Oren Frost Black, pioneer builder of San Juan
GIANTS OF SAN JUAN
Frost Black’s life covered almost all of the 20th Century. He helped his father build roads with horses as a boy. He traveled by horseback or buggy for decades before there were motorized vehicles in the county. He witnessed both of the Great Wars.
He saw men land on the Moon. He saw supersonic aircraft that could fly from Blanding to Salt Lake City in 13 minutes, a journey that required a week when he was a young man.
He lived in Blanding almost all of his life. He raised his family there. He built many of the roads and reservoirs in San Juan. He served his Church and his God faithfully, holding many important positions of leadership and influence.
He spoke from the pulpit at nearly every quarterly stake conference of the San Juan LDS Stake for 18 years as the first counselor in the Stake Presidency. His gravelly, sincere voice inspired an entire generation to be good, to be faithful and to strive to go on missions.
In his own words, “the greatest honor I ever received” occurred on July 12, 1981, when he was ordained a patriarch by Apostle Bruce R. McConkie. He blessed the lives of hundreds of people in that position for a decade.
Frost lived well for 94 years. The legacy he left behind with a noble family, unquestioned integrity, devoted service to others, an amazing work ethic and total faithfulness to the core values of his beliefs enriched all of us.
He was born in Colonia Pacheco, Mexico on October 9, 1909, just before the Mexican Revolution. That war forced nearly all Americans out of the country. He was only three years old, but remembers his parents telling of how they were forced to leave quickly, and could take no more than what they could get into their wagons.
His father was considered well-to-do for that time and place, but the family had to leave nearly everything behind, including their cattle and horses, in order to escape the Mexican rebels.
They came out of Mexico into El Paso, TX and then on to Huntington, UT, where they had lived before going south of the border. The family stayed in Huntington for a short time and then moved to Blanding in 1912.
Frost’s father David was a road contractor. While the family home was in Blanding, they had to travel where the work was, which was often far from Blanding. In those days, roadwork was done with horses and equipment, which was labor intensive and primative compared to today.
Frost and his mother and sisters often went to the construction camps to cook for the construction crews. Frost usually got to go with his father, whether the women-folk went or not.
Frost wasn’t big enough to do much more than be a “fetch-it man” and a gate opener. Because David worked off and on for Charlie Redd, a local rancher from La Sal, Frost and Charlie became friends even though Charlie was already a young married man.
Charlie had one of the few cars in San Juan County and he would often come to their worksite and pick Frost up and take him on his rounds to check on his many employees and projects across his huge ranch.
Frost’s job was to open and shut all the gates. It was a great job because Charlie owned a store and he would bring a big sack of candy with him. He would turn the sack over to Frost and since Frost hardly ever saw “store-bought” candy at home, being Charlie’s gate opener was truly a dream job
One of their road jobs took them to the Dolores, CO area. When Frost’s dad completed the job, Frost and his brother stayed in Colorado and went to work for the McPhie Lumber Company. They logged there for several years and then returned to Blanding. Frost bought a small ranch south of Blanding with the money he had saved working in Colorado.
In 1932, he married Lucile Bailey from Monticello. Frost then made a decision that would affect the rest of his life. He went out on a financial limb and bought a “crawler tractor”, as they were called in those days. He started building roads and stock ponds and created the foundation for his life-long vocation, which was construction with heavy equipment.
His big break came when his friend, Charlie Redd, offered to finance a new Caterpillar bulldozer if Frost would agree to do work for him. Frost had virtually no money at the time, but Charlie offered to take him to Salt Lake City in his new car and pay for the machine. Frost’s new Cat was one of the first machines of its kind to come into San Juan. Frost didn’t know much about the machine at first, but he was a quick study and was soon making a living with it.
“I didn’t realize how much one had to charge per hour to pay for equipment like that and I worked too cheap in the early days.” Frost recalled, “I would take a man with me. We would each work an eight-hour shift running my Cat 16 hours a day. I charged $5 an hour for me, the Cat and the hired man, and believe it or not I made enough to pay the bills. Then I learned what others were charging and I raised my prices so I could afford to buy new machinery as the ones I had wore out.”
In the beginning Frost hired help, but he preferred to work alone. He took his three boys with him when they were so young they couldn’t see over the steering wheel to drive the trucks. All the boys learned to operate a Cat at a young age. Lucile also went with him when he had to have help. “I probably had the youngest crew of cat skinners and the best cook in the country,” Frost chuckled.
“I was working up above Blanding once and I needed to move my Cat a few miles to another job. But I needed to move my truck too so I didn’t have to walk back after a long day’s work. Well, Arvid (son) was with me that day. He was about five or six years old.
