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MEEKER I Last week gave us the opportunity to give thanks for our many blessings. Topping the list for many was the blessing of family, particularly the love of our mothers who have stood strong through whatever life has handed them and made the best of every situation. Mothers are often the “glue” that holds everything together, and Fern Burke is a prime example of one of those wonderful mothers.
Fern Woodard was born in Rifle to Steven William and Opal Jeanette (McLain). Her father was the grandson of a Civil War veteran who went home at the conclusion of the war only to be rejected by his parents and told he was no longer their son. This was the case of many who fought on opposite sides of the war. Fern’s great-grandfather fought for the Union and did not believe in slavery. His birth name was Woodward so he changed his name to Woodard and began a life for himself.
He was living in Iowa when his wife, one daughter and one son contracted tuberculosis. He moved his family to Colorado as it was supposed to be the best place to combat the decease at that time. The family relocated to Lamar, but all three of the family members that were ill died of the disease.
Fern’s grandfather Gene had two brothers, Jim and Steve, who lived in Lamar and then moved to Rifle to make a living raising cattle, hay and horses. They bought land near Meeker (now owned by J. Gentry) on the Mesa, then called Prefountain Mesa, near where the high school is now down to the old highway. Fern said they owned the land to the gully then Bill Claugh owned from the gully up the other side. Gene and his wife had Lita (Westfall), Maude (Thomas), Maybell (Moss), and Steven.
Steven worked on the ranch and also raised sheep. He began his life with Opal and the two had seven kids: Betty, Leola, Maudie, Geraldine, Fern, Carol, and Jimmy.
“They finally got their boy after six girls,” Fern said.
When Jimmy was born he was very premature and was having spasms. The doctor told Fern’s mother that if the baby had another spasm they would have to put him in the hospital in an incubator. Opal replied, “Is it big enough for me? Because you aren’t taking my baby.” It turned out they didn’t have to take Jimmy and he is alive and well in Grand Junction today.
The kids all attended school in Rifle. Fern said she walked to school about a mile every day until the eighth grade. She was graduated from Rifle High School in 1954.
Fern married Dean Burke in 1966. They raised five children on the Piceance Creek ranch homesteaded by the Burke family: Tracy, Clinton, K.C, Jimmy and Carol. K.C. and his wife Heather and their two children Peyton and Pake, as well as Jimmy and his wife Stacey with their children Kale and Makenna, still live on the ranch. Clinton lives on the Johnson Ranch further up Piceance Creek. He has two girls, Shelby and Kinzie.
Fern talked about living so far from town, saying, “When Dean and I first got married, I didn’t know how to drive.” That made things a little difficult and she would have her sister Carole come over from the nearby Square S ranch to drive her to town. Soon after she had Dean teach her to drive and she recalls her first trips to town being “a little scary,” as the near 25 mile trip is a winding road. For the most part, they only went to town for necessities and that was OK with Fern who said, “I never was a town person, I liked it out there.”
She enjoyed the simplicity of their life and believes it was a great place to raise her children. “It might have kept them out of some trouble, I don’t know.”
She has a quilt hanging with family pictures and she speaks about her children and grandchildren with great pride and a humor no doubt connected to all the stories that come with raising five children and six grandchildren on a ranch far from town. The story of her granddaughter jumping in the ditch with all the boys brought a smile to her face.
When asked what has changed the most through the years Fern said, “I couldn’t say for sure, there have been changes but I kind of went with the flow.” She talked about how fast the time has passed and in the modest fashion synonymous with her generation, she didn’t think she had a great story to tell. Their story is in the life they lived, not wanting for much, but never compromising core values like strength of family, loyalty and perseverance.