Voices in the Valley: The Meads and Billings

Editor’s note: This story was compiled mainly from two interviews. One was with Ed Mead. The other was with Ed Mead, his sister Mary Lou, and their Billings cousins, Clara, Ruth, Mary, and Herb. Ruth’s husband, Ernie Shock, and Herb’s wife, Sandy (Burk), also joined the second interview.

The Valley poem

The Hermosa school didn’t have electricity until after World War II. Ed Mead will tell you that, when you’ve never had something – whether it’s electricity, running water, phones and radios and TVs in every home – you don’t miss it. But it’s also true that growing up without modern conveniences made kids physically tougher than they are today. Each chore demanded physical labor, whether it was fetching a pail of water, scrubbing clothes, or hoeing a field.

Ed also recalls that, growing up just south of Hermosa in the 1940s, Waterfall Ranch, just five miles distant where the Zinks lived and the Billings were near, seemed like a far piece – a long walk, or a long bike ride were you fortunate enough to own one. But that was soon to change. Many major lifestyle shifts – faster and more cars, freezers, a radio in every home – coincided with the end of World War II and the ensuing prosperity that America enjoyed beginning in the late 1940s.

The Hermosa school had electricity by 1947. But only a year later it didn’t matter, because Durango-area schools consolidated, and Animas Valley kids were all bused to town.

That consolidation meant many things: The end of an era, where rural kids would walk to school and suffer through small, poorly heated and poorly lit schoolhouses that combined eight grades. It meant that teachers had to scramble to get the right certificates to qualify to teach in the consolidated district. And it meant that kids from all over the valley got to know each other, and their same-age townies, a little better.

The Meads, the Billings, and the Zinks were now all mixed into the same schools, along with dozens of other valley kids and Durango kids.

Most people approved of the change, but consolidation meant a loss of distinction among valley neighborhoods. No longer were there Hermosa school kids, Trimble school kids, Waterfall school kids, etc. Now, everyone was a Durango kid.

But those families remain proud of their history, even several decades later. This story begins with one couple who came to the Animas Valley in 1878, and it continues through the 20th century and into the 21st.

The Meads enter the Valley

The story really begins with Ervin and Emely “Emma” Mead, but we have to start with Ervin’s sister, Mary Mead, who married Henry Hathaway in 1866.[1]

Mary and Henry left the Midwest sometime around 1874, no later than 1876, and took over a relinquished claim just north of where the Bar D Chuckwagon sits today.[2] They had to wait until the land was officially surveyed before they could homestead it. They homesteaded likely in 1876 or 1877, and got their official paper of ownership on December 15, 1882.[3] (The homestead period generally took at least five years.)

The reports from Mary and Henry from the unsettled West must have been encouraging. In 1878, Ervin and Emma left Pawnee Station, in far eastern Kansas, in a covered wagon and headed to the Animas Valley and the Hathaway land. Their son, also Ervin, was just 6 weeks old. They left in June and arrived in October, and spent the winter living in Mary and Henry’s as-yet-unused chicken house.[4]

Mary and Ervin’s mother, the widowed Julia Mead, came out west on the train in October 1879. Ervin picked her up in Alamosa – at that time the end of the line.[5] Julia lived with the Hathaways.

Ervin and Emma moved around the area a bit, but stayed. Mary and Henry sold their land to Chuck Idle, a member of the original Baker party, and left the Valley around 1883. It’s unclear where Julia was between 1883 and 1887, whether she left and came back, or just stayed, but around 1887 she bought land in the Hermosa area.[6]

By 1880 the Valley was filled with farmers, laborers, stockmen, lumberjacks, and miners.[7] Farmers had a steady flow of business catering to the miners in Silverton and other mountain communities, where the growing season was short or nonexistent. Similarly, city folks in Durango needed food supplies.

The younger Ervin remained in the Valley, and in 1905, at age 27, married Pennsylvania native Clara Strohm. Ervin and Clara’s two children, Emily and Robert, also stuck around the Valley. Both were married in 1934, Emily to Herbert Billings, Robert to Anna Tushar. (Those interviewed for this story are the offspring of these two unions. See accompanying family tree chart.)

