Charles Kelly Capitol Reef National Park

Adus F. Dorsey II

     Pearl Harbor was a sitting duck in the passive Pacific Ocean while the Second World War was still being waged against the Germans in Europe, a time when Charles Kelly first came to Wayne County in 1941 to visit his good friend “Doc” Inglesby. Charles Kelly was a printer by trade but was better known as a history buff and writer. The story goes that Kelly’s dream was to acquire an established fruit orchard but later complained he was unable to make such a purchase because of the exorbitant price of property that went “sky high” at the outset of World War II.

     Some sources say Kelly became acting custodian of the newly formed Capitol Reef monument in 1942, but records show that it was closer to May, of 1943 when the Superintendent of Zion allowed Kelly and his wife Harriet to occupy the newly acquired Alma Chesnut’s homestead in exchange for care taker services.1941 was a troubled time for Brother Chesnut after the devastating flood of 1938 took out most of his peach trees, it was then that Alma Chesnut began to loose his faith for a productive life in Fruita, it was also at a time when Alma Chesnut came to the conclusion that it was an opportune time to sell his “Peach Pit” property to the United States Government late in the year of 1941.

      There is a line in one of James McMurtry’s songs “Painting by numbers” that sort of sums up Kelly’s first few years’ of employment by the government at Capitol Reef. “You take out the garbage and hope someday it pays off”. A lyrical line that still rings true today, kinda, but visibly apparent these days it is more beneficial if you are somehow related.

     In the years from 1941 to 1961 no other Fruita property owners sold their prized Fruita property to the park service. In what was considered to be a godsend that the Roosevelt administrations Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) arrived in Wayne County in the 1930’s and at once employed local individuals to assist in the construction of a few park facilities that included flood control structures and a red rock ranger station, ending what Kelly quipped as a “truly pioneer existence”. Wartime funding hindered much of the needed infrastructure progress in Capitol Reef; much desired electric service didn’t arrive to Fruita until 1948. Dee Hatch remembers that the Ranger station was the first time that Garkane power had ever run an underground service. “We ran a steel pipe with some #6 wire in it from a pole to a meter socket on the outside of the Ranger Station, all the other services installed up to that time were done over head”, Dee declared as he tilted back his coveted Garkane ball cap.

     Another one of Kelly’s primary beefs was the lack of management of Fruita’s irrigation system and at one point he tried to organize a “ditch company,” his misguided proposal was not well received and one of the local men “threatened to throw me in the river for suggesting such an idea” Kelly in his advancing age once recollected. The threat of being physically picked up and thrown bodily in the river or irrigation ditch was a favorite form of intimidation often used by the biggest bully on the ditch in those days and more times than not it worked. Not so surprising and still secret today are the details on how some irrigation water is often managed. In the case of Fruita in the early days water disputes were often settled through the inspirational assistance of the Torrey Bishop, not so much the case or much at all in present day. 

     There is little doubt or has anyone ever refuted the idea that moonshining took place in and around Fruita and Torrey, particularly due to the yearly bounteous crop of fruit and grain available in Wayne County during the time of prohibition. George Davidson once confirmed a still site at “Whiskey Springs” and stated that although sheep shearers reputedly bought most of the distilled product, much of it was consumed locally and more times than not “the moonshiner himself was his own best customer”.  

     Max Robinson tells a story about when he and his brother Clay were kids that they came across a “still” in close proximity to the old Sulphur (Sand) Creek road about a hundred or so yards from the Cass Mulford ranch, the mischievous Robinson brothers dismantled the still and hid the various “still” parts in the desert brush. One day when the “still” owner went to check on his “copper creation” and saw it was missing he got real nervous thinking the “government revenuers” were on his trail and at once made the instant decision to go visit a rumored distant cousin in St. George. 95-year-old Max always chuckled in that throaty laugh of his when he told that story.

      Kelly’s complaint about “drinking” slaps in the very face of hypocrisy; it appears too that through local testimony that Kelly himself was a problem drinker. It was widely known that one of the reasons Kelly came to Fruita was to grow grapes, “He was a more or less a drunkard, a wino” recalls an early anonymous Fruita resident.

     As some local records suggest most local people were reticent about criticizing Kelly either pointedly or directly, or did they ever suggest he did not try his darn-dest to get along with the people of Fruita. “Charles Kelly was a fine fellow to work for and would steer his best Sunday buggy in a wide arc around any conversations about religious matters, mostly because privately he was locally known as a  “Mormon-Eater”.

     Another campaign Kelly undertook which annoyed the local community was his opposition to mining in the park. In 1904 a claim was filed on a uranium mine in Grand Wash. At one time Tine Oyler of Fruita owned the claim and the ore was sold for medicinal purposes. Actually, the monument was open to uranium mining in February of 1952; by 1955 Kelly had succeeded in persuading the Park service to stop issuing mining permits. This obvious and intentional act was thought of as another type of government intervention instigated by Charles Kelly, one that overly distressed the residents of Fruita who were at the time enjoying the monetary benefits from the sale of homemade meals, country style lodging and a variety of well-known medicinal fruit beverages to the miners.

     In 1957 the road from Torrey to Fruita became a 10-mile ribbon of freshly laid asphalt and like a slithering desert snake and an illusion it often disappeared over a hump in the highway. In1958 then President Dwight Eisenhower issued a proclamation enlarging the monument by almost 1500 acres. In 1959 plans began to extend State Road 24 along the Fremont River, short cutting the previous route through Capitol Wash (Gorge). This action by the government required a right-of-way through many of the orchards on the north side of Sand (Sulphur) creek. It was then that the National Park Service decided to acquire “by hook or crook” private properties. Three Fruita property owners sold out in 1961, but it was locally known that the Fruita orchard owners were not uniformly accepting of the property sale deal.

     The park began removing private structures related to tourism in the 1960’s. Dewey Gifford was one of the last to own property in Fruita and voluntarily sold his “little piece of Fruita paradise” in 1969, Dewey then took up a residence in Torrey in 1970. Claire Bird “a rather cantankerous fellow and adamant park denouncer” involuntarily relinquished his ownership of the Capitol Reef Lodge in 1978, ending a long drawn out bitter battle with the “gub-ment,” the historical event became known as the last of the hand made square cut nails to be driven into the “fruit wood coffin” of the Mormon settlement known as Fruita.   

     Despite the influx of “newcomers,” Fruita remained intact when Charles Kelly finally retired in 1959, and in the style of Claire Bird, Charles Kelly reluctantly, and with much personal trepidation handed over the well-worn Capitol Reef Park, “work horse reigns” to the infamous and much despised “Kaiser Kreuger”, (William Kreuger)… Kelly once grumbled in an interview at his retirement home somewhere in Salt Lake City.

      For some mystical reason, Charles Kelly’s 17 year, ever growing grip at the helm of the USS ship Capitol Reef somehow reminds me of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss

References and quotes for this article of local interest include but are not limited to; one of my all time favorites, Anne Snow’s original edition and the beloved Red book “Rainbow views”. Cathy A. Gilbert and Kathleen L. McCoy’s detailed report on the Cultural Landscape of Fruita, David R.M. White‘s book “By their fruits ye shall be known, a must read for fruit lovers and wannabe bootleggers. And last but not least occasional visits with the likes of Dee Hatch and Max Robinson and anyone else that can clearly remember the infinite challenges of the formative years of Capitol Reef National Park during the nineteen forties and fifties.

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