Reuben Dove had reached his breaking point. After a long summer felling trees to shape into railroad ties for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in Gunnison, it seemed that his hard work would be all for naught. In the noonday heat of a sweltering late summer day, a sweaty underhanded railroad contractor stuck out his hand and offered Dove a fraction of his promised wages, claiming that more than half of the finished ties were unusable. Knowing the whole truth of the matter, Reuben refused the cash and vowed to never perform a day’s work for another man again as he waited for sundown to find the railroad yard. He then set the perfectly good pile of railroad ties on fire and watched the blaze light up the night sky as he rode off into the West Elks just south of Crested Butte. It was a decision that would set the course of his life and would also set him apart from society for the remainder of his days.
Born in Virginia, Dove came to the Western Slope with elements of his family who settled Fruitland Mesa outside Crawford. He was steeped in the knowledge of woodcraft and had all the makings of a mountain man, even though he lived in an era where those rugged, lonesome pioneers were already a dying breed. Sheriff “Doc” Shores of Gunnison County gave chase to Reuben after the arsonist incident and caught up to him a short way up Cement Creek. He found Dove to be an amicable prisoner and, in fact, eventually made Reuben a trustee at the sheriff’s office. Reuben assisted Doc in many tasks and became the sheriff’s right hand man for a time.
After serving his jail time, he attempted to face into the unpopulated Leroux Creek area where he lived in a small, one-room cabin on forty isolated acres. He dug a garden and proceeded to live off the land, making a meager living out of hunting and trapping. He did perform some odd jobs from time to time and was known to have worked on the Hansen Castle that still stands up Leroux Creek. But even this forty-acre parcel was too close to civilization for comfort. Reuben soon moved all his meager possessions to an abandoned mine up Dry Creek and eventually trekked farther into the hills north of Bowie in the Hubbard Creek area. There he established a shelter for himself under a large rock overhang at the bottom of a canyon that is now known as Dove’s Gulch.
It would be here that Reuben would live out the majority of his life, alone and isolated from society. He would make occasional sojourns into Bowie or Paonia for supplies on occasion where shopkeepers found him to be a soft-spoken, polite, and friendly customer. Dove was a big man who was said to have stood six and one-half feet tall. He was fit, wore his hair long to his shoulders, and was often seen walking barefoot into town, even in the snow. His appearance and dress earned him comparisons to the fabled Tarzan at the time, although he was always said to have kept himself noticeably clean. While Reuben was a skilled hunter, he was rarely seen carrying a gun in the open and instead walked with a large tree branch that he fashioned into a staff. He spent a great deal of time carving birdhouses and placing them within sight of his den where he could enjoy the comings and goings of his featured friends.
The townsfolk in Paonia found Reuben friendly when conversing one-on-one but he would often turn agitated, secretive, and elusive when confronted by a group. Contrary to the typically conjured image of a hermit, Dove was known to be meticulous about his personal hygiene and even came to town to visit the barber from time to time. However, he would watch suspiciously out the window, with his back to the wall, for any gathering crowds of two or more passersby. His distrust of people and his gentle nature seemed to be at constant odds with one another.
The recluse made his living as a hunter and trapper and was known far and wide as the best around, second only perhaps to Moccasin Bill Perkins of Crawford Country. Great bearskins served as curtained doors on his rock-face abode, and he was proficient at providing first-class furs and pelts to trade with a fur company in far-off St. Louis. One inventive local newspaperman claimed that Reuben was known to sneak into hibernating bear’s dens and roll them over in their sleep periodically in order to keep the bear’s fur from acquiring too much damage on one side.
One story that is more likely to be true recounts an incident when Dove was caught by a game warden named Peterson with an illegal deer. While taking Reuben in to be charged, the warden was struggling to carry the heavy evidence through the deepening snow. After a couple of miles, Dove, ever the soft-spoken gentleman, offered to take the deer for a while and the grateful warden accepted. Smiling, Reuben hoisted the animal onto his broad shoulders, and the two continued to walk into the evening. After some time, the warden perchance to glance behind him and noticed that the deer was gone. Dove had thrown the animal over a steep cliff into Hubbard Creek, and without any evidence, the exhausted Peterson was forced to let him go. It’s likely that Reuben took a circuitous route home and retrieved the deer.