Anna Tushar was the child of an Austrian miner, Frank, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1901 and a Slovenian woman, Aloezea, who came in 1913.[8] Anna had two sisters. She lived her first several years in town, but the Catholic family moved to the Valley in 1922, about the time the anti-Catholic and anti-Hispanic KKK was burning crosses on Smelter Mountain. Anna’s father learned to farm, which he’d do in the summer and mine in the winter.[9]

A Zink link: John W. Zink made a raft, which he’d use to cross the Animas River. After his own mother died in 1926 and times got tough, John would paddle across the Animas and eat supper with the three Tushar girls and their parents.[10]

The Billings arrive

Anna Billings married Stephen Snell in 1866, but sometime after giving birth to Edwin Billings in 1871, divorced Snell because of his love for alcohol.[11] She retook her maiden name.

Around 1900 Edwin, apparently from the advice of cousins that preceded him in the Valley,[12] ventured from southern Wisconsin to Southwest Colorado and became a rancher. He later brought out his mother, Anna, too.

Edwin married Myrtle May Williams in 1908 in Durango, and that union produced Herbert Edwin Billings, who in 1934 married Emily Mead. There, now we’ve tied the Billings and Meads together. (Still confused? Maybe the accompanying chart will help.)

The war

Ed Mead was born in 1937, and at the time, Valley folks still farmed with horses, usually a team of two pulling a plow through fields or lugging a wagon filled with goods. He began at Hermosa school just as World War II was beginning. Effects of the Great Depression were still being felt, and the war brought on a new series of challenges. In the Valley, and everywhere in America, it meant rationing gas, rubber and sugar, among other precious items. And it meant recycling package string, and tin foil from gum and cigarette packages. But farmers benefitted from living close to the earth.

“We ate good,” Ed says. “We didn’t need much because we had dairy cows and pigs and sheep and turkeys.” If you got hungry you’d pick fruit off a tree or a carrot or tomato from the garden.

Clara Billings, born in 1935, remembers that World War II was scary, “but it just seemed so far away.”

“I remember my folks sitting around the radio, and putting up a map, and talking about what was going on.”[13]

While many young men of La Plata County volunteered and went to Europe or the Pacific to serve in the military, others remained in the Valley, doing the nation’s vital work of farming and keeping the troops and the nation fed.

Along the highway two teepees were constructed by Cookie Seale’s father, with a building in between with a flat roof. The building contained a café, grocery and curio store, and this was also headquarters of the Hermosa Courts Motel. A local air patrol formed, and members would take turns scouting the air from the flat roof, keeping an eye out for enemy planes.[14] It seems silly now, but the reality was that the Durango area was vital in producing vanadium for nuclear bomb production. Two nuclear bombs, of course, would be dropped on Japan in August 1945, finally concluding the long war.

During the war, Ed Mead recalls, students were taught in school to hate the Japanese, who had made a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941 that launched U.S. participation in World War II.[15] Animosity toward Germans, however, was not so widespread. Many of German and Austrian descent were scattered throughout the Valley. Ed remembers that a German-born man living on Florida Mesa, whose boys were fighting on the American side, actually was rooting for the Germans to win.


Hermosa school was actually a bit north of Hermosa, near where Honeyville sits today. Ed recalls on snowy winter days walking up the train tracks the 1½ miles to school. The vital railroad lines were cleared, the not-so-important highway (now County Road 203) was not quickly plowed as it is today. Smearing lard on your shoes made them waterproof – and smelly. They’d leave the rail tracks at the cemetery, follow game tracks if possible, and drop downhill to the school.

Which hopefully by then would be warm. The afternoon before, following school, the teacher would load coal or wood in the Warm Morning stove and hope the heat carried over to the next morning. The 16-20 kids would shuffle into the high-ceilinged schoolhouse, where the one teacher would instruct kids ranging from first to eighth grades, and stoke the fire if necessary. In 1899, when Ed’s great-uncle attended Hermosa, around 51 students packed the school, and they ranged up to age 17.[16] Families were larger in the 19th century, and, in America, gradually began getting smaller in the 20th.

“When you’re farmers, another kid meant another hand out in the field,” Ed Mead explains.

Finally, a boy

Herb Billings and three daughters, circa 1939.

Herb and Emily (Mead) Billings’ first four children were girls – Clara, Ruth, Mary and Jan. In May 1943, with another sibling arriving, the girls were anxious. The night that Herb Jr. was born, they were at their grandmother’s, looking out the upstairs window – perhaps waiting for a stork?

