Thriving on history and people
December 25, 2006
Donna Hellyer’s favorite exhibit at the Hayden Heritage Center sits among weathered reminders of ranching and coal mining days gone by.
Dedicated to the early Campfire Girls organization in West Routt County, the display features a faded brown uniform from the girls’ service group and a photo of uniform-clad teenage girls smiling and holding signs supporting prohibition. Two of the women, Hellyer notes, were members of longtime West Routt families.
Hellyer’s enthusiasm for people and history is apparent as she describes memorabilia in the museum and recalls her life’s roles, many of which revolve around appreciating and the special places she’s called home.
A third generation Coloradan, Hellyer, 73, was born and raised in Denver but found her calling early in the mountains, fishing and traveling with her family and working on ranches during summers.
“I was bitten not only by the horse bug, but the history bug at a young age,” she said.
After some college, Hellyer married former husband William and began having children. They lived in California for a time, but found their way back to Colorado, where they eventually bought the Bolton Ranch north of Hayden and focused on raising horses and their six children.
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In the 1960s the family began offering horse packing trips into the Flat Tops Wilderness. Their business, All Seasons, was the first in the Yampa Valley to offer sleigh ride dinners at the ski mountain.
Hellyer took that business experience to Breckenridge following her divorce, starting a similar horse operation before embarking on a new and hardier lifestyle at 10,400 feet in Montezuma.
She was one of only 12 full-time residents at the time.
“I think I was the oldest thing up there besides the buildings,” Hellyer said.
Standing at just under 5 feet tall, she wasn’t daunted by the frigid temperatures or towering snow drifts that lingered into May. Instead, she found peace and promise in the town, where she renovated a building into a busy bed and breakfast.
“Everyday was a new day,” she said. “I met so many wonderful people, it was just exhilarating.”
Problems finding help to run the business, and a desire to be closer to her children in Hayden and Craig, persuaded Hellyer to return to the Yampa Valley in the late 1990s.
Resettling in Hayden inspired a sense of commitment to the town and region, a feeling stemming from an accident in 1977 when Hellyer’s son David was severely injured in a bull riding accident.
“Everyone came together to support us : I got involved in city planning and county planning to make a difference,” said Hellyer, who has promoted smart growth projects, such as updating the Hayden comprehensive plan, while serving on the Hayden and Routt County planning commissions.
Part-time jobs the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in the winter and the museum in the summer are an opportunity for Hellyer to share her knowledge of the region with visitors.
Sharing history is important to Hellyer, who is very involved in a Cultural Heritage Tourism project aimed at attracting more visitors interested in Northwest Colorado’s wildlife, mining and ranching past and other cultural qualities.
She also has spearheaded efforts to list Walnut Street, Hayden’s historic main drag, on the Colorado Registry of Historic Places.
Hellyer is notorious for making lists to keep focused on daily activities and big picture goals, such a horse pack and fishing trip in the Flat Tops which she did two years ago as well as visiting other places including Italy, where she is headed in September.
“I’ve been around a lot,” she said. “I’ve seen so much I feel lucky.”
Hellyer keeps up her energy by rising early, stretching and maintaining a balanced diet that includes meat and lots of fruit. Her lifestyle has helped her keep off the 30 pounds she lost two years ago after a bout with high blood pressure.
Overall, Hellyer sees aging as a positive progression that has made her even more confident in her life’s work.
“I think it’s been great,” she said. “When you’ve got gray hair, you say what you want.”