Norman “Skinny” Nielson, a reservoir of work, service
GIANTS OF SAN JUAN
The following story is a powerful metaphor on the life and character of one of Blanding’s outstanding cowboy pioneers.
“One spring evening Norman invited me to accompany him to where he kept his animals south of Blanding. He loved his horses, mules, cows, pigs, sheep, rabbits and chickens. He had names for almost all of them. He spent time with them and talked to them when he fed them. He loved taking his grandchildren with him to do the “chores.”
“On many occasions I saw Norman interact with his animals. One night we were on our way to the ranch when Norman realized that all his sheep had escaped their pasture and were in his neighbor’s field of fresh green alfalfa. That meant bloating and death if they ate too much. He stopped his pickup, got out and started yelling at the top of his lung….’dang you bad balls of wool…don’t you know you are killing yourselves…now dad burn it, you get yourselves back here… and you better do it dang fast or I am going to be mad…ya hear me you wooly rapscallions?!’
“When the sheep heard the yelling some of the older ones raised their heads and looked in his direction. Instead of climbing the fence and trying to herd them out of the field Norman continued his rant. “ You want me to make mutton out of you, you bad, bad fleeceballs… now get it in gear and get back here.” Finally the two alpha sheep started slowly toward the truck which was parked next to the hole they had found in the fence. It was obvious at what point they had escaped since it was covered with bits of wool. Soon all the sheep fell into line and trailed back single file to the fence where the adult sheep had to get down on their knees to squeeze through. One by one they filed past and returned to their field of sagebrush and tumble weeds. Norman had changed his tone and was now complimenting them and tickling their ears as they filed past as ‘dad burn good hunks of naughty mutton’.”
“He helped a few get back through his own fence, repaired the hole, got back in his pickup and continued the conversation he was having with me, as though nothing particularly unusual had happened. To this day, I marvel at that. Stock owners these days are sheep herders, not Shepherds. Norman Nielson was a Shepherd.” (Related by Steve Jensen, son-in-law)
And so he was, not only with his sheep, but with untold numbers of people whom he crossed paths with in his long and productive life. He was especially thoughtful of and kind to his Native American friends. He learned Navajo early in life and always went out of his way to be kind and visit with them. It was said at his funeral that he never turned his Indian friends down when they asked for favors or money and that often he gave them money when he did not have much himself.
The Nielson family’s income came mostly from cattle and sheep production. Each spring they herded their sheep from the canyon country of San Juan to the mountain ranges in western Colorado. On many occasions, Norman took his wife and children with him for the summer. They had a small cabin and they loved being together and helping Dad and their sheepherders keep and protect the sheep
One summer they were running over a thousand sheep in Colorado. An old bear developed a taste for lamb and killed several. The bear always managed to get away when Norman tried to shoot, or track him down.
One day Norman was riding alone in a grassy meadow when he spotted the bear. But alas, he had not brought his gun that day. Without thinking he grabbed his new lariet, and chased after the bear. Bears can run almost as fast as a horse. Again, without thinking about the consequences he roped the bear. The bear was doing his best to get away and was making a lot of noise. Horses instinctively dislike bears and his horse was doing his best to go in the opposite direction. There was a monumental tug of war that lasted until the bear pulled the horse into a grove of aspens. Norman was able to wrap his rope around one of the trees. As soon as he had the bear secured he took off for camp to get his gun. Later, when asked about the incident, he reportedly said, “well, it was stupid to rope that bear, but dang it I was not going to let him get away with my new rope.”
Norman Nielson was born September 9, l920 to Floyd Walton Nielson and Clara Jones Nielson. His father was the grandson of Jens Nielson, one of the original settlers of Bluff, and his mother was the daughter of Frederick I. Jones, one of the original settlers of Monticello.
Norman attended school in Blanding “when my Dad didn’t need me.” He missed a lot of school because of the demands of their livestock operations. He attended a quarter of college at BYU, but World War II started and his education was cut short.
His first job was being hired as a “derrick man.” His pay was 50 cents a day and he felt like he had fallen into a bowl of butter at that wage. Derrick men rode horses which swung the long arm of the derrick loaded with hay over hay stacks so they could be built high. In order to get the job at the princely wage of 50 cents a day, he had to agree to wait until the haying season was finished. Unfortunately the man for whom he was working died shortly before they finished and he was not paid for his labors.
Later in his youth, Norman and his friends loved rounding up wild horses on Mustang Mesa and Alkali Mesa. “It was a great delight for us to collect our father’s best horses and take especially good care of them in the winter, giving them lots of oats and good feed so that in the spring they were in top shape. By contrast the wild horses were always poor in the spring and could not outrun us. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, several of us would each take four or five of our dad’s top horses and catch as many of the best young wild horses we could. We drove them back to Blanding and spent months breaking them and then selling them for a few dollars. That was the easiest money we could make in those days and it was such fun that we would have done it even if there had been no money in it. How great was our delight in competing with each other, feeling the speed of a good horse under us and roping and taming those young broomtails.”
Despite what most mothers today would consider a dangerous lifestyle, Norman claimed to have never been seriously injured. “Once a horse fell on me and pinned me in a little gully. I could not move and neither could the horse. I lay there for several hours, wondering if I would ever get out, but one of the guys who worked for us came looking for me. He was able to dig out some of the rocks under the horse so he could move. He finally got off the top of me. I was laid up for two or three weeks with an injured leg, but it was not broken. Outside of that, that is the about the biggest predicament I’ve ever been in physically.”
His favorite food as a child was milk, bread and onions. Later in life his children would gag when he told them that, but he maintained to his dying day the claim was true.
