Jim and Jo Stanko-A love for the land
Stankos put heart and soul into keeping family ranch alive
Jim and Jo Stanko. It’s hard to picture one without the other. They met during Jo’s freshman year at Western State College in Gunnison. Jim was a junior and older than the other students by a year. He had taken a year off after high school and worked at a filling station in Denver. It was a co-worker’s stories about Vietnam that got him to go back to school. Jo majored in elementary education and Jim was a history major.
Ask Jo why she married Jim and she simply says, “He was persistent.”
They married less than a year after they started dating.
“I think we proved to them that young marriages can work,” Jo said.
It was 1966 and the Vietnam War was just beginning. There was still deferment for students and Jim continued his education to get a master’s degree in history.
After graduation, the Stankos took teaching jobs in Oregon and New Mexico.
“When you’re born and raised in the same place, you know there’s a better place to be,” Jim said.
Their wanderings were cut short in 1970 when Congress eliminated deferments and Jim was drawn as No. 7 in the draft lottery.
“We joke that it was the only lottery he ever won,” Jo said. Jim was 26 years old with a wife and a child when he was drafted. The couple found out after they decided to move to Creed for a teaching job. Jim walked into the draft office to give them his change of address and they handed him his draft notice.
He was deployed to Germany in July.
Jo had a hard time by herself in the small town of Creed. Her newborn son, Patrick, had allergies to formula and she had to drive to Monte Vista just to buy a formula he could handle.
Exhausted and in need of support, she decided to take a job as a fourth-grade teacher in Hayden. She taught for a semester, sold the car and flew to Germany to be with her husband.
Upon their return to the states, the Stankos knew two things. They wanted to be in a small town and they wanted to be in Colorado.
They took jobs outside of Meeker in one of the last rural schools in the state, the Rio Blanco School. The school was built in the 1800s and the Stankos lived next door in a two-bedroom teacherage.
Most of their students were the children of ranchers and ranch hands.
Students from kindergarten to eighth grade were taught in one classroom. Enrollment ranged from eight to 17 kids.
“We taught the kids to ski,” Jim said. “The deal we had was whoever’s children we took skiing, their parents would babysit Patrick.”
In the back of Jim’s mind, he always knew that he would return to Steamboat and work on his family’s ranch. He just didn’t know how soon the call would come.
After a few years in Meeker, Jim’s dad called. He was thinking about selling.
“I grew up there,” Jim said. “My dad was born in this house. My granddad built this place. I went to the little schoolhouse down the road.” He wasn’t going to let the place go.
The Stankos came back to Steamboat when school let out and they’ve never left.
“I call it a bait and switch,” Jo said. “I married a teacher, but he turned out to be a rancher.”
Immediately, the Stankos changed the way the ranch was run. Jim’s dad split his living between cattle and grain (60 head of cattle and 400 acres of grain).
“We got rid of the grain, because it wasn’t very profitable,” Jim said. “The 1970s were a hard economic time and grain was the most labor intensive. Almost everyone quit raising grain.” They increased the number of cattle and settled into the rest of their life.
“It was still the old Steamboat when we arrived,” Jo said. “The ski area was here, but we hadn’t had the next flux of 1970s people. The old-timers were still here and when you came over Rabbit Ears, you didn’t see many lights in town.”
When she got to town, Jo’s mother gave her a piece of advice she has never forgotten.
“She told me that this is a small town. Be careful what you say because you might be saying it about someone’s family,” Jo said. “To this day, I don’t talk about people.”
Since the 1970s, however, the Yampa Valley has changed. The population has more than doubled since the Stankos moved back and land prices continue to rise.
After chores, Jim and Jo spend their evenings attending meetings — planning commission, City Council, and meetings about Emerald Mountain, meetings about the courthouse.
“We attend them all,” Jo said. “Sometimes we split up and sometimes we tag team. I’ll go to the first half and he’ll go to the second.”
They attend as a voice for rural Routt County.
“It’s our community, but there are a lot of people out there who want to tell us how to run our rural life,” Jo said. “If we want some semblance of our type of lifestyle left in this valley, we need to speak up.”
Starting in 1984, Jim took a job at the Routt County Extension Office and for 11 years he served as the 4-H agent for the Routt County Extension Office.
Jo took a job as a teacher at Soda Creek Elementary School. She taught second, third, fourth and fifth grades over the years.
“Changing grades kept me fresh,” she said. “I need that stimulation.”
Now, she serves as the president of the Colorado CattleWomen.
Jo drives a 2000 Subaru that she’s already put 103,000 miles on traveling to local, state and national meetings.
“I’ve become kind of a cheerleader for the independent rancher,” Jo said. “When a factory closes and jobs are lost, the media is there. But when a ranch disappears, no one is there.
“Then those people are gone. It’s a silent ripple slipping below the surface.”
In three years, the Stanko ranch will be 100 years old and that, Jim said, will be the greatest accomplishment of his life. He is the third generation to keep the family ranch alive.
“There are very few left,” Stanko said. “Maybe four or five ranches made it to the century mark and there are four or five in the wings. We’re one of them.”
The ranch came into the family on July 7, 1907.
“I hope people can hang on,” Jo said. “Our son has a strong attachment to this ranch emotionally. But I always told him that if he wants this ranch, he’ll need a job that can support it.”
The neighborhood on Twentymile Road where Jim Stanko grew up used to be all ranch land, he said.
“There are fewer and fewer of them. Now we’re starting to be the old-timers.”
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