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"Was I over my head? Oh
yes, very much so. It was hard to be out of town and the family have
to take over."
Hanging against flocked, scarlet-colored wallpaper in the study
of Conifer resident Norm Meyer is a quote from Charles Lindbergh.
It rests near framed photos of Meyer as a young pilot who flew 35 years
for Continental Airlines and begins with the words: "Science, freedom,
beauty, adventure, what more could you ask of life? Aviation combined
all the elements I loved
Yet that vision seems only partly true for Meyer, who lived his
life as pilot and rancherequal parts heaven and earth. For it
was the earthbound portion that would secure his place in local history.
Meyer landed in Conifer in 1950 when he purchased the Midway House,
a five-bedroom, two-story residence on the north end of Conifer that
dated to 1889.
He found it on a road trip with his family, when his young daughter
Cara, who was born prematurely and suffered the occasional fainting
spell, prompted the family to pull into the Midway House driveway to
tend to her. In front of them, on a post, was a small "for sale"
The house had no plumbing, no electricity and no foundationjust
a few rocks on the ground where Louis Ramboz had built the structure
from the ground up 61 years earlier.
Among the seven other buildings on the property was a barn that predated
the house by 19 years. It was a working ranch, 330 acres worth of sweeping
meadow and picturesque rocky outcrops, promising Meyer and his family
that they would labor hard to sustain it. Right away they added cattle,
a garden and began growing grain.
Meyer's motivation to move from Denver to a tiny rural community involved
his aviation career. Strict health codes for pilots that required physical
examinations every six months worried the father of three, soon-to-be-four,
children. He wanted a backup plan, one that would sustain his family
if the other failed.
Raised on a cattle ranch near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Meyer
had memories of that lifestyle which seemed a natural solution to his
Thus, he purchased the ranch, and his wife, Ethel, a hard-working farm
girl from Maine who had completed her teaching degree at the University
of Denver, was willing to swap city life and conventional luxuries for
an isolated existence.
Ethel steered the ranch when her husband donned a blue uniform and hit
the skies on a pilot's revolving schedule. The childrenSharon,
6, Cara, 4, and an infant son, Norm Jr.pitched in as they grew,
along with a fourth child, Erik, born a couple of years after the family's
Meyer's pass at a stable life was promising, except for the tremendous
workload, complicated by a state regulation in those days that required
the buyer of an estatein this case, the $34,000 Midway House and
landto pay for it in full in just five years.
The family cut expenses to the bone; the kids' clothes were sometimes
ragged, causing his oldest daughter, Sharon, to ask her mother one day:
"Are we the poorest people in the world?"
When the debt was settled, the family over time bought roughly 300 more
acres near their home when estate sales turned up other land opportunities.
"I didn't set out to acquire those pieces; they just came up, and
it seemed advisable to stir our butts and acquire them," Meyer
Those properties included land on both sides of the highway: a homestead,
meadows and Legault Mountainthe latter considered worthless real
estate to the business-savvy Ethel, who didn't see the value of owning
a mountain. Prior to their arrival, before wartime gas rationing put
a crimp in car travel to the area, there had been a ski slope on Legault
that Denverites and locals reached on a horse-drawn sleigh.
In those days, Meyer's dichotomous spirithis desire to touch both
heaven and earthwas at odds.
"Was I over my head? Oh yes, very much so," Meyer said. "It
was hard to be out of town and the family have to take over."
The slender Ethel, known to family and friends as "Blondie,"
delivered calves, chased off coyotes, sold hay and firewood, and dealt
with the occasional tragedy, like the night when seven cows were struck
by lightning during a storm.
The children, now in their 50s and 60s, remember those days, especially
when Meyer prepared often to swap his tractor for a DC-3. Ten hours
before Meyer left for the airport, the mood shifted in the household,
Sharon and Cara recalled recently on a visit to their parents' home.
Their father's last-minute conversations revolved around lists: Would
they remember to look after a sick cow? Would they remember to keep
the gate closed (even though it had been three years since they last
left it open)?
One hour before Meyer would leave, the house grew silent; orders came
from Ethel, as Meyer shifted gears and made the final transition from
ranch life to sky life beyond Conifer.
Adding to the family's tasks were Norm and Ethel's endeavors to remodel
the house, which required removing the floorboards and exposing the
earth below their feet. Many of the projects ultimately stretched out
over 10 years: a stone-slab floor, expansive fireplaces, sturdy ceiling
beams and mantels. The young Cara thought everybody lived like that,
their homes in a state of constant construction, until she visited other
Sharon, the oldest child, embraced life on the ranch, along with the
flying lessons she managed to coax from her father.
But Erik hated ranch life.
"Branding calves just traumatized me," he said of those days.
"Cutting off horns, blood spurting, the calves screaming in painit
was cruel and bizarre. I was 11 or 12 when I went to my mother and said,
'I can't do this anymore.' "
But childhood memories are also replete with dips in the family swimming
pool, built as a precaution against wildland fires. Of morning-news
radio with Alex Dryer or Walter Cronkite, as their mother braided the
girls' hair, their bellies pressed against turquoise kitchen countertops.
Of the boys playing war in a wheat-colored field, or counting the scarce
number of cars from their bedroom window at night that crept by on U.S.
285then only a two-lane.
