Modern farming: Big changes afloat

At Waterfall Ranch, changes were happening. Yes, changes were always happening, but now they were happening more quickly.

The population was rising slowly, tourism was steadily growing, and more cars – by now many teenagers had their own vehicles – meant more traffic. So it was decided that the old, narrow highway running up the west side of the valley didn’t meet current needs. The decision was made to lay a new, straighter highway up the valley, almost adjacent to the railroad tracks.

Ed in his high school years.

Nelson, in his high school football gear.

Construction began around 1960, and for landowners such as the Zink, it means their property in many places would be split by the new highway. This created some issues, such as how to move stock from one side of the highway to the other. Although the train already split many people’s land, those tracks had been around since 1882, and trains were very periodic. And regarding the existing highway, over time, people had adapted gradually with the increase in traffic. This new highway would bring constant traffic to a different place. And although everyone was paid for the strip of right-of-way the public assumed, that didn’t really solve their issues.

Ed Zink claims he got the first traffic ticket on the new highway, and it’s hard to debate. It was the spring of 1963 and the highway was paved. But it was not yet open. He was checking on heifers grazing north of Waterfall Ranch, and decided it’d save time to take the new highway home. The plan failed badly when an officer pulled him over.

But the bigger and more major changes to Waterfall Ranch were brought on by modernization and the simple fact that the kids were growing up and leaving.

Consider, if you will, a couple of statistics that underline the rapid effects of mechanization on agriculture in the 20th century:

For instance, in 1940, one farmer supplied the food needs of 10.7 Americans. By 1970, that had increased to one farmer supplying 47.7 people.[1] At approximately the same time, the percentage of Americans employed in agriculture had dropped from about 20 percent in 1940 to 4 percent in 1970.[2]

So Waterfall Ranch, too, needed fewer workers. Before 1960 the Zinks had employed many seasonal workers to process potatoes. During harvest they’d have a dozen or more hired workers at the ranch. Gradually, machines began doing more and more of the labor.

A sack of No. 1 spuds.

Jerry Zink, the last child remaining at home after Ed went to college, in the mid-1960s took loads of Waterfall Ranch potatoes in a truck and delivered them to grocers and restaurants in town. On weekends he’d deliver into New Mexico. At the City Market grocery in Durango, he’d make his delivery, get a penciled note from the produce manager, and get several hundred dollars’ worth of cash from the cashier. He’d then stuff the cash in an ash tray, and drive the truck to high school for the day. (The high school was at 12th Street and East Second Avenue.) “It was a whole different world then,” Jerry says.[3]

Partly because John’s last cheap labor supply, his son Jerry, was headed for college, the last Zink potato harvest occurred in 1968. That summer, while John and Ruby vacationed in Alaska, Jerry stayed home to irrigate the potatoes and do whatever else needed doing. If John and Ruby were disappointed that none of their children were champing at the bit to take over the farming operations, they never let on.

Says Anne Zink Putnam: “Our parents never made us feel obligated. … Dad and Mother did not believe in saying to your kids, ‘I’ve built this business for you. You’re going to stay in this business.’

“It was a place to launch us into our lives. And they were to be our lives. Ed chose to stay in Durango; the rest of us kids got out of here as fast as we could.”

Anne, and Jerry, and eventually Ida, would return to the Durango area. But Ed stayed – in a different venture which we’ll get to in a bit.

By the late 1960s John had worked hard for many decades, pushing his body to do what he demanded of it. That meant creating irrigation by digging ditches, shoveling dirt, lifting and hauling and pushing heavy objects. The result was that at about that point he was “quasi-crippled,” Ed Zink says.[4] He couldn’t stand up straight or walk upright. “He kind of leaned over.” It was bad enough that he wore a back brace. The arthritis in his hands got so bad he couldn’t open a gate the usual way, so he developed ingenious latches to do so.

Ruby and John traveled to many places, including Africa.

“He had in his mind succeeded as a parent, raised his kids, they’d all gone off to college,” Ed says. “He didn’t have to do that anymore.”

Cutting back on the work, John’s body recovered. During the ’70s and ’80s he made several hunting trips – to far-flung locales such as Africa and Alaska. He took up tennis.