Although the introverted Dove was not fond of interactions with society and was reticent about discussing his affairs with anyone, he did leave Delta County on occasion and even, at least once, traveled all the way back to Virginia to visit his family that remained in the area. Because it was assumed that Reuben had no income or savings, the mystery of how he made such a long journey has given many pause to consider the means. Some suggest that he joined the ranks of the hobos and rode the freight trains across the country and back, but others claim that this incident points to proof which validates rumors that Reuben was sitting on a pile of gold coins that he had stashed near his meager den. It is possible that Reuben Dove rode in a stylish passenger car instead of nestled among sacks of dry goods.
The speculated means by which he may have acquired this capital vary. Each story portrays Reuben as an outlaw of sorts, which seems contradictory to his nature. It is known that he frequently violated game laws by killing deer, elk, and beaver outside their season. Still, this behavior was not considered criminal by most farmers, ranchers, and outdoorsmen of the time. Mrs. Hansen, of the Leroux Creek Castle, claimed that he was a fine worker and kind but that he was “arrogant” and that if he wanted a pig, he would simply throw it over his shoulder and take it in broad daylight. It may be that Reuben’s sense of property and propriety lived outside the norms of society.
One story involves a hold-up of the narrow-gauge train that occurred south of Sergeants. A guard, who was witness to the crime, claimed that the robber was a big man who “did not go down when he was peppered with buckshot.” Supposedly, Reuben went to a doctor in Ouray to have the buckshot removed before returning to Hubbard Creek. Another tale also involves Ouray and a bank robbery that took place there. Apparently, Dove had shown up at a cow camp on the Muddy with a fresh bullet wound in his leg not long after the robbery occurred. Reuben was defiant about discussing how he might have acquired the gunshot and was adamant about not seeing a doctor. It is said that on occasion, he spent $20 gold pieces in a Bowie store, and there is the matter of his cross-country travels. Reuben was known to be elusive about a great many subjects and downright skittish about others. When asked what he thought about the community of Ouray, he claimed to have no opinion on the town as it was dark when he rode in and dark when he left.
Was Reuben Dove sitting on a small fortune at his modest cliff-side den? The manner of his lifestyle, demeanor and his very nature seem to be in opposition to the outlaw way. However, he was an ambiguous character. In his justified disdain for honest commerce, he may have developed his own version of morality on the subject of robbery. Whatever the case, his secretive nature kept anyone from knowing the truth. However, it is also rumored that in a fever state, which took ahold of him during his final days, he divulged secrets that may have hinted that at least one of the stories may have been true. In his delirium, he made statements to his nephew’s wife, Ina Dove, that ten thousand dollars was buried by a bush somewhere and that the bulk of his money was in a bank in St. Louis. There were a couple familiars who had enough credence in the stories to search for the loot, but no such gold was ever found – or at least no one ever advertised its finding.
Local rancher John Beezley and forest ranger Walt Gilliam found Dove in a deteriorative state in the spring of 1929. Burning a fever and sandwiched between his bearskins, he appeared to have not eaten for some days. A spoiled beef carcass that hung nearby may have been the root of his illness. Whatever the case, his condition worsened, and the Beezley brothers, along with Reuben’s nephew, Grant Dove, constructed a litter to bring him to the Dove place in Crawford. Although he was attended by more than one doctor, whom he mistrusted to the end, Reuben finally succumbed to his illness on July 24, 1926. Having no known money to speak of, some of his illegal beaver pelts were sold to pay for funeral expenses. The town then proceeded to give him a first-class send-off. The morticians at Taylor Funeral Services went to great lengths to find an ornate casket large enough to contain the big man. He was buried just a stone’s throw away from the other larger-than-life character of Moccasin Bill Perkins in the Crawford Cemetery.
Men like Perkins and Dove represented the spirit of individualism associated with the expansion of the west and the mountain men who made their mark in the hills and valleys of the Rocky Mountains. It is impossible to know the truth of the stories that have been told and retold about their adventures. Some, like Perkins, relished the limelight and encouraged the embellishments associated with their exploits. Others, like Reuben Dove, were reluctant to receive any attention whatsoever and simply desired to live a quiet life away from the trappings of society. However, choosing to live on the fringe actually brought more unsolicited attention to the man and made him the subject of many speculations. The “Paonian” newspaper said of his passing that “One of the most picturesque figures in the history of the region has had his career… ended.” Ironically, a “career” was exactly what Reuben had rejected all those years before, trading it for the contentment found in watching birds on a quiet hillside. There is a good deal we can learn from men like Reuben Dove.