Ditch Rider for Butte Mill Ditch and Jones & Donnelly Ditch
80 year old Gene Sawhill was born in Valmont, as was his father George Sawhill (b. 1896). His grandfather Lewis Sawhill was an early settler in Valmont, moving there in 1891. Sawhill Ponds is named for the family. Gene runs about 40 head of beef cattle and farms hay on his land and Open Space land. He uses ditch water to irrigate his pastures. The Jones & Donnelly Ditch runs into the Butte Mill Ditch, near the Rail Road museum in Valmont. The two ditches run together for the rest of their length. Gene takes care of both ditches.
"My father used to be the ditch rider, and then Clifford Hodson was the president and ditch rider for years," says Gene. "In 1972 I started taking care of the ditch, cleaning it and making sure that we could get the water down it. I could see that things needed to be done, and there were not too many folks wanting to do it, so I just kind of got into it." Gene has been the official ditch rider of the 2 ditches for 12 years. He takes care of 3 1/2 miles of ditch, and believes that the cost of maintaining a ditch is going to keep increasing because of the large liability risks of burning ditches. Using brush-hogs, chain saws and back hoes (instead of fire) to control vegetation along a ditch is much more expensive.
"There is not a lot of farming out here like there used to be," says Gene. "A lot of people used to grow wheat and sugar beets out here. The Butte Mill Ditch used to run a grist (flour) mill in the 1880's. It was called the Housel Mill, and it had a basalt millstone made from rock from Valmont Butte."