A love affair; Waterfall Ranch changes hands

It was at the Hermosa Nurseries and Floral Company where John W. Zink and Ruby Nelson fell in love.

For several years John worked for his brother, Leonard, at the nursery. Both John and Ruby lived on the premises. After work at the nursery, and after supper and dishes were put away, John W. and Ruby liked to go for evening walks. This was great, except they had to sneak away from Ritabell, John’s niece, about 7 or 8 at the time. Ritabell had a little crush on her uncle. “I wasn’t much in favor of Ruby spending so much time with my buddy,” Ritabell later wrote. She followed along on their walks “until Uncle John outsmarted me.” [1]

John and Ruby in 1938.

Ritabell, right, and brother Earl, 1935.

John’s scheme: He told Ritabell that if she didn’t go on the walks, he’d give her all the money in his wallet. “No, I want to go,” Ritabell replied. John would open up his wallet and display the dollar bills that she could have had. So the next time John and Ruby wanted to go for a nice quiet stroll, he’d give Ritabell the same choice. “OK, I’ll take the money,” she said. But this time John’s wallet was empty – plus, she didn’t get to go on the walk. The same scenario repeated, over and over, with the same results for poor Ritabell, and the young girl could never quite figure out what was up, why she never scored any bills.[2]

How did he do it? He had two wallets, one with money and one without.

“Uncle John was my buddy,” Ritabell Zink Wilson wrote. “For a while he had a bedroom above the living room in our house. He always liked to dance and enjoyed playing an accordion and tapping his foot to keep time. One morning we woke up to find the living room ceiling had fallen in, likely due to the foot tapping.”[3]

John W. and Ruby were both 21 on Sunday, February 6, 1938, the day they got married at the Nelson farm. The young couple borrowed $10 to pay for the preacher – the Rev. Homer E. Root – and for the marriage license. John ran late that morning because he dropped his car keys in a storm drain next to Wall Drug downtown. (The building is now Olde Tymer’s Café, and Anne Zink Putnam says she still holds on tightly to her keys when walking past.)[4]

John and Ruby on their wedding day.

From the Durango Herald:

Ruby and daughter Anne.

“The bride, who was given in marriage by her father, was charmingly gowned in Copenhagen blue taffeta, adorned with a corsage of white sweetpeas. A string of pearls and a bridal wreath of the Swedish myrtle completed her ensemble. She carried a delicate white lace handkerchief which had been carried by two other brides in the Nelson family. Bouquets of pink and white carnations and snapdragons made an artistic background against which the nuptials were read.”[5]
The new couple moved into a small house adjacent to the greenhouse and nurseries. They continued working at Hermosa Nurseries, and quickly began a family. Anne Ruth Zink was born on December 19, 1938.

Not long after Ida Mae Zink was born, on April 19, 1941, John and Ruby packed up their two young daughters and some belongings and headed for the Northwest. Their first stop was in Vale, eastern Oregon, where John’s sister Ruth and her husband Herman Duncan had purchased land. John worked as a section hand for a railroad, and it was the only job he ever had that he really disliked.[6]

They settled for several months in Nampa, Idaho, where John attended Northwest Nazarene College.[7] His youngest brother, Howard, as well as younger brother Ernie and his wife, Norene, were attending school there also. The Zinks and family rented a large apartment together.[8] John, working jobs shoveling coal and at the Carnation condensed milk factory, helping to raise kids, and attending school, had a lot on his plate. When he caught pneumonia, he quit school.[9]

Howard and John W., and Idaho

Howard Zink in uniform, around 1945.

Howard Zink was born in 1923, and was more than six years younger than brother John. Howard wasn’t quite 3 when his mother died, and his childhood was quite different from most of his siblings’. During his high school years he moved to town to live on East Second Avenue with his father, John J. Zink.

There’s no other way to put it: Howard loved his brother John. One Christmas when Howard was living at Waterfall Ranch with his father – across the road from the stone house – the holiday was pretty much ignored.

“Dad didn’t seem to mind, but I admit that I felt rather depressed,” Howard wrote.[10] “About midafternoon Santa arrived! Yes, Brother John appeared with treats, presents, good cheer and optimism. My boyish heart was so thrilled that I never did know how he managed the miracle – whether (selling) skunk hides, potatoes, or hard work, I shall remember it fondly all my life.”

Howard went to Idaho and worked on dormitory construction to save money for school. But as the college season loomed, he did not have the necessary funds.

“My Brother did it again! A check came in the mail sufficient to fully pay for my first year’s board, room and tuition. What a brother!”

On to Portland

John, Ruby and kids stayed about a year in Idaho, but things changed for all Americans on December 7, 1941. In the early morning hours, Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii, wreaking devastation on U.S. ships there and shoving the country immediately into World War II. The war would continue until the summer of 1945.