John and Ruby began to subdivide some of their Animas Valley land, which they’d bought up over a half-century, roughly between 1945 and 1970. Those parcels became Blue Sky, Waterfall Village and Rancho Bueno Tiempo subdivisions, and Hermosa Meadows Campground.[5]

John Zink was named Durango Herald’s citizen of the month in 1968, and in an accompanying story, John shared his vision of the Animas Valley slowly changing from a farming to residential area.

“No, I don’t think it’s something to be feared at all,” he said. “I think it will be a good thing for a great number of people who will be able to enjoy country living. Certainly life in this area will change a good deal.”

There’s that word, change. Ed Zink was 20 years old, attending Fort Lewis College and expecting to be an engineer. His life changed abruptly one day, although he didn’t realize the full extent for a while. The day was March 1, 1968. Not long before that, a man named Bill Crawley died. He had operated Crawley Sporting Goods in downtown Durango for decades. John Zink went to visit Crawley’s wife to pay his last respects, and returned from the visit having paid $26,000 for Crawley’s business.

The ensuing exchange with his son went this way:

John: “Ed, you want to run this store?”

Ed: “Sure, I need a job.”

Or something like that.

In any case, Ed took over, and with help from Ruby’s bookkeeping, gave it a try.

Ed was just 20 when the Outdoorsman was born, and he continued classes at Fort Lewis. Also, he and his wife, Sandy, had a small son, Brian, born August 24, 1967.

“Dad said he’d come work when he got rid of the farm,” Ed recalls. “Never worked there a day.”

Instead, John got into “custom farming.” Other people would hire him to dig ditches (he had a backhoe now), level fields and otherwise spruce up a field to prepare for farming. He built structures, including sheds, potato cellars and concrete silos.[6]

He played hard too – although alcohol was not part of that. He and Ruby loved to square dance at the Animas Valley Grange hall. They played pinochle socially. With his kids, he’d hunt and fish. There was a rumor of a large fish in Spud Lake, so he mounted the front of a boat on a horse, and carried the back of the boat by its oars the half-mile to the lake, boys in tow. The fishing was unsuccessful, but the adventure was memorable.[7]

He took pride in his work, and took pride in how hard he could work. He kept this up into his 70s, sometimes inadvertently pushing hunting clients decades younger into hikes they weren’t prepared for.

He was tough on himself, and expected others to give their best effort too. Make no mistake: Neighbors respected John W. Zink. Many youths came to work at Waterfall Ranch, and some, it must be said, felt intimidated.

John W. was tough on young people and was the most intense man he’s ever known, says Ned Jefferies, whose grandfather bought a farm in the Valley in 1904.[8]

Butch Knowlton, who grew up on the east side of the Valley, says he passed from ranch to ranch to work, but never made it across the Animas River. “I’d heard the reputation of the Zinks,” he says.[9]

Ruby and John in the 1980s. Both tough but soft-hearted.

That reputation wasn’t just in the Valley. Like his father before him, John W. made connections in town.

He was “equally at home on a horse or at a meeting of the Durango Industrial Development Foundation,” read his editorial page obituary in the Durango Herald, “effortlessly bridging what is often, for many, the wide gap between rural and city experiences and interests.”[10]

Ruby was able, unwavering support for the family. She was old-school like her husband, taking on her traditional role with grace, humility, and skill. She did what was needed, learning accounting on her own and doing the family taxes.

Ruby stayed busy in several ways. Even after her children were grown up, she remained as a 4-H leader for many years. Up until 1991 she was bookkeeper at the Outdoorsman, which was in the process of becoming an all-bike shop and would soon change its name to Mountain Bike Specialists. If she needed an impetus to retire, the truth was she began to feel a little out of place around so many bicycles.

She had plenty to do, with her work at the Animas Valley Grange, which she and John had joined in 1944, and with the Animas Valley Garden Club, which she’d joined as a charter member in 1956. She was also involved with the United Methodist Church, to the tune of more than 4,000 volunteer hours at the Methodist Thrift Shop.

Even as they sold off and developed pieces of land, they kept an eye on the future. John and Ruby, in 1986, were among the first in the county to create a conservation easement. In creating the easement, landowners give up development rights in return for a tax break. Jerry Zink, now on the board of the La Plata Open Space Conservancy, which facilitates easements, says his parents’ action influenced him. And he regrets that Colorado tax law now favors housing over ranching and open space.