“I’m not sure what we were expecting,” Ruth says.[17]

After Herb came two more sisters, giving Herb six sisters and zero brothers. Bathroom time was difficult to come by. “My dad and I had an outhouse,” Herb says.[18]

By the late 1940s all the kids were busing to school. This was a time when everyone knew pretty much all their neighbors, so although you may not have been friends with everyone, you at least trusted them. So the bus driver had some leverage should a child misbehave.

“If you were in trouble you just got kicked off the bus and walked home. Can you imagine that?” Ruth says. “And we didn’t have a cellphone to call our parents.”

Troublemakers would bring peashooters or water guns onto the bus. Nelson (called Joe then), Eddie and Jerry Zink were “dangerous,” the Billings kids recall, but it was Jimmy Zink, the son of Hermosa residents Albert and Arleene Zink, who was the biggest culprit. “He was always in trouble,” Herb says.[19]


Kids didn’t have the free time they have now, old-timers will tell you, truthfully. Extracurricular activities often meant 4-H, and most Valley kids participated.

They’d meet at the Hermosa grange hall just north of Trimble or at members’ houses. Clubs separated into boys and girls groups. Farming activities were of course prevalent. But there was more. The 4-H kids competed as square dancing teams, and performed plays.

Herb Billings and Mary-Lou Mead both attended National 4-H Club Congress in Chicago, Herb in 1958, Mary-Lou in 1960. Interestingly, Mary-Lou says, the Durango kids in 1960 flew to Denver, bused to Lamar in southeastern Colorado, then rode the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad to Chicago. Mary Billings went to Fort Collins to perform in “Elizabeth the Queen.”

Dangers of farming

Frank Tushar, Ed and Mary Lou Mead’s grandfather, was stomping corn to pack it down at a silo in the Valley one day in 1936 when the heavy metal gooseneck broke off and fell. Another man screamed a warning and they began to run, but the gooseneck hit Frank in the head. He lived a couple of days, but ultimately succumbed to his injuries.[20]

Many people farmed 40-acre parcels that were divided by the Animas River. This meant they’d have to cross often to tend to stock or crops on both sides. Unfortunately, this led to horses stumbling and getting tangled in harnesses in the rushing water, people trying to save the horses or wagon, or getting thrown and slammed into the river. And periodic tragedies.[21]

Accidents on the farm were unfortunately common. It was around 1950 when Herb Billings Sr. was injured while loading hay in the barn. A “grab” fork would come down from the barn, pick up a load of hay, carry it into the barn, and drop the load when tripped. The mechanism was operated by a rope or cable pulled by a horse outside the barn. On this occasion when Herb Sr., up in the barn, pulled the trip rope it broke. He fell, hitting the side of the barn on his way down, and falling awkwardly.[22]

Herb thought he’d broken his arm, because it was numb. His wife drove him on bumpy, pockmarked roads to the hospital in Durango, where doctors figured out he’d broken bones in his neck and put him in traction. He spent the summer in a neck brace.

One result was that Clara had to start milking cows. “I smelled like a cow barn,” she says. “I tied a whole bunch of stuff around my hair, but I’m sure I stunk.”

The kids tried to pick up the slack. Neighbors and an uncle came to help out, too, picking raspberries and doing other assorted chores to keep the operation running.


If you did this now, your mother would scold you and tell you to never do it again: Back in the 1940s, and before that, you’d fill a bucket of water in the ditch, bring it home and let it sit. After a while the bad stuff settled and you’d drink off the top and use it for other household chores. “It didn’t hurt us,” Ed Mead says.

When you collect your own water and have to carry it into the house, you’re careful with how you use it. You certainly don’t waste it. On cold mornings, even inside the house, a layer of ice would cover the water in the bucket.[23]

Mosquitos were everywhere in the summer, and there was no control effort as there is now. Townie Nancy (Wilson) Mills spent a lot of time with Valley friends. “I got eaten alive by mosquitoes up here,” she says. “Thank God for mosquito districts.”[24]

“You never wore shorts or short-sleeved shirts when we were growing up,” Mary (Billings) Franchini says.[25]

One of Herb Jr.’s first jobs was with a newly formed mosquito control district in the early 1960s. He spent four or five summers spreading DDT over the Valley to kill the offending insects. DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972 after it was found to be entering the food chain and causing deaths and thinning egg shells in birds.

