William Riley Hurst

William Riley Hurst, a colorful giant of San Juan

by Buckley Jensen

William Riley Hurst was born in the Mormon Colonies of Old Mexico in l908.

In l910, When Riley was two and a half years old, the family was driven out of Mexico by Poncho Villa’s forces during the Diaz Revolution. His mother was deathly afraid of the Mexicans, and Riley recalls, “When she came across the border she fell to the ground and wept and kissed it… she related that to me many times as a boy.”

When the Hurst family arrived in Blanding, Riley was the ninth in a family of ten children. There were three more sisters born into the family in Blanding. “It was really tough,” Riley said, “My dad landed here with ten children, three old bony horses, and fifty cents in Mexican money.”

The family had to work together to survive. “As bad as it was, it was wonderful because it created a love and loyalty that surpasses anything I have found anywhere. We were taught honesty and an independence that we would accept charity from no man.”

“When I was a little fella, there was no water system in Blanding. A lot of people would go out to Westwater (west of Blanding) and do their washing. I can remember going out there with my mother and some of the older kids.

“We would take our clothes and a big metal washtub, with the old washboard and soap and we would go out there and spend all day. We would heat water and help with the washing.

“Wet clothes were hung on bushes and then we played games until they dried. Kids have never really lived until they have played “Indians” all day out in Westwater while their mother did the washing”

When Riley was in the third grade classroom space was hard to come by in Blanding. L. H. Redd had donated an old shack which was known around town as the chicken coop. It had been dragged across the road and became part of the school campus.

The third graders of Blanding that year were housed in the “chicken coop.”

One day the teacher had to leave the classroom for a few minutes and the boys climbed up into the open rafters and started to flap their “wings” and crow like roosters.

They were all taken to the principal’s office, which was not a pleasant place to go in those days. Their defense of their actions was, “well, if we have to go to school in a chicken coop, why should we get in trouble for just acting like chickens.”

Principal J. B. Harris was not amused and those found guilty of cock-a-doodle-doing from the rafters were summarily expelled.

He loved athletics and made the basketball team his freshman year. They only had one basketball the whole year.

As a sophomore the team won the division title and they went to Castle Dale for the play-off. “We left here on Sunday morning and we didn’t get home until Sunday night of the following week.” No mention is made of how they did at the tournament.

“I studied trigonometry in high school. My dad, George had only been to school a few days in his life. One day we were making wagon tires in his blacksmith shop. I had my trig book with all the logarithms and everything.

“Dad said, ‘now young fellow, lets see how fast you can measure this wheel.’ So I went to work using what I had learned. I worked and I worked and I finally got it. And I got it right!

“But Dad already had the wheel set, the tire on, and the job forgotten by the time I finished. The old-timers knew the rules and the short cuts… its fabulous how much they knew with no formal education. I’ve thought about that a lot.”

Riley’s first job was being a cowboy for Al Scorup near the Dugout Ranch in Indian Creek. “I’ve never suffered in any job since like I did in that one. That damn wind coming up Hart Draw and facing blizzards and living on nothing but greasy bacon and beans… We were in the saddle sixteen hours a day… Well, I graduated from being a cow puncher… the glamour of it faded pretty fast.”

In 1930, Riley went on an LDS mission to the Central States. He was gone 32 months. “In those days, they just kept you as long as they wanted.”

He came home from his mission and married Carol Bayles. It was right in the middle of the Great Depression, and “things were tough.”

Riley took a job herding sheep for $20 per month. His father-in-law boarded his new wife and the rent was $15 a month. But with the $5 left each month, he was able to pay off all the medical bills associated with the birth of their first child.

In July of the next year, he had the opportunity to go to the Colorado River and mine for gold for a fellow named Captain Neil Johnson, “who turned out to be a terrible four-flusher.” Riley didn’t trust Johnson from the beginning, but work was so hard to come by, he took the chance.

Turned out Johnson stole Riley’s horses they had ridden to the river and took them up the river to another mine site. Then Johnson went back to Blanding and told Carol that Riley was doing great and making more money than he knew what to do with.

Actually Riley ran out of food, found no gold, and had no choice but to walk the hundred miles back to Blanding. With nothing to eat but beans (without salt) he started home.