“I think that’s a terrible thing that we’ve done to our state.”

Rainbow Springs

Once John Zink stopped raising potatoes, his work load dropped precipitously. He renewed a love of tennis, which he’d played as a youngster, but he still needed a new vocation, or at least a new hobby. He discovered a business opportunity: raising fish at Rainbow Springs Trout Ranch south of Durango.

Over the phone, just before Christmas 1970, John coaxed his daughter and son-in-law, Anne and Norm Putnam, into becoming his partners in the venture. A couple years later Anne and Norm left their teaching positions in Yuma, Arizona, and moved their three young children back to Southwest Colorado. They took up residence at Rainbow Springs and became full-time fish farmers.

Rainbow Springs is within shouting distance of the Animas River, just a mile or so from where Ruby had grown up at Sunnyside. The springs consist of water that seeps down through the mesa above and oozes out of the earth in the valley below. John W., Anne, and Norm, with help from the Putnam kids John, Patty, and Paula, went about improving the place, putting in big raceways and hatching houses, and improving the trout pond. (See “A Rainbow Springs Trout Ranch Narrative,” by Anne Putnam, for a more detailed look.)

Their efforts were rewarded as the business grew. They sold fish to local restaurants, but mostly to those who were stocking lakes, ponds and waterways elsewhere. They trucked the stock trout as far away as Texas, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.

The grandkids

Four generations. Counter-clockwise from right are Ruby, Ida, Dana and Kenzie.

We’ve already mentioned many of John and Ruby’s grandkids. Here’s a bit more about them.

Anne and Norm, who died in 1999, had three children, as previously mentioned. Growing up, the kids all worked at the fish farm, and one of their main tasks was to interact with the public at the fish-catching pond. The Putnams also kept cattle and grew hay, so the kids got a taste of that life as well. John died tragically, by suicide, in 1982. Patty and her husband, Todd Casebier, who live in Montrose, have two children, Andrew and Katie. Paula has one child, Christopher Quiroz.

Ida, who died in 2015, and her husband, Don Kolb, who died in 1990, had two daughters, Kelly and Dana. Kelly now lives in Florida, where she grew up, and Dana lives in North Carolina with her daughter, Kenzie.

Nelson has one stepchild, Nimi, with his second wife, Melissa.

Ed and his first wife, Sandy, had three children. The kids were kept busy in their youths, experiencing a combination of the retail business at the Outdoorsman and the farming and ranching life, the latter often under the keen eye of grandfather John. They put up hay, built houses and barns, and learned the art of irrigating, among other various chores.

Brian and Tim both became accountants. Kristi operates a wellness spa, offering massages and meditations at John and Ruby’s former house at Waterfall Ranch. (You can hear the waterfall as you relax during your massage, her ads boast.) Brian and his wife, Shana, have three children, Emma, Molly and J.T. Tim and his wife, Kimberly, have four children, Jonathon, Lacey, James, and Timber.

In 1994 Ed remarried, and as of the centennial celebration of Waterfall Ranch will have 22½ years of marriage with Patti.

Jerry and his wife, Karen, live in the Animas Valley south of Durango. That’s where their two daughters, Heidi and Holly, grew up and became familiar with sheep, hay, other various crops and the basic skills of the ranching life. Heidi is a midwife at Southwest Midwives, and, continuing the family tradition of community service, is a Mercy Regional Medical Center board member. Heidi is married to Craig Stern. Holly, with her husband, Jesse Villanueba, runs Sunnyside Farms Market in Durango. (For more on Jerry and Karen and kids, see Section 8.)

The Zink clan at Holly and Jesse’s wedding, 2005.


[1], based on numbers from U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

[2] Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

[3] Interview with Ed Zink, Jerry Zink, Anne Zink Putnam, Heidi Zink, Kristi Zink, and Patti Zink, November 20, 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Durango Herald, Ruby Zink obituary, September 22, 2004.

[6] Interview with Zinks, November 20, 2016.

[7] Ibid.

[8] From meeting at Waterfall Ranch with longtime Valley residents and friends, November 22, 2015.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Durango Herald, editorial page obituary on John W. Zink, March 22, 1991, p. 4.