Stella Wheatley: maker of friends, fun & community

photo courtesy of Wheatley Family | Stella Wheatley enjoys a moment of smiles at the bottom of the sledding hill.
photo courtesy of Wheatley Family | Stella Wheatley enjoys a moment of smiles at the bottom of the sledding hill.

Women’s History Month

by Marissa Lorenz

Stella Marie Smith Edmondson Wheatley “did not know a stranger,” either in Middle Park or wherever she would travel. She “was a friend to all,” recounts her granddaughter Dominique Gore Jones. “She talked to anyone, anywhere, anytime. She just really wanted to get to know people that way.”

Stella was born September 24, 1924 to Harry and Lillian Ann Smith on the Blue River, south of Kremmling. They lived on her grandparent’s ranch at the bottom
of Spring Creek– the Bell Place, homesteaded by Lillian’s parents, George and Estella Bell. Her brother George was born in 1926, but Harry left the mother and two young children soon after. In order to support her family, Lillian went to work, first, on her uncle’s nearby ranch and then that of Colorado State Senator Fred Flebbe.
It was while working for the Senator that Lillian met Clyde Edmondson, a government trapper who was widowed with three children, Francis, Helen, and Joe. The two would marry in 1928 and remain on the Flebbe ranch for the next 25 years, raising their combined family and having one more child together, Karl Edmondson. The children attended the Hillcrest country school up toward Dice Hill. Stella would later recall walking up the hill with her siblings and neighbor kids to school each day. They would enjoy school programs, family dances, 4-H picnics, and riding the family’s bobsled “to parties and dances, bundled up with hot rocks at their feet.”

She completed 8th grade at Hillcrest, then moved to Ronan, Montana to start high school. There, she lived with her aunt and uncle, Mable and Willard Bell, famed
bee keepers. But Stella returned to complete her junior and senior years at Kremmling Union High School, graduating with the class of 1942. Construction of the Green Mountain Dam was nearing completion at this time, and Stella went to work
at the Bucket of Blood, a nearby establishment with cabins and a restaurant that served the crew members. She worked there as a cook’s assistant until she took a job on the Pickering ranch up Troublesome Creek to the east of Kremmling.

It was on the Troublesome that she met Ken Wheatley for a blind date, the man who would become her husband on August 29, 1943. The young couple made their first home on the Alfred Carlson homestead on the “back Troublesome,” where they soon welcomed a son, Alan. In 1946, Ken’s father, George Wheatley, Sr., helped the pair purchase the original Heineman homestead from some of Ken’s kin, located further downstream. This would become their home for life, where they would build up a successful ranch operation and raise four children, Alan, Leah, Bill, and Twila.
In the following years, Stella would become an active rancher, mother, and community leader. With Ken, she ran and pastured cattle, mended fences, bailed and stacked hay. In the community, she was a longtime member of several home
demonstration clubs, served on the PTA, helped organize the exhibit hall for the Middle Park Fair and Rodeo, was a girl scout leader, and was involved with 4-H, FFA, and the Young Farmer’s Homemakers. She was an integral member of the Cowbelles, the Kremmling Hospital Auxiliary, and the Rebekahs, a service organization whose motto was “to live peacably, do good unto all, as we have opportunity, and especially to obey the Golden Rule.” “She was especially interested in young people,” tells daughter Twila O’Hotto. “One of her dreams was to have a home for unwed mothers. Her goal in life was to help people.”

In 1952, the Middle Park Times reported that Stella was “in charge” of the newly opened public library in the Kremmling Town Hall on the Town Square, at least until the collection had to be relocated due to the Town Hall fire later that year. She was among the first to fundraise for a Kremmling museum. And in 1964, the Eagle Valley Enterprise reported that she rode in the Grand Entry for the Fair, as the Noble Grand of Dora Rebekah Lodge, but was injured. Twila remembers that the horse reared and the saddle horn hit her mother, giving her a black eye. Lillian, a baker, made a rocking horse cake to celebrate Stella’s birthday a week later, reading, “Sis, you should stick to this kind of horse.”

As her children grew and left home, Stella sought company and paid work in Kremmling. She cleaned at Bob’s Western Motel for a bit, before being employed by the school district. She was a cook in the lunchroom and then drove a school bus for 14 years. Dominique recalls that her grandmother drove the Troublesome route, taking her and many of her cousins back and forth from school everyday. “You knew you were in trouble when she used your middle name!” Jones continues, “She’d really get going down the Lane and it was like riding a roller coaster. And every year, on the last day of school, she’d take the whole busload down to a big ditch by our house for a big, huge water fight. (…) She sure did have fun.”

Later Stella drove the senior bus and was known for taking friends and family from Cliffview and Silver Spruce on sometimes raucous adventures. Twila recalls how she once took several ladies on an outing down the Trough Road, through Radium, and over the primitive Blacktail Creek road toward Gore Pass. It was a little early in the season though and the way was blocked by a snow drift just in sight of the passing Highway 34. Being so close, Stella decided to ford the bank but became stuck. Fortunately, she carried a bag cell phone. Several phone calls later and numerous potty breaks by little old ladies in the snow, son Bill would wrench them out of the mess. “She had to take them all out to dinner to make up for it,” Twila laughs.

Stella and Ken were recognized as Citizens-of-the-Year in 1987 by the Middle Park Fair Board, and Stella was honored as Pioneer-of-the-Year in 1999. At some point, the Wheatley’s would move to Cliffview when Ken was recovering from a surgery and Stella loved it. “She was a social person and she loved having all the people to visit with,” says Twila. But Ken missed the ranch, so they moved back home to the Troublesome. In 2006, daughter Leah would return home also to help care for them, cleaning and cooking and other such chores, before her death a year later.
Stella would follow her daughter on June 17, 2008, when she succumbed to leukemia at 83 years old. In her obituary, Alan would remember her as the “life of the party.” “There was never a dull moment with her,” Dominique says still. And Twila confirms, “That’s just her. There are so many stories… My mom loved people, loved Kremmling, and made a friend of everyone.”

[Sources: Family interviews; Grand County Historical Association Journals- “The Folks on the Troublesome” and “Where the Rivers Meet”; Eagle Valley Tribune via ColoradoHistoricNewspapers. org; Middle Park Fair Books, 1987 and 1999; Sky Hi News, July 2, 2008; and … Special thanks to Don Dailey.]