Norman joined the Navy in 1942 and was assigned to the cruiser Saint Louis. His ship was part of the seventh fleet and participated in the invasions of Green Island, Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. His cruiser was severely damaged several times during Norman’s service, both by kamikazi planes and bombs. She was never sunk and played an active role in all the theaters of war in the Pacific right up until the end of the war.
Norman had many close calls. He was assigned to an ammo magazine for a time. A bomb hit one of the magazine compartments just above his and everyone was killed instantly. His area was flooded and they had to paddle in the cold water for 18 hours before they were finally rescued. Another time he was topside when a suicide plane exploded on deck. “The fire instantly wiped out fifteen men that I had known and associated with. It was just one thing or another until the war was over in August of l945.”
Norman returned home after the war and married Ruth Mary Jones who had grown up in Blanding. They were married in September of l947 in the Idaho Falls Temple. They are the parents of five children; two daughters and three sons.
Norman’s principle vocation was cattle and sheep production and farming. The family owned property for these ventures on the Colorado River near Cisco, in the mountains of western Colorado and near Blanding. He especially loved the life of the cowboy.
He was in partnership with his brother Connie for many years. They build the Frontier Theatre in Blanding, and also owned a sand, gravel and cement business. Connie ran the sand and gravel operation and Norman handled the livestock end of the family business.
He once confessed that he hoped his sons would someday join him in the cattle business, but it was not to be. Although his children loved the ranch life of their childhoods they ended up as an R.N. (Donna) M.D. (Sandy) orthodontist (Kirk) (Suzanne) wife of District Judge Lyle Anderson and (Jeff) businessman.
“Not bad”… Skinny was once heard to say. “ They make more money in six months than I do in six years. Can’t feel too sorry for them.”
Norman served his church in many positions including bishopric, teacher and a full time mission to New Zealand after his children were raised where he was a counselor in the mission presidency.
He loved San Juan County and believed firmly that Blanding has a destiny. In his own words, “ I and many of my friends and associates believe that Blanding will become a cultural center for the Navajo Indians and Americans who love the land. We believe that this was part of our calling to come into this area and prepare the Indian people to receive the blessings that they have been promised. I believe there are going to be many opportunities for those who come to live in this area. I think it is important that the right climate and the right feeling be established here in our communities. I also believe that there will be a large number of people who will want to come here to raise their families. The communities in San Juan are great places to raise children. We are less burdened with many of the problems which other areas face. Maybe this is just optimistic thinking, but I believe it and I believe it strongly. I believe tourism will one day be one of our biggest industries and that many people from around the world will come here to enjoy our ruins, our canyons, our mountains, our rock formations and the many other fantastic natural treasures we cherish.”
“My father, Floyd, loved this land. He used to take me to high places in the area and park the truck and look at the scene below. Then he would say, ‘ If we never pass this way again, Son, at least we left it a better place than when we came here.’ He impressed this thought upon me many times. My obligation, and my hope is that I can leave San Juan and Blanding a better place than it was when I came. I hope I can impress that thought upon my children also, that we have an obligation to leave this place a better place than we found it.”
Norman served for many years as the Chairman of the San Juan Water Conservancy District. He knew that real growth and development could never come to San Juan without large water storage reservoirs to water crops in late summer and to tide communities over in dry years.
He and his associates lobbied the State Water Board for years, trying to get Loyd’s Lake in Monticello and Recapture Lake in Blanding approved and funded. First the state board claimed that there was no money for such ambitious projects in rural areas…that the priorities had to be where the populations were greater.
In response to that, Norman started saving money through the Water Conservancy District, determined to build them eventually, even if the State would not lend support.
On other occasions, local water leaders were told that the proposed dams were not feasible because there would never be enough water to fill them. They kept careful records and measured the spring flows in South Creek and Recapture. They took the figures back to the State many times showing that indeed the reservoirs would be filled.
Finally in about l982, a somewhat frustrated State Board Member said in open meeting “Mr. Nielson, when the day comes that the San Juan Conservancy District has raised 1.5 million toward these projects, come back and see us.”
Norman pulled out his checkbook and said, “Mr. Chairman, would you like me to write you a check for 1.5 million now or after the meeting.”
Two years later Loyd’s lake was completed in the South Creek drainage above Monticello and in l985 Recapture Lake was completed in conjunction with the rebuilding of U. S. Highway 191 which today crosses the Recapture Dam. Norman was a major force in securing the millions of dollars necessary to build those two huge projects.
And in 2005, when the County received record precipitation, both reservoirs could have filled three times, but lacked the capacity.
Norman and his associates begged the state to build the dam 20 feet higher on the Recapture Dam which would have nearly doubled the water storage capacity. But the State would not fund the additional cost of the higher dam.
Norman Nielson’s legacy to San Juan County will be hard to measure in the future. You cannot put a price on water in the desert. As much as any other single individual, Norman Nielson worked to see that the people of San Juan County would have the necessary infrastructure to be able to seize opportunities for growth and development when those opportunities arose because we had water storage. His civic and church contributions were legion but space limitations will not allow their telling. One example, however, is the beautiful rock and iron wall along highway 191 at the Blanding Cemetery.
At his funeral in 2007 his children referred to him as “an imperfect man, but a perfect father.” The stake center was filled to capacity, despite the fact that most of his peers had preceded him in death. He is remembered by those who knew him as “the life of the party.” He loved people; he loved good food and he loved a good party. He had a hearty laugh, a wonderful smile and an eternal twinkle in his blue eyes. Those who were privileged to know him lost a dear friend and a giant spirit when he was called home.
And he truly left San Juan better place than he found it.