Last Dec. 4, 2018, Jay Thoe wrote: “Late this afternoon, as I was coming down off the Cimarron, I encountered a herd of cattle moving up the County right-of-way — a big herd — maybe 500 head. I eased down through the herd and encountered a guy on horseback about midway. We waved. At the tail end of the herd there was another guy on horseback, Nick Gray himself! I stopped to visit with him. He said his hearing aides weren’t working, so the visit became just a smile and a handshake and he went on his way and I went on mine.”
That was a bitter cold day, with a slight wind blowing. Unbelievable to think of a man that age out riding, but Nick is not an ordinary man. He is a legend of his own, stemming from an extraordinary family.
For starters, Gray is the grandson of Judge John Gray who took up a homestead in Shavano Valley in 1884, became mayor of Montrose, was well-known for his work on getting the Gunnison Tunnel built and drove his team and buckboard over the mountains while serving as the district judge. He lived to be 99 and was said to be almost as sharp when he died as he was his entire life. He had three daughters and two sons.
Secondly, Nick’s father was one of those sons, Joe, who himself was a legend in his own time. Nick was born on Feb. 11, 1919 to Joe and Addie Hobson Gray, right in the middle of their family of 11 children. He grew up on the family ranch west of Olathe with a dad who thought that if a kid was old enough to walk, he was old enough to ride horses. His mother told one of her good friends that the babies were hers until she finished nursing them, then Joe took over — especially the boys. He had them on the back of a horse when they were just babies.
“I worked many hours a day all my life,” said Nick. “The last time I was out of a job was when I was 2 years old.”
In fact, he tells that his dad “rented him out” at the age of five. One of the neighbor ladies had a new baby, and the family needed someone to help around the house, so Joe dropped Nick off to be that helper. He could peel potatoes, wash dishes, run errands — things like that. His dad came back a couple weeks later to take him home.
“I’ve had a lot of horse wrecks, most with the horses falling or being jerked down,” said Nick. “I’ve had two back operations and my neck broken twice.”
One wild ride was down Olathe’s Main Street.
“When I was in high school,” he said, “I was ridin’ the meanest horse in Colorado. He would kick you with both feet. I had him hitched to the hitchin’ post that was across from the White Kitchen. I went to get on him and he started buckin’ and he bucked all the way down to Baker’s Garage. When he hit the cement, he slipped and about went through the plate glass window. Well, Constable Miller issued me a warrant for ‘reckless ridin’ and I was just ridin’ for my life! My dad paid the fine — I think it was $5. I didn’t think he should have paid it.”
Nick started his own career by moving houses.
“I moved my first house when I was 14 years old with six horses and no permit,” he said.
In 1939, he started earth moving with a D-4 Cat. That was the beginning of a long, industrious career. Because of all of Nick’s accomplishments, one would naturally think he holds an engineering degree, but he said, “I never did get to finish high school. I would go a few weeks, then have to quit to work on the ranch. I volunteered for the Army in 1940.”
That’s where he got his main education. Not only is he among the elite Pearl Harbor survivors, but he built roads and bridges on Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, while managing a crew of 25 natives who had been bombed out by the Japanese. The pain and lessons of war are forever engrained in his mind and heart. He used his education from being in the Army to build his ranching operation and the Nick Gray Construction Company.
Nick kept excellent daily business records of his many projects. He built over 3,000 miles of power line right-of-way and roads throughout three states. In 1963 he had two huge contracts at once, saying, “I cleared 220 miles for power line structure sites, building roads and sub-station sites from New Mexico to Wyoming...worked 13 hours a day on the caterpillar.”
Another accomplishment was building the infrastructure for the Purgatory Ski Area near Durango, Colorado.
“I built the ski course, parking lot, and the bypass road around the ski area, clear to Hermosa Park. I blasted 40,000 yards of rock, all in 129 days.”
Nick took flying lessons and acquired his own airplane which was a great help in transporting him and his crew from one point to another.
Nick married his wife Margaret on June 6, 1946. Their son Stephen had two daughters — Nicole and Lezlee. Nicole has four children and Lezlee has two, giving Nick six great grandchildren. Although he and Margaret divorced, they continued to work with one another and treated each other with respect until she passed away.
Although Nick can seem gruff, he has a heart as big as the whole outdoors. He cares deeply for his family, friends and all who have helped him on his amazing journey.
He has not yet thought about the word “retirement,” but it could be looming in his near future. He just can’t quite go there, however, without any cows on the place. It just wouldn’t seem right.
Happy Birthday, Nick. Have a great year; seek new adventures!
Marilyn Cox, a native of Montrose County, grew up on a farm and was always surrounded by countless family members who instilled the love of family and history. She retired from the Montrose County School District and, for 21 years, served as curator of the Montrose County Historical Museum.