Dennis E. “Pete” Byrd, Sr.
Interview by Detta Dahl in Moab, January 21, 2003.
Q: This is Detta Dahl. I’m talking with Pete Byrd at his house.
Pete: My name is Dennis E. Byrd, Sr.
Q: Thank you. We’re at his house in Moab, Utah and it’s January 21, 2003. Good morning.
Pete: Good morning to you.
Q: Can I call you “Pete”?
Pete: Sure. I didn’t hear the name “Pete” for 25 years, till I came to Moab.
Q: Were you named Pete when you came to Moab?
Pete: No. The only person that called me Pete when I came to Moab was Charlie.
Q: Charlie Steen?
Q; Because he knew you from before?
Pete: Turn that off a minute. (Tape turned off).
Q: Okay, Pete, how did you come to Moab? And why did you come to Moab?
Pete: We were living on a ranch in central Texas in Brown County. We were in a drought and we’d lost all of our investments. We had decided that when we sold out in the spring, we were going to move. But in the fall of ‘52 my sisters sent me a clipping out of a Los Angeles paper, about an inch long. It said that a geologist by the name of Steen had discovered uranium in southeastern Utah and it had a Grand Junction dateline on it. It was a clipping which was stapled to a piece of paper. When I got it I wrote on there that if this was the Charlie I knew, “congratulations,” and gave him my address and stuff. I mailed it to the Grand Junction newspaper. I didn’t even know the name of the paper. Pretty soon I got a letter back from Charlie saying that it was him and he was excited out of his mind almost. Then I didn’t hear anymore from him. Then between Christmas and New Years of ‘52 we lived in an old ranch house that was beside a dirt road, a real rough, dusty dirt road.
Q: Did you have a family then?
Pete: Did I have a family? I had four girls and Mary was my wife. Mary had been away with the Navy and we married in 1944. My daughter, Jenny was born in Columbia, South Carolina. Elsie was born in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. Columbia is in South Carolina. And Dottie was born at Cherry Point Marine Corps. Air Station in North Carolina. Mary (Ruth?) was born in Brownwood at the Brownwood Hospital.
Q: While you were both in the service?
Pete: We were both in the service when we married. She got out of the military. Jenny was born in the military nine months and ten days after we were married. The only way a Wave could get out of the Navy was to get pregnant. So she got out of the Navy right away. At that time, just before we married in 1944, I graduated from Naval Flight Training School and was ordered to Jacksonville, Florida, first and I came back from Jacksonville when I got through there. In April we were married in Corpus Christi. In June I was in Columbia, South Carolina and she came and got me and I took my operational training in an F4U Corsair at Columbia Field near Columbia, South Carolina. We were taught combat by pilots who had just come back from Bougainville.
Q: I’m sorry, you flew what?
Pete: The F4U Corsair.
Q: Where did they come from? The instructors?
Pete: The instructors were Marine pilots. Most of them were aces and they had flown in Bougainville. They’d flown out of Bougainville, Solomon Islands and most of their combat was over the (?) in the Islands of New Guinea which was a huge Japanese naval airbase. These were about the most experienced combat pilots available at that time. They were officers, commanding officers, executive officers, senior officers in the squad when they got their students, or not student pilots, but young commissioned officers. Then I stayed in the Marine Corps for nine years and nine months and I resigned my regular commission and went to Texas to go in the ranching business with my dad because I wanted to settle down. I had two kids and a pregnant wife. I wanted to settle down and I thought that I had an opportunity down there. Instead of that we went broke. It quit raining when we got there. We decided we were going to leave in the spring. Between Christmas and New Years I heard heard this old car. You could hear cars for miles away. We heard this car coming up the road in a cloud of dust. It turned in at our house and a big black and white dog with black spots leaped out of the right hand side of the car and started running through the chickens. The chickens started flying up in the trees squawking and the dog was barking and I yelled at the dog and the dog didn’t pay any attention to me. About that time the other door opened up and a guy came up to Alice and I recognized it was Charlie. He saw me and he started yelling “Pete, I’m rich, I’m rich, I’m filthy rich!” He gotten this old car. It was a beat up gray Chevrolet Sedan. It sure didn’t look like a rich man’s car. We went in, this was right after Christmas, and we went in by the stove and sat down and talked. He kept talking about his mine, how rich he was, and how he drilled this hole and how his wife and kids were 65 miles away in Cisco and he was down there by himself