Fun and games

Does it sound like life was just awful for farm kids? Well, it wasn’t. They had baseball games at Albert and Arleene Zink’s. There were games of “capture the flag” at John and Ruby Zink’s. Two teams try to capture the other’s flag, and if you tag someone on your own turf they’re frozen in place until rescued by a teammate. The upshot was that many kids were zooming around in the pitch dark, running around the Zinks’ machine shed where objects blunt and sharp were waiting to snag an unsuspecting child.

“I don’t know how everyone kept from getting really hurt and cut up,” Herb Billings says.[26]

And sometimes kids did get hurt. During one July Fourth at their grandmother’s, Mary (Billings) Franchini held onto a Roman Candle too long and it burned her hand. She stuck her hand in the ditch to cool it off, then soaked it in tea water her mother brewed. It blistered, but soon healed. In fact, about two weeks later Mary was back at her grandmother’s, who decided the hand was fine and made her do the dishes. “It won’t hurt a bit to get that hand in the water,” Grandma Clara Mead informed her.

Mary and Jan Billings would often walk a half-mile down the highway to the Zinks in the evening, where they’d get together with Anne (Mary’s age) and Ida (Jan’s age). One fun thing was to have an all-nighter in the barn. “That was a big thing to sleep in the barn in the hay,” Mary says.[27]

When it came to play time, the choice would often be: to the hill or to the river? Up on the hill sometimes they’d find old Indian artifacts, arrowheads and even a metate. At the river there was a sandbar, like a beach, although no swimming. “We were told not to get in the river,” Mary says.[28]

Cardboard boxes or dishpans would serve as downhill snow sleds. There would be hockey games at the Zinks, or John Zink would drive around the ice on his Ford tractor with kids in tow, playing “crack the whip” and trying to hang on. Ed Mead recalls ice skating on Hermosa Creek one time when Peggy Zink (Albert and Arleene’s daughter) fell in up to her waist. He pulled her out and they kept going.

To get to church, the Billings children would walk down to the Logans, and Zelma (Zink) Logan would load them in her vehicle and take them to Sunday school at the Presbyterian church in Durango. No Billings or Mead can recall there ever being a church in the Valley.[29]


Needless to say, the proliferation of telephones made communication more instantaneous. (Although then if no one was home, you couldn’t leave a message. That held true in most homes until the 1980s.) Particularly in rural areas, the “party line” was common. Ed Mead recalls using a 16-phone party line. When the phone rang, it rang in 16 homes. Each party had its own identifiable ring. The general ethic was to not keep the phone tied up for long.

“If you had something to tell someone,” Clara says, “you’d call ’em, tell ’em, and hang up.”

The box-shaped phones hung on a wall, with the mouthpiece mounted in the box. You’d lift the earpiece up from the side, and that would alert a switchboard operator, who would say “number please” and place your call. The Billings still remember their childhood number: 0991 J3. Their mother eventually had the phone moved outside to the porch. Is it fair to say that with six girls around, phone usage might become a problem? Clara laughs at the memory: “You couldn’t talk very long because it was cold out there.”

“Some neighbors did talk a lot,” recalls Mary-Lou (Mead) Welch. You’d jiggle the phone to let others know you wanted on, or tell them it was an emergency.[30]

The day came when phones arrived with dials, around 1953. Herb remembers being at the Grange Hall that day with his younger sister Barb, and she was referring to tomorrow as “D-Day,” the day dials were coming online. “She was so excited.”

The end of World War II had brought an influx of tractors to farms. During the war metal was very expensive and hard to come by. Metal was needed badly for the war effort, for airplanes and tanks. But after the war, the Valley started filling with tractors, rendering horse teams obsolete and making it possible to farm more land faster.

Keeping food from spoiling became easier as the decades went by. Many people rented a locker at a freezer on East Second Avenue in town. When you made a trip to town your last stop would be to get your meat for the week. After the war the Billings got an electric freezer from Sears-Roebuck. This was such a big deal that the County Extension Office organized a tour to bring people to the Billings’ basement to see the freezer.

