Ben Gray Loved to be a Cowboy

When my friend Charley arrived in Montrose from the Midwest to take on a job with the Bureau of Land Management in 1975, the first person he met was Ben Gray.

Back then the town was still the Wild West all the way down to the cinch. There were high stakes poker games at Hadley’s, an occasional Friday night fistfight at the No Delay, cattle drives on Townsend and a host of characters determined to keep things that way.

Right down Main Street was the Chipeta Hotel and Bar which where other cowboys drank other beers. That was Ben’s favorite haunt in those days. It was a place that honored his shenanigans, a place to plot against the rest of the planet.

And so was the scene when Charley parked his pickup in the alley behind Chipeta’s his first evening in town. As he got out of the vehicle, he noticed a man in a ramshackle pickup backing out of a space across the alley. He kept backing and backing until he collided with Charley’s truck.

“Looks like a dinged ya.” said the driver, rolling down the window to survey the damage which amounted to a twisted bumper and a smashed headlight.

“You meet me here tomorrow at seven morning and we’ll settle up,” said Ben as he drove away.

“Sure,” thought Charley. “I’m the new guy in town and now the person who wrecked my pickup is laughing his way home to dinner while I stand out here in this cold alleyway.”

Tomorrow morning’s sun came up and Charley was back in the alley feeling a bit naïve, hoping for his scheduled appointment. In a few moments, Ben arrived, pulling a wad of cash from his Levis.

“What do I owe you?” he asked.

“I figure $400 will cover the damage,” offered Charley, still a bit surprised.

Ben counted out four $100-dollar bills and gave them to Charley.

“My name’s Gray, Ben Gray,” he said. “Now I want to buy you a beer for your trouble.”

Tendencies to paint Ben Gray as larger than life are not too far off. He was born Benjamin Franklin Gray on August 16, 1927 and disappeared in May of 1978. People still talk about his escapades today remembering him fondly as Bennie or coolly as that sonofabitch. Either way he was the classic anti-hero, squeezing his face in a game of liar’s poker or helping some little kid up onto a horse.

“I remember when daddy won a D-6 Cat in a game of liar’s poker,” said daughter JoJo Gray, owner of the Windmill Restaurant on East Main. “Then there was another time when he came home, unsnapped his shirt and what seemed like a fortune in one-dollar bills came floating to the kitchen floor.”

Ben’s eccentric nature did not evolve by accident. His father Joe had his own way of approaching life as well. Sid Pope, who now lives in Ridgway, remembers Joe Gray from his high school days in Olathe.

“I was working Saturdays at Merle Buzzard’s Co-op, a spot frequented by Joe. One morning he showed up wearing one cowboy boot and one sneaker with a rope for a belt,” laughed Pope. “He wasn’t trying to get attention. He just came to town without thinking much about his attire. In later years when he could no longer get a driver’s license he knocked out the windshield of his pickup, hitched up a team of horses, and continued his rounds.”

They were just shoes and pickups after all.

Ben, who loved being a cowboy, once ran a foot race (heavily wagered) against a Cadillac and won. He figured he could be at the other end of the block before the car hit its stride. He was right. He had made it from Stockmen’s Café to Cascade before the Cadillac could get out second gear.

“That story circulated for years making Ben more than just a local legend,” added Pope.

Ben Gray, one of 11 kids, started rodeo at age 14. Even then, he had a powerful upper body and bandy legs. By the time he was a young adult he had won a roster of accolades including Saddle Bronc Champion at the National Western Stock Show.

In 1947, he married Barbara Brooner and over the next few years they had four daughters (Nikki, Carol Jean, Bonnie and Marla (JoJo) and one son, Thomas.

“I married him because I liked him,” said Barbara. “It sure wasn’t because he was rich. He enjoyed being a character,” she said. “We took a Harley-Davidson honeymoon to Grand Junction. That was a long time ago. I never was much of a horse person. I never liked horses but I played along.”

That was a big year. He had just won the saddle bronc prize, his first child was born and he caught a wild horse that he named “Jigs” (“The best horse I ever rode”) after chasing him for eight days.

Soon it was four more kids accompanying him on his way to Lake City, Blue Mesa and Silverton. His daughter JoJo remembers it all quite well.

“At one point daddy owned 6000 acres and permits for a whole lot more,” she said. “He always got us up real early. If you were working with him, it was way before the chickens got up. We’d eat breakfast at Gay Johnson’s (truck stop restaurant that used to be in Montrose) and be up on the Blue by daylight.”

She remembered driving the pickup up Sonofabitch Canyon at five years old because she was too young to handle a horse.

“I was the flagger when we moved cows,” she smiled. “Daddy had a very mathematical mind. He was a warm and friendly person but just don’t forget to shut the gate! He sure did enjoy getting around the rules and he’d jump at the chance to make a little money if he saw a situation as an easy proposition. He did business with a handshake.”

Known for the heralded Ben Gray Omelet, lunches on the trail were not quite so extravagant.

“Daddy’s favorite lunch was cheese whiz, cold weenies and red licorice…no foolin,” laughed JoJo.

“Once he bought a herd of sheep in New Mexico in April. The price had been right but he had no permit to graze in Hinsdale County until July so we walked the sheep,” she explained. “We had to do three miles per day to be legal on the highway. Two miles forward and one back. All the kids helped, especially with the lambing and we didn’t have school for two months!”

JoJo said her father taught her “you gotta be strong and be happy.”

Ben loved his association with the movie industry where he was often a main livestock supplier for films shot in Western Colorado. Donning a beard, he had several parts in “Tribute to a Bad Man” with James Cagney and acted as a consultant of sorts for “How the West Was Won”.

“If people noticed him he was happy,” said wife Barbara. “It wasn’t like he was out for their attention. He just followed the philosophy: Be who you are and do what you like to do.

In 1964, he opened Ben Gray’s Silverton Rodeo with 10-cent pony rides for the kids and staged shootouts from the rooftops for the train people. My sister Nikki and brother Tom were the wranglers. Later the production evolved into Ben Gray’s Wild West Show that played on Blue Mesa for years to come.

Whether he was cutting hippies’ ponytails or hanging deer meat on the Log Cabin Bar’s porch for friend, Tub Carl, Ben lived life with passion. Sipping a Moscow Mule at the corner of the bar at the Red Barn, he would survey the situation as neither a saint nor a sinner.

One time owner of the Chipeta Bar, Don DeJulio, was a good friend. He remembers Ben riding his horse into the bar on a busy Saturday afternoon since “that horse of mine needs a beer”.

“I poured some in the tank and the horse drank it,” said DeJulio. “Moments later some tourists wandered from the bright day into the dark bar and had a horse’s ass right in their faces.”

DeJulio went on to say that most of the Ben Gray tales could not be reprinted.

“He’d raid the kitchen and help himself to a bite then tell the cook: Oh, don’t mind me. Once he rode his horse all the way down the narrow, steep stairs at DeJulio’s (Restaurant on North Townsend) because “It might be fun”.

“Ben once wrote me a check for $50 on a bar napkin and they cashed it without a word at the First National Bank,” said DeJulio. “Back in those days they knew everyone.”

“Sometimes my dad would just drive along and honk, waving at the trees,” remembered JoJo. “There was never a day in my life where I wasn’t proud to be his daughter.”

– Kevin Haley

Filed Under: Reflections on Disorder


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