“I asked him if he thought he could drive the truck behind the Caterpiller. He said he could, but he wanted to drive the Cat. I told him he didn’t know how to drive the Cat, but he insisted he did. I put him up in the drivers seat and asked him what he would do if he needed to go right, left, raise or lower the blade, shift gears, etc. He had all the right answers. He must have learned from sitting beside me and watching what I did. Well, I decided to give him a chance. I got in the truck behind him.
“I couldn’t even see his head above the seat, but I’ll be darned if that little guy didn’t drive that Cat the whole three miles without missing a beat. So after that he drove the Cat and I drove the pickup. When his legs were long enough to reach the pedals, he drove the pickup and always did a good job with both.”
There were long periods of loneliness and isolation on many of the long-term contracts Frost undertook. Once he was about halfway between Moab and Green River on a job when he developed a terrible toothache.
“It was a long ways to the nearest town, and there were no dentists in town anyway, so I just did what we always did when we were in camp…I just made do. It was as simple as going to my toolbox, finding a pair of pliers and pulling that tooth myself.
“It hurt pretty bad to pull it, but not half as bad as it hurt to leave it in my mouth, so I did what I had to do. Life was like that in those days. I think some people are kinda helpless these days when it comes to fixing things on the spot.”
When the Charles Redd family purchased the Somerville and Scorup Cattle Company in the l960’s, they came to Frost and asked him to make a list of all the improvements he had made on their land. Frost had always kept good records from the day he started his business. He had a record of what he did every day, who he did it for, how much he charged, how many hours he worked and when they paid for the completed work.
“It was a big job to go back through all those records” Frost recalled, “but I was surprised to find that I had built 727 reservoirs and stock watering ponds just for Charlie Redd. That doesn’t count the roads I had built, the land I had cleared for the Redd family. Add in what I did for all my other customers over a lifetime and it adds up to a real big pile of dirt,” he chuckled.
Frost’s relationship with Charlie Redd strengthened over the years and it got to the point that Frost had much of his expensive heavy equipment financed by Charlie. Frost would tell Charlie what he needed and Charlie would write a check, shake hands and tell Frost that he would just deduct the amount loaned when Frost billed him for work done.
“Many times he did not even charge me interest,” Frost recalled. “We trusted each other. We never had any kind of a written contract that I remember. He was one of the most ambitious, hardworking, men I ever knew and he was very good to me for over half a century. In those days, a man’s word was his bond and Charlie and most of my other customers never let me down.”
When asked what it takes to be a good “cat-skinner” (dozer operator), he replied, “All it requires is a weak mind and a strong back. If I had had good sense and more brains, I would have gone to college instead of going into debt buying earth moving equipment.”
The following experience is just one of many spiritual experiences and the unflagging faith that Frost had in his long career in the backcountry of San Juan.
In his own words, “Merwin Shumway, his brother and I were building a road 50 miles west of Blanding. We had had to blast our way down a sheer rock cliff we were working on. Merwin was stuffing the blast holes with dynamite and placing the blasting camps.
“A spark from a large slash pile we had burning near us landed exactly on a blasting cap Merwin had in his hand and it went off, blowing the ends of his fingers and part of one eye away. It really raised heck with him. We were 50 miles from anywhere. Merwin was bleeding like a stuck hog. We wrapped his hand and face as best we could and hiked back to our pickup and headed for town.”
“But we could not stop Merwin’s bleeding. We knew he would bleed to death before we got back to Blanding unless something was done. We stopped the truck, laid our hands on his head and gave him a priesthood blessing.
“Now, I know the unbelievers will scoff at this story, but I tell you that bleeding stopped the minute we said amen to the blessing. Merwin did not bleed another drop until we got him back to Blanding. Brother Shumway went on to become one of Blanding’s finest Bishops.
“To me that experience was nothing short of a miracle. It was real. I will be forever grateful for the Lord’s help that day and many other times in my life when I was in a tight spot.”
Frost received and faithfully served many church callings. In addition to those described in the opening paragraphs, he also served on the Stake High Council and was the executive secretary of his ward. He served as branch president of the Montezuma Creek Branch during a two and a half year stake mission. He and his wife, Lucile served for 18 months in the Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission.
Frost and Lucile Black was the parents of five outstanding children, Ramon, Arvid, Pete, Oaine, and Renee. In February of 2012, they were the grandparents of 37 grandchildren; great grandparents of 120 children, and the great-great grandparents of ten. Their direct family downline now numbers 213.
Frost always expressed gratitude for his faithful wife, who spent so much time alone when he was away. The quality of his family was in great part a tribute to Lucile’s talents as a homemaker and mother.
Oren Frost Black passed away May 10, 2003 and is buried in the Blanding City Cemetery.
The ripple effects of his exemplary life will continue through the ages.