Nowadays, cars have electric windows, wipers adjustable for several speeds, defrosters, and have only become even more cozier and automatic, with seat warmers, cameras and self-braking mechanisms. Compare that to cars of the mid-20th century which had hand-operated windshield wipers and no heater. The earlier vehicle engines had to be hand-cranked just to start them. On cold days you’d drain the water from the engine so it wouldn’t freeze in the radiator. “Luxury” really didn’t arrive until after World War II; antifreeze (ethylene glycol) helped immensely, meaning cold engines might start and you didn’t have to drain the radiator when temperatures reached freezing. How soft are we now, in the 21st century, when we can be indoors, and push a button on the key fob to start the engine? We’ve limited our outside exposure to a quick dash.

The train

People and goods flowed regularly from Durango toward Silverton, and people and ore flowed regularly from Silverton to Durango. The train, completed in 1882, was the best means of transportation until a highway was built for the automobile. Cars and trucks began to be a bigger factor in the 1930s and 1940s as autos became more ubiquitous.

But it was still the train that shipped the most goods when the Mead and Billings children were growing up. Whatever you grew in the Valley, particularly near where the train stopped for water at Hermosa, you could load onto the Durango & Silverton and take to the mining community to the north.[31] That included potatoes, corn, hay and sugar beets.

Ed Mead recalls that he and his brother Jim would walk over to the Hermosa train stop and hop aboard as “guests” of the railroad. Ed says he probably didn’t pay to take the train to Silverton until the 1980s.

It was seldom that Valley kids went to town until they began busing in for school. Ed Mead recalls going to Durango only two or three times a year, in the summer. The stores would open around 7 a.m. so the rural residents could get their shopping done before they went about their farm chores.[32]

State highway/CR 203

Often when someone came driving by the Billings place, it would be a familiar face. Sometimes a hard-worker Valley farmer.

Recalls Clara: “I can remember being outside at night and it would be dark by then and you’d hear this ‘putt-putt-putt-putt’ going down the road and it was Johnny Zink on his tractor. With maybe a flashlight shining out or something. My dad would say, ‘Well, there goes John!’”

Up until 1963 the main highway ran down the west side of the Valley and the speed limit was 50 or 60. Today that’s County Road 203, and the posted speed limit is 35. Herb was about 11 around 1954, when he was out milking a cow, just below the highway. (Keep in mind that some cars didn’t have turn indicators – you signaled with an extended arm – and very few had seat belts.)

A vehicle was turning from the highway into their driveway when a second car, coming from the south and not anticipating the turning car, swerved violently to avoid it. The swerving vehicle rolled down into the Billings’ orchard. “It scared the hell out of me,” Herb recalls.[33] Herb was the first one on the scene, and recalls two vivid images: A woman caught up in the Billings’ apple tree, dead. And a man with blood streaming down his face. His mother, Emily Billings, came running from the house with blankets.

The new highway, straighter and wider, but not far from the old highway, was built in the early 1960s, completed in 1963. Increased traffic made it necessary. For the farmers and ranchers it caused more issues, further gobbling and splitting up pastures and fields, including the Billings’. Herb remembers watching the first road graders coming through, plowing up their fields and fences.

The highway department constructed a large culvert for the Billings’ 25 dairy cattle to get from one side of the pasture to the other.

In the ensuing years more farm and ranch land was lost to development. Life has changed, and the people have moved on.

There’s now an elementary school smack dab in the middle of the Animas Valley, although almost no students walk to it. The teacher doesn’t have to take time out to stoke the stove. The bathrooms are inside. And you can check this and make sure, but there’s a good possibility it has electricity.



[1] 1900 U.S. Census. (The 1910 U.S. Census indicates it might have been 1868.)

[2] Interview with Ed Mead, January 11, 2016.

[3] Bureau of Land Management land patent records.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Interview with Ed Mead, May 30, 2017

[6] Ibid.

[7] 1880 U.S. Census.

[8] 1930 U.S. Census.

[9] Interview with Ed Mead, 2016.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Interview with Clara (Billings) Mason, Ruth (Billings) Shock, Ernie Shock, Mary (Billings) Franchini, Herb Billings, Sandy (Burk) Billings, Mary-Lou (Mead) Welch, and Ed Mead, February 10, 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Interview with Ed Mead, 2016.

[17] Billings/Mead interview, February 10, 2016.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Interview with Ed Mead, 2016.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Billings/Mead interview, February 10, 2016.

[23] Interview with Ed Mead, 2016.

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

[25] Billings/Mead interview, February 10, 2016.

[26] Billings/Mead interview, February 10, 2016.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Interview with Ed Mead, 2016.

[33] Billings/Mead interview, February 10, 2016.