Rangely, Colorado's history reaches further back than the oilfield and the boom it brought. Its history begins with the footprints of the Native Americans passing through and explorers camping on its river banks. Rangely has stood as a location that was utilized by many cultures and expeditions. Before it was Rangely, it was many different things, but when the first white settlers arrived, the town of Rangely that we know and love today began.
Rangely only held a few simple buildings; a trading post, some cabins, and a post office. C.P. Hill had entered the land that is now Rangely in 1882, and started to slowly build it up. He was the owner of the trading post and the first post master. Soon, other settlers started to find and settle Rangely. As they settled, their children grew and soon needed a school to attend, so C.P. began to advertise for a school teacher. He promised a new schoolhouse and living quarters for the new Rangely school teacher. He began to look out East, just as a young woman was looking for a teaching position out West.
Caroline Elvira (Blakeslee) Hill was born in Russel, Massachusetts on February 18, 1864 as the fourth to
seven children. Caroline lost her mother when she was only five, and then her father when she was fourteen. She had to learn to be independent and self-sufficient at a very young age. She persevered and put herself through school, and earned a diploma from the State Normal School of Westfield, Massachusetts. This school was one of the first to begin training future teachers how to best teach students, and focus on education careers. Caroline graduated when she was twenty-three, and soon got a desire to move out west and get her own parcel of land.
Caroline and her cousin, Lucy Stearns, began their journey west in the summer of 1887, but left too late for Caroline to secure a teaching position, and had to stop over in Iowa. They stayed there for nearly a year, and made money dressmaking. Caroline also taught three months of school starting in January of 1888. Caroline and C.P. got in contact, and began corresponding about the available teaching position in Rangely. C.P. offered Caroline the job, and she accepted.
Caroline and Lucy started their journey west in the spring of 1888. Caroline wrote that her cousin, "was jolly, fearless, and carefree, ready to join in whatever came along. I was timid, reserved and cautious” (From the writings of Caroline E. Blakeslee Hill). They packed up all their furniture and other belongings, and sent them ahead to be used on their future ranch.
They took the trip from Iowa to Glenwood, Colorado slowly to give time for their freight to arrive before them. The freight was traveling by train over Marshall Pass and into Grand Junction, Colorado. For Caroline and Lucy, who were also traveling by train, the broad gauge was only finished up to Glenwood, so the remainder of the journey had to be done by stage coach. While in Glenwood, Caroline got her teaching certificate to take with her. They traveled by toll roads to Grand Junction, and were met there by three freight wagons, sent by C.P. to bring their belongings back, and to bring supplies back to the store in Rangely. Unfortunately, Caroline and Lucy's freight had not arrived and they had to go on without it.
It was ninety miles from Grand Junction to Rangely, and would take them five days to arrive. They had to go over Douglas Pass, and Caroline wrote, “all went very well till we got near the mountain, and it began to be hard pulling. At every little rise, the human freight landed. By the freighter’s shouts, the women turning on the wheels or pushing, sometimes the load would reach the top; if not, they doubled up the teams and got up somehow. Then we loaded up again and went along till we came to another hill and those hills were not far apart in those days. Of course, we all walked up the mountain over Douglas Pass, or rode the saddle horses. My cousin chose the horse. I tried one, but it looked too far down to the ground, and I took the footpath. There I showed my weakness, and caused myself discomfort later.”
The first night on the mountain, the company camped close to the top. The freighters told lots of stories to Caroline and Lucy about bears, wolves, snakes, and Native Americans. It spooked Caroline, and she said she had "one miserable night," but she never let on that she was scared because she did not want to give the freighters the satisfaction of knowing they had gotten to her.
The next night was spent at a cowboy camp. The group of cowboys had heard that the new Rangely school teacher was passing through, so they tried to make a special night for her and Lucy. They cooked dinner, and pitched a tent for the girls, and did whatever they could to make the girls feel comfortable. The cowboys had hoped for the girls to entertain them with songs, stories, and recitations, so they did. Caroline said sleeping in the tent was " the first night since I left Grand Junction that I had been able to sleep without fear of being devoured by something before morning.”
After two more days of travel, the company started their final day on their trip to Rangely. They had twenty more miles to go, and many steep hills. Caroline hung back with the wagons for awhile, but couldn't stand listening to the tired horses being whipped, so she walked on ahead. She had planned on staying ahead of the wagons just for the steep hills, but found that the hills continued all the way to the edge of Rangely. When she was just a half mile outside town, the freighters offered her a spot on the wagon so she could ride into Rangely, but she thought "it would be fun to go into Rangely on foot" so she did.
As Caroline entered Rangely, one of the first things she saw was the new school house. Though the school house was supposed to be completed, when she arrived, it only stood three logs high. The school year was scheduled to start only two weeks from the time Caroline arrived, but the school house still had weeks of work to go. Despite this, Caroline was unfazed and started school on time. She gathered her students in the unfinished school house and taught with no roof and unfinished walls. C.P. worked on completing the school in the mornings before class, evenings after class, and on Saturdays.
Eighteen students started school in Rangely. It was not uncommon for people twenty or twenty-one to attend school at that time, and Caroline taught students that age. One such student of hers
was so excited to be in school, that he completed all eight years in only one year. She also taught a student with no arms how to write with his feet completely legibly. Caroline was paid $55 a month to teach, which was more than enough to afford living in Rangely.
During that first spring, Caroline and her cousin moved onto their claim of land. But soon after moving there, Lucy decided the city life suited her better, so she headed back east. When the six-month required residency was up for Caroline, she headed over to Meeker, Colorado for her final proof. C.P. Hill went to help witness for her and another man, Mr. Owens. Caroline rode to Meeker with C.P. in his wagon.
While there, Caroline gained more than just a plot of land; "After we had made final proof to our land, and felt that was secure, C.P. Hill applied for a license to marry the school teacher. Very soon, there was quite a stir in Meeker. The preacher was out of town at the time. It was past noon and we had to be back in Rangely at a certain time. To make it on time, we had to go down the river, that night for some miles. So someone went in haste for the parson, others made necessary arrangements, and the ceremony was performed by Arthur L. Williams-Rector of St. James Church. So I acquired a husband and a pre-emption claim in one day” (From the writings of Caroline E. Blakeslee Hill).
Together, Caroline and C.P. had two sons, Charles and Donald. Caroline raised them alone during many of their childhood years, while C.P. was in places such as Alaska exploring. She staked another claim now called Bitter Creek where her posterity lives now. There, she was close with the nearby Native Americans, and traded with them often. Her sons were raised in the hills with the cows and horses, and were often seen running barefoot through their land. Caroline wanted her boys to be raised more civilized, and took them back to Massachusetts to get their education. After a few months though, her sons begged her to take them back to the hills, and she finally gave in and took them home.
Caroline was a very determined, educated woman. She had many books she had studied, and continued to learn throughout her life. While she never settled on a religion, she studied many religious texts, including the Quran, The Book Of Mormon, and the Old and New Testaments. She was a talented quilter and writer, and even wrote songs that were made into records. Her legacy is one of courage, determination, and perseverance. She left everything she had to teach out west, despite how rugged and scary it seemed. Today, she is still an example of strength to her family, and anyone who hears her story.
The Rangely Outdoor Museum had the opportunity of hearing Caroline's history from some her relatives that currently live on the Bitter Creek claim. The presentation was the museum's August fireside, and was held on August 11, at 7:30 p.m. The museum would like to thank Fran and John Hill for coming and sharing this incredible history with those who attended.