturday. You said we were in 16 Benz, you know, and he was proud of that and so ye way to go, you know that if if we can instill in a lot more people a job well done and and to take pride in the fact that yeah, I did do a good day's work. It comes down to it, even though where the the grower and the boss is that it's it's all those people that are putting the fruit in the box and they're the ones that control the quality not us and so you have to instill in them and that the importance of it then you have to give them the pride that they care.

38:11 Because they're the ones that control Our Fate not not how good a boss we are not.

38:18 But I think I don't know. We're about through but here I am in the 80s and our high school class is fast falling off every week, you know somebody else or they're all the timers are all these things. But three of the women that are still in the best shape and we've decided it's cuz they all grew up on farms in that farm girls are meant to survive and there's something in it and it's not only Farm women that farm in and I think that the life I leave it also it's if it's something I enjoy life they like to lead it's a quality-of-life and so both mentally and physically

39:02 I like to be sad when I think it's important to note that my father was very tolerant of harvest over the all these years. I got all kinds of work for my good wife and just what I underestimated it forever. But service to people they ended up with me with you having a doctorate honorary doctorate of public service for Mesa State College came from her doing great care for the five kids while I was off doing Riverfront project. Swear by the Colorado River has become accessible to Recreation for people that was never available. Without being a trespasser and where we now have a cleaned up River and and like 30-35 MI.

40:02 Recreational trails to use Mesa County

40:08 Exactly that's been a broad spectrum of things that were done and a Cooperative when I think I think we're just very very proud of our family and our children and what they've done and and can't say enough about that phds at least 426 of Masters and ba and Bs has to support everyone up and very proud, but I think we as kids we all know that that wouldn't have happened without you.

40:50 Then I know I wouldn't be a farmer without your support. So I think one of the things is you teach your kids in and work with him to be independent and by golly they do become independent sometimes things what have we done but it's almost all right.

41:15 Are you most proud of?

41:18 I think the fact that

41:23 People

41:27 Think well of our name and they remember like Bill's mother has nature place named after her and but the things that our family is known for and thought about and our children to our other children are all involved in community works and and working for environment and two of them are teachers in college when I'm the liar and landmarks with the public health, but it's just proud of the fact that there are a lot of things they thought were more important than money and it's all so they know how to enjoy

42:19 The outdoors in that quality of life is as important as new cars and no boat or something and believe me. I kids knew that you didn't always have a new car or a lot of new things, but they all went to good colleges and

42:43 And their mama

42:46 It's always a hard question. I think my pride is putting smiles on people's faces. Okay?