There was a sense of belonging, Sharon remembers, of school bus rides
with only eight kids, or horseback rides to Evergreen High School when
she was older with a childhood friend.
Of buying candy at the only store nearby, a tiny structure positioned
on a plot of land that would later become the Safeway Center, where
Erik made his way past a stuffed three-legged chicken inside, to pick
out a chocolate bar.
The family built the first library in town inside the milk house on
their property. To keep it stocked, a neighbor made frequent trips to
Golden, filling her car with new reading materials.
For years, friends and family converged on Meyer Ranch for Christmas
tree cuttings, holiday caroling, wagon rides, baked beans and ham. Meyer
joined the volunteer fire department, and both he and Ethel joined civic
clubs and headed fundraisers.
Perhaps it was Meyer's dichotomous spirit that led him to become both
keeper of open spaces and a developer.
Early on, he and Ethel developed Aspen Meadows, a subdivision on the
south side of the highway, east of Elk Creek fire station No. 2. Homes
were built on several-acre parcels, not small lots, keeping that part
of the valley more open and attractive. Years later, they would sell
a nice piece of land to Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Church for its
But when a realtor asked about the sweeping panoramas across from their
home, including Legault Mountain, Meyer flinched at the idea of carving
"If I am going to do anything with that, it would go to open space,"
he told her.
He then followed through. By the mid-1980s he had offered 400 acres
to Jefferson County Open Space; when the deal closed, it became Meyer
Ranch Open Space Park near South Turkey Creek Road and U.S. 285.
A few years later, he placed his home and most of the property surrounding
it in a conservation easement. The house and 20 acres will remain with
the family in perpetuity. They can live in it themselves, turn it into
a museum or bed and breakfast.
"I get remarks all the timepeople say they are happy we sold
to Open Space. My wife isn't; she said we gave it away too cheap. But
I'm happy," Meyer said.
That significant contribution sets the visual tone for Conifer to this
day, marked by scarcely marred vistas and a historic yellow ranch house
that adds a measure of character before southbound travelers reach the
concentrated business areas strung sideways and narrow along the highway.
It was Norm Jr. who first suggested in the 1980s that they sell off
2 or 3 acres for commercial use at the west end of their property, near
the Aspen Park business center. It seemed a reasonable plan, though
the number of acres would rise to 12 and finally 29 to gain the interest
of a large developer.
But there was no simple solution to the processcreating the largest
commercial shopping center the community had seen at the time, at 179,000
square feet. As citizens opposed the plan, King Soopers showed considerable
interest, eliciting excitement from other residents.
The project would go through three commercial developers before Hunt
Properties finally saw it to fruition. It would involve several skilled
Jefferson County Planning and Zoning required stringent designsno
more metal strip buildings, only tasteful structures with architectural
accents that better complimented the landscape. It set a new standard
for large developments to follow, and contributed to a more village-style
element in Aspen Park and Conifereven including a few acres of
Costs to build the project soared, along with a required water district.
It took roughly 16 years of planning and preparation before the Village
at Conifer-Aspen Park took shape last November with the opening of King
One person early on who opposed the rezoning for commercial use was
his own daughter, Sharon. In the middle of land use negotiations with
the county, Sharon wrote a letter of opposition.
"I think it was kind of neat that she believed so strongly to protest
our zoningfortunately, they didn't listen," Meyer said.
But his view on the development vacillates from time to time noting
that Conifer has grown and changed tremendously in the last few years,
not necessarily for the better, by his assessment.
"We used to say we are not like Evergreen; we are country cousins
here in Conifer," Meyer said. "I have contributed (to that
growth) and am not proud of it, exactly."
There was no grand scheme on the part of the Meyer family to preserve
an entire valleyor make commercial and residential contributions
to the community, contributions that have embedded the family name on
a road sign, an open space park and Meyer's own airstrip as it appears
on aeronautical maps.
It just seemed to happen while life unfolded, while they were busy surviving,
while the kids grew up, headed to college, started careers and families.
Sharon and Cara, both of Boulder, became teachers and have two grown
children each, though Sharon is now a Realtor. Erik, of Fort Collins,
started the band Tropical Coyotes and travels frequently. Norm Jr.,
of Conifer, earned his license to fly before his license to drive. He
became a motorcycle mechanic and earned a No. 1 racing title around
the state for several years. The family has one great-granddaughter
and another on the way.
Life might have turned out very different had Meyer pursued his journalism
degree. But after graduating from CU-Boulder, he got cold feet, trading
his schoolbooks and life in a newsroom for flying lessons.
At 89, Meyer is "older than God's dog." Yet he is still a
member of more than 20 civic or preservation groups and environmental
and aeronautical organizations, and he still flies his Cessna 180. Ethel,
also 89, is now largely inactive, though her pretty face lights up easily
when recalling memories of the past.
The two blend quietly into the community woodworka fellowship
of fresh new faces eager to shake things up and old-timers who have
already contributed their fair share to Conifer's history.
"I've said when I die, I don't want a funeral; I am a hopeless
heathen," Meyer said. He will consider a tent in the yard, where
friends can reminisce before scattering his ashes across a big flat
rock in a meadow near his airstrip.
"My friends can come and have a drink on me and hopefully they
will say, 'He wasn't such a bad old bastard.' "