Cover photo for Blake Water's Obituary
Blake Water Profile Photo
1917 Blake 2009

Blake Water

December 15, 1917 — May 6, 2009

Longtime businessman and rancher, Blake Carlyle VandeWater died peacefully on May 6 at the age of 91. The following was written by the family. Blake was born in Ireton, Iowa, on Dec. 15, 1917. He was the only child of Cora Eileen Morrison and Burton Blake VandeWater, a hardware man who was also a talented tinsmith and inventor. A year before the Great Depression, his father, who had a promising cigarette-rolling machine at that time, was talked into moving to California. So the family headed west in their 1924 Buick Master 6, barrels tied on the back filled with cold-pack meat, fruits and vegetables, a few extra tires and some clothes. Little did they know, the invention would fail and they would have to find other ways to make a living. So the family opened a little tiny grocery store in Modesto, Calif. They later moved to San Diego, where his father ran a hand-pump gas station on the main route to the dog races in Tijuana, Mexico. Their first home was a summer tent house made of sticks and plastic on Mission Bay. Times were hard; his mother would hunt pheasants with his dad on Sunday outings and can the meat the next day. Bread and milk were all they could afford, although lemonade was abundant from the surplus of citrus trees. The young children picked fruit at night to eat since everyone had fruit trees of all kinds. (This fruit simply fell on the ground, so no one really cared, but the young boys thought they were hooligans.) In spite of the hardship, there were simple enjoyments as well: 15 cents got you into a Zane Grey Western, including a bag of popcorn, and there was card playing and dancing, baseball and kitten ball. Everyone had fun, even without money. On days with little to do, Blake used the open oven for target practice with his Daisy BB gun, which ensured trouble from errant BBs. Blake got spanked every day for shooting at the chickens while they ate. It didn't kill them, just made them jump off the nests. He admits the daily spankings were deserved, but when asked why he didn't learn from them, he said, "I wouldn't stop because it was too much fun!" Due to the depression, Blake's employment began at age 5 gathering eggs, feeding pigs, bringing in water for 15 cents a week. Next he would buy 50 pounds of peanuts, divide them into small bags and sell them on the street to travelers heading south to Tijuana on a Friday night. He made more than his father did in a week. Through junior high and high school, he sold magazines door to door. Summers provided opportunity to cut wood in Ramona to earn $3 a cord, helping bring food to the table. In 1935, Blake graduated from Herbert Hoover High School in San Diego. That summer he worked for Coca Cola Company, making soda until Consolidated Aircraft hired him as a layout draftsman. They would describe what they needed and Blake would make aircraft drawings. Attending San Diego State during the day studying mechanical engineering and working the factory at night became too much. Blake decided to continue with just the factory job. He formed a club with 30-40 people in the San Diego area and built a rope tow near Cuyamaca. They picked the pass clean of rocks and taught themselves to ski. The slightest frost in San Diego meant a good half-inch to ski on. He learned to climb at local areas like Big Bear. In 1943, Blake enlisted in the U.S. Army to work with the 87th Mountain Infantry out of Pando, Colo., Camp Hale's 10th Mountain Division. They were interested because of Blake's mountain and ski training. He was sent to officer's training to learn to be a night scout, then on to Camp Croft to wait to be sent overseas. He was to take a bunch of mules to Italy, but the idea was abandoned. He was then sent with the 302nd Engineer Battalion to northern Japan as a combat engineer unit commander to replace exhausted troops. The war was over and the troops were busy repairing the schools and hospitals, hauling food and coal. He and three other officers served as replacement engineers. He found the Japanese people terribly friendly. After supper, Blake would connect with locals and share ideas on rope-tow construction. They would invite him in for dinner, then pick his brain. He drew plans for what they would need. They'd provide him with little motors, and he would set up a pulley system to complete the project. The locals were thrilled, sliding down on anything, from shovels to cardboard. They flew down the hill screaming, hitting one another and rolling end over end, helped each other up and did it again. Before he left, the Japanese built Blake a beautiful pair of skis. Probably made of pine, very warped, but beautiful. Blake left the service in August 1946 and went back to Consolidated Aircraft for a short period. The war was ending, and factories were shutting down. It was hard to be inside. He moved to Alta, Utah, with his dog, Sport, and his skis, in his '39 Chevy Sedan. He cooked burgers, hotdogs, pop and beer in the "day lodge," and fixed the rope lines, weaving them back together. Except for trips back to Salt Lake City for a haircut or two, he stayed in Alta all winter, traveling to Jackson Hole in the spring for the first time. His first job in the valley involved clearing Elk Run on Snow King. They cut and stacked wood with axes and handsaws to create the ski slope. He later worked for the Forest Service as a map reader and spotter, locating diseased trees. He met Elt Davis, the district ranger for the National Park Service, who was running the program and was impressed with Blake's skills. He asked Blake to return the next summer to work for Grand Teton National Park - they needed a climber, as well as people familiar with boats and water, a map-reader, and an engineer. Blake's specific job was mountain and water rescue, as well as training summer crew. He also hauled gas, took care of campgrounds and removed snow from roofs. Blake lived on the hill above Moose at the old park headquarters in a small log cabin. The snow was so deep in the winter that the windows had to be shoveled out for light. As the only skier, he made patrols alone, going by