with his mother, living in this old camp and living on the ground. It just didn’t make very much sense. Finally I said “Well, how did you get this mine?” He said “I staked mining claims.” Well, I’d never heard of anybody staking a mine claim. I just figured when he showed up there he was going to try to get a loan from me and I wasn’t the person who could loan him anything. We talked awhile and he kept telling me about all of his adventures in Utah and everything about Moab, Utah. He rented an apartment here. Finally I kept trying to find out about staking these mining claims so he told me that all you had to do to get 20 acres of land was put up four posts and a discovery notice on them and go record it in the courthouse. I was real interested in getting some land and that sounded interesting so to prove it, well, I had a set of encyclopedias that I’d carried around all over the five states and had never used. I got them encyclopedias down and looked up mining claims and lode mining claims. Somewhere we got off onto the homesteading idea and looked them up. He says “Well, there’s lots of land that you can homestead around Moab.” To get 160 acres, all you got to do is pay a small fee and live on it. The reason he came by our house was he’d been in Houston at Christmas. He’d gone from Houston to Dallas and bought a major drilling rig that was to be delivered whenever he had money to pay for it. The only money he had was some money that somebody named Dan O’Laurie had loaned him to go to Houston. We looked this homesteading and desert entries up. You get 220 acres if you made a desert entry and irrigated the land. By the time he left we’d come up with a plan that I would go to Moab. I might move to Moab with my family and we would live on the land and we would take out these homesteads with both of our families, his mother and, I think he could get extra land for each kid. With him being a geologist he was going to drill the water wells with his new drilling rig and we were going to homestead all over Grand County. By the time he left I decided I was coming to Moab, make a quick trip up here and see what it was. So I jumped in the car and drove nonstop 1,000 miles. We went south and west of (?) and got to Moab about 2:30 in the morning, I think the 29th of December 1952. I could see that coming between Monticello and Moab that I’d never seen a world that looked like this was from out by Kane Creek and out in there. On the top of Blue Hill there was a lot of lights. I learned that it was an AEC camp. It looked bigger than Moab. When I got to Moab and dropped into the valley down by the old highway, it was real smoky. You could hardly see in it, like being in fog. The road come in by (Ekland?) down Fourth East and down Center Street to Main and turned there. There was about six street lights in town but you couldn’t hardly see them for the smoke. There was one light on a sign that said Mom’s Café. I pulled in there and got out of the car and the smoke just almost strangled me. I parked next to a little F6 Ford Dump Truck with a load of rock on it and all up Main Street was just the two lane highway going through town. The sides weren’t paved. Along side of the pavement there were big things that looked like rocks. Actually what it was, was gobs of mud and ice that had fallen off the ore trucks during the day when it was warm and then they froze at night and you had to dodge between them to find a parking place. I went into this café and there was a truck driver and the waitress. It was just about between that two-story, large building on Main Street and what’s now the Slickrock Building. A little adobe building in there that has been torn down. I ordered a cup of coffee asked this waitress if she knew where Charlie Steen lived. She replied “I’ve lived here all my life and I think I know everybody in this town and I never heard the name Steen before.” The truck driver, he hadn’t either. I sit there for awhile and she says “Why don’t you call the operator and maybe she knows something about him.” So I dialed. Moab had a dial tone. Grand Junction didn’t have a dial system and Provo didn’t have a dial system but Moab had a dial system for the telephone company. So I dialed the operator and it rang and rang. Finally, I hung up and she said “Oh, you have to let it ring longer than that because it takes a long time to wake up the operator.” Finally I got hold of the operator and she said “Well, Skeeter Stocks installed a phone for somebody named Steen yesterday, but I don’t know where he lives.” She gave me the telephone number. A little while later another truck driver come in and she says “Do you know anybody by the name of Steen?” He says “Yeah, that’s that crazy son of a bitch from Texas. He claims he’s found a uranium mine.” Finally, I went back up on the hill above the smoke and napped til it got daylight. Then I went down and called his family. Charlie rarely went to his house.