On the way, he met Johnson, who had his three horses. “When I saw the way he had persecuted those little horses… I wept… they were nothing but bones. It was the only time in my life I wanted to kill a man.

“I said, ‘Johnson, you son of a bitch, you get down off that horse!’ He was a big man, and could have gobbled me up with one fist, but when I saw my poor horses I lost all fear and all sense of propriety. He got down and I got them away from him and headed for Elk Mountain, leaving Johnson there afoot.”

“The horses were so poor they couldn’t be rode, so two of them were left at the natural bridges. He arrived at the Kigalia Ranger Station on Elk Mountain about done in.

The cabin was locked. “I decided I would rather be in jail than frozen and starved to death, so I kicked a window out of the door and got into the cabin. There was a lot of grub there, and I had something besides beans for the first time in days. Made it to Blanding the next day. It was an experience, I’d just as soon forget.”

In 1935, Riley became the Blanding City Clerk and held the position until l944, at which time he enlisted in the Navy. When he returned from the service, and he was able to get his city clerk job back.

Riley kept the books for Leland Shumway after he built the West Side Market. “So I knew how well he was doing out of that little store.”

One day Riley asked Leland if he wanted to sell the store, and to his surprise, Leland agreed to a price on the spot and the next day Riley went back to make the deal but Leland had doubled the price.

Riley thought it was still a good deal so he went to the only Bank in the area (Moab) the next day with Clarence Rogers and spent the morning with banker Russell McConkie, who ultimately turned Riley’s loan request down.

“On the way back at Blue Hill, I said, ‘Damn it, the only real opportunity I have ever had in my life, and I can’t swing it because I don’t have any money.’”

Clarence said, “Hurst, do you really want to buy that store?”

“Damn sure do” Riley replied.

Clarence whirled that old pickup around and headed back to Moab. Mr. McConkie spent an hour trying to talk Clarence out of signing over his cows as collateral for Riley, but he finally gave up and made the loan.

Riley Hurst did well in his small west side store. He treated people right. He sold so much gas that Texaco officials from Salt Lake came calling and offered him the Texaco dealership for Blanding.

With the dealership offer, Riley was able to buy a bigger better store and station on Main Street. He and Carol operated a successful business there for many years.

In 1958, Riley was elected the Mayor of Blanding, and served in that capacity for three terms. He later served one term as a San Juan County Commissioner.

“I long for the old days,” he reminisced in 1971. “When I remember the times I had to get up at night and run three hundred yards through a foot and a half of snow to go to the toilet, then I think I would be willing to take modern civilization again.

“But that is the way it was. We would chop wood for two or three hours every night after school to get enough wood to keep the house warm until midnight. Then you would get up at 5 in the morning and it would be so cold that there would be an inch of ice on our water buckets in the house. But I loved it. That was Pioneering!

“I remember when they got water to Blanding in the ditch so we didn’t have to haul it with a wagon. We got water through a pipe from the ditch which came right into the house… well, that was the epitome of Celestial Glory. There was just nothing like that.

We only had to bathe three or four kids in the same round #5 tub water after that. On Saturday night everyone had to have a bath, which meant heating up water two or three times.

I was one of the youngest and so my bathwater contained a lot of the dirt which had been on my brothers and sisters that used the water before me, but what I hated the most was having to wash my hair with that old home-made soap. Terrible!

“Thank goodness it only happened once a week. Yup! I am sure glad they didn’t find out in those days that you had to bathe more than once a week. That’s all that was necessary to be perfectly sanitary in those days. I think it was because human skin could only stand that homemade soap once a week.

“Well, those were the good old days and I am glad I had them. We learned lessons and values that many of today’s youth can’t fathom. Imagine, I have seen everything between the horse and buggy to men landing on the moon, and it doesn’t seem like a very long time to me now.”

While William Riley Hurst claimed he was just an ordinary guy, his attitude, his lifelong struggle to overcome adversity, his family, his service in leadership positions to Blanding and San Juan County are all examples of successful living at the highest level as far as I am concerned. Though I never remember meeting Mr. Hurst, I look forward to that opportunity in another sphere. He was one of our great second generation pioneers in San Juan.

San Juan Record

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