the Lucas Cabin, the patrol cabin at Bear Paw Lake and then over to Pole Cat to shovel the roofs. Spring and summer involved opening up the cabins and clearing culverts. "If you wanted to work, there was plenty to do." He loved his job, $165 a month, and adored the outdoors. During his time with the Park Service, he made the notable climb with Paul Petzoldt up to the northeast slope of Mount Moran in search of survivors from the fatal flight carrying members of the New Tribes Mission, which crashed the evening of Nov. 21, 1950. He received one of the highest commendation the Interior Department could bestow at that time, the Distinguished Service Honor Award, "in recognition of a heroic deed involving personal risk of life over and beyond the call of duty." On an early summer day in 1949, having scaled both the South and Middle Tetons, he injured his ankle before reaching the top of the Grand and had to descend. There he met Arabella Lee Simpson, a local girl home from college, on her way up. In spite of his embarrassing defeat, they married Dec. 30, 1950. The newlyweds left the Park Service in 1951 and moved north of Wilson to the V-S ranch, where Blake started his livestock career. He enjoyed judging Halloween costumes at the Wilson School, shuffling children and horses with the Wilson Wranglers, and helping Mrs. Hunt with her annual Fourth of July fireworks on Fish Creek. His greatest satisfaction was running his John Deere, spending hours behind the wheel in the fields. He was convinced no one could irrigate as well as he could, right till the end. Blake split his time working the ranch and running Jackson Hole Hardware with his brother in-law, Houston Simpson. This was the beginning of his involvement within the community and his willingness and desire to help others. Blake could always be found behind the workbench to offer advice or to help find a part or repair a particular thing. All day long you would hear the back door slam along, the echo of a repaired chainsaw motor, as people would come and go, sharing a joke or two while dropping a nickel into Blake's slot machine. That was home to many people, but especially to Blake and Lee. The hardware store survived a fire on each side of it, but 1985 an arsonist burned the business down, which was absolutely devastating for Blake. They would later begin again, rebuilding the business as VandeWater's, filling it with gifts and china. They retired in 1999. It was understood that everyone in Jackson should spend time helping the community, and Blake served on both the school and hospital boards. He became a Mason and Shriner and loved contributing to local Shrine Club activities and annual cutter races, as well as serving on the board at the Shriners Hospital in Salt Lake City. He cared deeply about the need to help these children. Blake had numerous hobbies including woodworking, photography and home movies, model airplanes and learning to fly both fixed-wing planes and sailplanes with Dave Lowe, Howard Ballew and Pete Mead. Outdoor recreation also included fishing, snowmobiling, golfing with Red Buescher, skiing, and traveling with Lee. One highlight involved an emergency landing with his sailplane in the national park; he walked away safely with only a damaged glider and a ticket for destroying sagebrush. Blake was proud of his ability to operate equipment. He once found himself submerged in his backhoe, upside down to the wheels in a creek. He didn't recall how, but he was able to get to the bank safely with his dog, Buddy. Blake was well-known for his refined practical jokes on friends and neighbors. In retaliation, some friends once planted a live billy goat in the cab of his pickup in front of the hardware store on a cold winter evening. He attempted to lure the culprits into confessing by burning goat heads into gift bowls, filled with Christmas goodies. Blake also enjoyed watching people as they passed, trying to pick up the quarter he had soldered to a nail and pounded into the boardwalk in front of the hardware store. Lee, his wife of almost 50 years, passed away in December 1999. Blake then focused on the ranch, his children, and beloved friends. He stocked his pond with trout and began feeding birds. A variety of creatures came round, bringing him and visitors enjoyment as they watched from his kitchen window and porch. Each day, visitors flowed through the house, sitting on benches at the long, pine table to share a cup of coffee and a joke. Blake also brainstormed problems, shared a story and planned a day. If we only knew how many friends must have sat there over the many years. Those who did each brought great joy and laughter with each visit, providing Blake with a continued purpose and a willingness to embrace each new day. Blake was surrounded by a wonderful, loving group of caregivers who were able to share and contribute to these spirited visits, enabling Blake to remain in his home for the remainder of his life. Being able to bottle his laughter right before the punch line would truly be a gift to share. Blake is survived by his three children: Bob (Sue), Kim (Nort Holschuh), and Pam (Mark Wright); six grandchildren, Matt (Nicky), Jenny, Ellen (Pete Jones), Pam, Rob and Anna; and one great-grandson, Aiden. He was preceded in death by his wife, Lee, and his parents, Cora and Burton VandeWater. Dad instilled in his family a sense of community, a willingness to help others without asking, and an understanding of the importance of always keeping our sense of humor. For in the worst of times, there is always something to feel grateful for as we continue to strive to do the best we can with what we have. We would like to thank so many of you for being a part of our family and for sharing Dad's life with us. A celebration of Blake's life will be held on June 13. The time and location will be determined later. Donations may be made to the Salt Lake City Shriners Hospital, c/o First Interstate Bank, Blake VandeWater Memorial, Box 11095, Jackson, WY 83002. Please send photos and/or stories that could be shared at the celebration to Pam VandeWater, 5610 E Territory Drive, Tucson, AZ 85750 or pamvwater@hotmail.com.


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