In the summer of 1942, John and Ruby moved to Portland, Oregon, where they were joined by Ruby’s mother, Myra, and later by John W.’s father, John J. Myra came to help look after the kids as Ruby went to work.

Like many Americans at that time, John W. and his father both went to work in support of the immense military efforts. John J. went to work in ship construction yards.[11] John W. got a job sanding floors for Navy housing.[12] Ruby found employment as a PBX (switchboard) operator for Iron Fireman Manufacturing, which made furnaces, and during the war made engines for Liberty (cargo) ships.[13]

(Both John W. and his brother, Albert, registered with the recently established Selective Service on October 16, 1940, while the U.S. was still riding the fence on its participation in the world conflict that was consuming Europe and Russia. Also interesting, the registrar was John’s sister, Zelma.[14] John W. was never drafted.)

Anne Zink Putnam has a few early memories of life in Portland. She recalled smashing cans so they could be recycled for the war effort, and tying up newspapers in bundles to put on the front porch, also to be recycled.[15] The Depression had forced people to tighten their belts, and the war had a similar effect. All citizens were limited in purchasing goods such as sugar and gasoline, and received ration cards. Many families planted “Victory Gardens,” to raise food staples and ease transportation costs.

When John J. moved in, he did not see eye to eye with the more morally correct Myra “on much of anything,” Anne said. At Halloween, likely in 1943, a carved pumpkin was lit by candles and the house lights turned off. In this spooky setting, grandfather John took to his hands and knees and chased Anne and Ida.

Says Anne: “We were of course running through the house and screaming and carrying on, and grandmother was not happy with that at all.”

Several events occurred in 1943 that brought John and Ruby back to La Plata County. The foremost of these was John J. Zink’s decision to divvy up the Waterfall Ranch among his eight children. John and Ruby began to make plans to buy out his siblings’ interests. But also around this time, Leonard Zink was afflicted with leukemia. This must have weighed heavily on the minds and hearts of John and Ruby, who, as noted, were extremely tight with Leonard and his family. Leonard grew very ill in the fall and died on December 28, 1943, in a hospital in Denver. He was 40.

In the meantime at Waterfall

So, what was happening at Waterfall Ranch during the 1930s? As far as running the operations, John J., with his bleeding ulcers and other health issues, pretty much took himself out of the picture. His sons helped run things for a while, but by the mid-1930s they had moved out, excepting Howard.

Let’s try to recreate some of the facts.

Albert and Arleene Zink, with daughters Peggy (standing) and toddler Sara, born in 1939.

Sheep had become a major Zink industry in the 1920s and 1930s. John J. and his boys would drive perhaps as many as a thousand sheep up Falls Creek and into the La Plata Mountains in the summer. Howard Zink recalls that in the summer of 1932 he and brother Ernest herded the sheep where the Dalton Ranch Golf Course now sits in the Animas Valley.[16] Also in June 1932, John J. married Nora Dolan. In 1934 John J. and his son, and perhaps Nora, moved into Durango for a time. (John J. and Nora were estranged and reconciled more than once.)[17]

Peggy holding Nita Zink, daughters of Albert and Arleene. Nita (born in 1936) drowned in a ditch in early childhood.

Who exactly was running things at Waterfall Ranch in the late 1930s and early 1940s is a bit of a mystery, but let’s assume that for the most part it was the LaLondes, who lived in the stone house for several years.

Who are the LaLondes? Albert Zink in 1933 married Arleene LaLonde, who grew up along the Los Pinos River in eastern La Plata County. Arleene’s parents were Alex LaLonde, born in Nebraska in 1886, and Clara, born in Kansas in 1888. Apparently Alex and Clara looked after the place, and Arleene lived with them when Albert went to the Northwest to work. Alex was at times a hired man and at times a renter.[18] It’s notable that Albert and Arleene’s first child, daughter Peggy, was born at the Waterfall Ranch stone house on September 23, 1934.

Then, probably in the early 1940s, the LaLondes moved out of the stone house and the Logans moved in. The Logans are Kennith and Zelma (Zink) and their three boys, and they had their hands full. By then Kennith, a farmer, and Zelma, a teacher until she married, had their own 40-acre spread with a huge barn and red stone house a half-mile north of Waterfall Ranch.

That takes us up to around the time John J. decided to split up his assets, the centerpiece of which was the Waterfall Ranch. Apparently he did this because not only did he love his children, but, during one of his estrangements from Nora, he decided he wanted to make darn sure that Nora would not have a claim to Waterfall Ranch.

John and Ruby move to Waterfall

Right around Christmas in 1943, John W. and Ruby and the kids returned to Southwest Colorado and moved into the stone house at Waterfall Ranch. “After they were on the coast and came home they decided it was the life they wanted, to raise kids on a farm,” Anne says. “So they put their minds to it.” The family took the southwest bedroom on the second floor, while the Logans retained the other three second-floor bedrooms and all of the ground floor. It was an interesting lifestyle. Anne had just turned 5, but she remembers a few details.[19]

The Waterfall Ranch house.

