Peter R. Decker, a college professor, author, policy analyst and rancher, combines his diverse knowledge, experience and education in his latest historical novel, The Go-Backer. He’s previously published five books on western U.S. history subjects.
Decker’s interest in the West began when as a teenager he worked summers as a “camp tender” on a sheep ranch in Montana. A “camp tender” is the lowest form of human life allowed to exist on a sheep outfit. Every week he brought supplies to sheep camps throughout the Spanish Peaks area of the Gallatin National Forest. He quickly learned the survival skills required to lead a pack string up and down mountains, across glaciers and rivers. From those weekly adventurers, often lost and with only a map, Decker recognized early in his life that the West, not the East where he grew up, would be his eventual home.
He attended boarding school, then Middlebury College, then earned his Ph.D. in American History at Columbia University. Decker served in the Army as a company executive officer in the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. He served in the continental U.S. and overseas as an advisor to the Royal Laotian Army during the height (1959-60) of the Laotian civil war. He returned there in 1970 as a correspondent for the Associated Press to cover the United States’ illegal bombing in Laos.
In 1974, after a year of teaching at Barnard College, he was ready to head west. He and his wife searched for affordable ranch property in Colorado. They put a ridiculously low bid on a dirt-patch in Ouray Country, Colorado, and much to their surprise they became overnight landowners and neophyte ranchers.
Decker spent that first year learning the ways of his ranching neighbors, building fences and corrals, irrigating meadows, and doctoring livestock. One of his neighbors said to Decker after his arrival from the Big Apple: “I understand you have a Ph.D. Well let me tell you, in this country that stands for a ‘post-hole digger,’ and you damned well better learn how to use one.”
Besides turning a dirt patch into a working ranch, Decker found time to finish a book for Harvard University Press, Fortunes and Failures, a study of San Francisco’s pioneer merchants. That same year, Decker accepted a teaching position at Duke University, where he taught in the department of history and the newly created department of public policy. He gained experience in the latter field when he took leave from Columbia in 1968 to join the staff of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, serving as a policy analyst and speechwriter during the Senator’s presidential campaign. At Duke, Decker taught urban history and his popular course “Rural America,” renamed by his graduate and undergraduate students: “Hicks, Hayseeds, and Shit Kickers.”
Decker moved permanently to his ranch in 1980, improving and expanding both the herd and the acreage. During those years, he spent time as Chairman of the Ouray Planning Commission, which put in place one of the strongest and most effective land-use plans in Colorado. His other public service included serving on the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the governing board member of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank (Denver Branch)
In 1987, Colorado’s Governor Roy Romer appointed Decker to the position of Commissioner of Agriculture for the state. This was an opportunity to increase the state’s wide variety of agricultural products and to expand the export of Colorado products, particularly grains and beef, to Middle East and Asian markets.
After leaving state government, Decker wrote a biography of Ouray County, Colorado, Old Fences, New Neighbors, which remains a popular in college text in history and environmental courses throughout the West. In a subsequent book, Decker reminded Colorado residents how the state and the nation treated Colorado’s first residents, the Ute Indian Tribe. The Utes Must Go offers a detailed, and sometime gruesome account of how and why the Ute tribe was decimated by warfare and treaty manipulations.
Currently Decker is president of Decker & Associates, an agricultural consulting firm specializing in management, land acquisition, leases, international trade and relationships with state and federal agencies. He is also owner and operator of Double D Ranch in Ridgway, Colorado, and serves as a director of the National Western Stock Show in Denver.