I had introduced myself to the owner (since 1992) of the historic Centennial Ranch, along the Uncompahgre River south of Colona, during last weekend’s “Open Ranch.” For two days, he and his wife Joan welcomed visitors to the 400-acre property, first homesteaded in 1879, as a fundraiser for the Ouray County Historical Society.
Kontny was wearing a beat-up black cowboy hat and jeans. Wide wire-rim glasses betrayed his age (he graduated from high school in 1954), but little else about him did. He was walking fast toward the food tables carrying a big shallow-sided steel pan – perhaps the cut-off base of a 55-gallon drum. “Enjoy your day,” he said, excusing himself. “I’ve got to get this thing going,” he said, as he directed a young hand to fetch some firewood from a stack behind the line cabin.
Kontny is an engineer. He made his money working for the engineering and construction giant Fluor Corporation. Fluor built the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the Dharhan Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia. They have 41,000 employees working in 25 countries. Before he retired Kontny was CEO of Fluor Daniel, the outfit’s major subsidiary.
He started out as a country boy, though, and has now returned to his country roots with relish.
Born the ninth of ten children, he was raised in Julesburg, Colo., in the northeast corner of the state, in a town that was named for a horse thief who stole from the Pony Express. He has said he drove a tractor for the first time at age 6. “I never played a game of baseball or softball in my life, because those were summer sports and I was working. Everybody had jobs to do – but it was a great life.”
He took an engineering degree from CU Boulder, but, as he says in Vol. 2 of his autobiography, The Life and Times of Vince Kontny (there will be four volumes): “While I received my degree from the University of Colorado I received my education in the Seabees.”
He built airstrips for the Navy in Vietnam. Then he drove bulldozers as a civilian, before proceeding swiftly up the ranks at Fluor, working jobs on all seven continents.
Solving problems on each continent, no doubt. The problem with the hot dogs involved what looked to me like two false starts. Kontny’s long-time ranch manager Duane Beamer had dug a trench and was cooking chili and biscuits in heavy dutch ovens. For the kids, and for anyone who didn’t want chili, there were hot dogs. But it was a challenge roasting the wieners efficiently on the coals in the bottom of the trench.
The first solution seemed not to be working at all. It consisted of small iron hooks suspended above the coals, but no-one was using it, perhaps because you needed gloves to touch the hooks.
The second solution involved skewering the dogs on the ends of cottonwood sticks. But the sticks had to be quite long, as guests were obliged to lean over the fence adjacent to the trench. They appeared to be fishing, with their poles held vertically down toward the heat.
Before lunch, Cecily, Mike, Boden and I had toured the main ranch house, called Dashwood, after Joan Kontny’s English family name. Both the line cabin and the main home were built by Ridgway artist Ted Moews and are veritable museums of Western art and memorabilia (not to mention monumental timber-frame construction). Vince’s office is resplendent with polished silver spurs. One long hallway is devoted to photographs from Marlboro Man shoots at the Kontny’s previous ranch on Last Dollar.
In the great room, the omnipresent Vince greeted an acquaintance: “Well, hello! I didn’t know you were out of jail!” Then he noticed 1-year-old Boden on Mike’s shoulders. “How’s the little guy? We’ve got a bull down here, if he wants to ride.”
But he couldn’t stop to chat; he jumped in a Jeep to go oversee lunch upstream at the line cabin. OCHS board member Gail Jossi told me, “Vince has had a hand in everything. It’s like he appointed himself to our board!”
Back at the cookout, Kontny’s helper had got a fire started in the steel basin. “You used the cedar?” Vince asked the boy. “Good.” Then he began assisting visitors, some of whom had come from as far away as Ohio, with their hot dogs.
“How long since you’ve had a hot dog on a roasting stick?” he asked a fastidious blond woman, rhetorically, as she dipped her Oscar Meyer in the cauldron. It was the perfect solution.