John, Ruby, Anne, and Ida all lived and slept in that same small room. The second floor included a coal or wood cook stove, with the smoke piped out the south window. The family cooked and ate on the second floor, too.

There was no freezer, so meat was kept in a cardboard box on the porch roof in the winter to keep from spoiling. To retrieve the meat when needed, they’d open the window and, while dad held her leg, Anne would scramble outside and crawl on the roof to grab a package. “It was pretty basic living,” Anne said.

In the spring the Logans moved out and back up to the Logan farm, and the John-Ruby family had a bit of room to breathe.

At this point, John W. began to arrange deals with his siblings to buy them out of their one-eighth shares of the ranch. For a man who didn’t have a whole lot of wealth to his name, this could have seemed a daunting task. He would need to borrow, make promises, and hope for a few good growing seasons.

World economic conditions were in his favor. The U.S. government asked farmers to produce more as the country strained to feed its own troops as well as allied soldiers – and of course its citizens – from 1942-45. Durango-area farmers found market conditions very favorable.[20] The government controlled prices somewhat, but farmers’ buying power increased. Prices continued to rise after the war, and again, farmers and ranchers were in a good spot to capitalize.

By the early 1940s the eight siblings had basically split into halves. Four siblings, including Ruth, Blanche, Ernest, and Howard, had moved away to the Northwest and so didn’t have a problem parting with their shares of the ranch. Four siblings, including John W., Zelma, Albert, and Leonard (and Laura, his widow), remained in the Animas Valley. Albert got land in the Hermosa area, perhaps settling his eighth share. Then John W. got loans from the Farm Credit Bank or made other arrangements to pay off his other siblings. With each, John W. somehow made good. There was no apparent squabbling. It was very important to Ruby, as well as John, to be civil to relatives. Infighting among families horrified her.

“It’s hard for kids to know because adults keep things from kids,” Anne says, “but I think basically it was handled in a way that everyone was satisfied.”[21]

Aunt Zelma, the glue

The proof there were no hard feelings is that the Zink siblings and all the related cousins in the Valley remained very tight. They united for holidays and other occasions – special and just random. Zelma gets a lot of credit for that. She would play the piano at gatherings, and gave piano lessons to Anne and Ida. Wrote Larry Logan, Zelma’s son:

Zelma Zink Logan

“She … did everything she could not only for her immediate family, but also for her extended family. … I think mother was kind of the glue that held the Zink family together, especially after Uncle Leonard died. She was always very involved in family get-togethers.”[22]

Anne recalls Aunt Zelma’s laughter, her warm and welcoming demeanor, her neatly organized house, and the golden sweet cherry trees she planted that still make bumper crops in the 21st century.

“I always thought that whatever way Aunt Zelma did things was the best way,” Anne wrote. “I think of her and wish we could visit. … If I were able to ask her the tough life questions, I know she would give compassionate and wise answers.”[23]

(Zelma died in May 1955, just 49 years old.)

As the war came to a close in 1945, John J. Zink moved to San Diego, the same city where his father had retired. That left John W. Zink fully in charge of Waterfall Ranch, with no eyes looming over his decisions regarding farm improvements or business issues. A second generation of Zinks had assumed control.



[1] My Family, by Ritabell Zink Wilson, written for the John James Zink Family Reunion booklet, July 2001.

[2] Interview with Ed Zink, Jerry Zink, Anne Zink Putnam, Heidi Zink and Kristi Zink, Nov. 20, 2016.

[3] My Family, by Ritabell Zink Wilson.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Durango Herald, February 1938.

[6] Our Family History, compiled by Ida Zink Kolb. Oral histories of Ruby and John Zink apparently put together in 1982 by Marty Hartmann

[7] Howard Zink, written for 2001 John James Zink Family Reunion book.

[8] Our Family History.

[9] Interview, Nov. 20, 2016.

[10] Howard Zink ode to John, date uncertain.

[11] Howard Zink, 2001 reunion book.

[12] Interview with Ed Zink, January 3, 2017.

[13] Durango Herald, Ruby Zink’s obituary, September 22, 2004.

[14] Selective Service Registration Cards, accessed through Fold3.com.

[15] Interview, Nov. 20, 2016.

[16] A History of the Waterfall Ranch, Howard E. Zink, Nov. 22, 2014.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Interview, Nov. 20, 2016.

[20] Rocky Mountain Boom Town, Duane Smith, 1992.

[21] Ibid.

[22] My Mother, Zelma Elizabeth Zink Logan, by Larry L. Logan, written for the July 2001 John James Zink Family Reunion booklet.

[23] Our Aunt Zelma, essay by Anne Zink Putnam, written January 2014.