Freewheeling with Mr. Smylie
A day with Durango's cycle recycler

Taking a break from patching a bicycle tube, Melvin Smylie, 90, talks about the changes he’s seen along Main Avenue in the 40-plus years he’s lived there./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Melvin Smylie is not particularly surprised to see me at his door this Tuesday afternoon, though he’s never met me before. His light blue eyes, which have seen nine decades come and go, shine beneath wispy, white brows that are arched in the question “Can I help you?” Before I can answer, Mr. Smylie steps outside and gestures with a slight movement of his head around his front yard, a repository of bicycles: from road bikes, mountain bikes, townies with tassels and bells to a whole line of kid’s bikes propped against each other like falling dominoes. Melvin Smylie is 90 years old, and this is his life – rusted bolts, well-oiled chains, resting bike tubes strung across his yard like laundry in the breeze.

Smylie spends several hours a day, on a good day, taking apart or putting together bicycles that have been donated to him. For the past 30 years, people have been bringing him bicycles and bicycle parts in all states of disrepair, “saving them a trip to the dump.” Smylie evaluates the donated bikes, seeing what they need to become roadworthy. Sometimes all it takes is a semi-new cable, of which he has hundreds, neatly organized in rusting coffee cans. Other times, the frame is bent, seat punctured, tires ripped and the whole thing one big mess – but to the trained and thoughtful mind, not unsalvageable. In these cases, Smylie will carefully extract the nuts, bolts, seat post, chain and anything else that is usable. People come from all over the Four Corners to buy restored bicycles and bike parts, though mostly parts, from Melvin Smylie.

A tangle of skewers and miscellaneous bicycle parts fill a drawer outside the home of Melvin Smylie./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

If being 90 and running a business with no advertising, no employees and no costs other than labor is an anomaly, then Mr. Smylie’s house fits perfectly into the story. Melvin lives on 2553 Main Ave., one of the last of three residences on North Main, sandwiched between business districts. Smylie and his wife, Willella Maser, bought the house in 1948 for $7,000 when North Main was a two-lane dirt road.

“Hell it was dirt road all the way to Denver,” Smylie muses, with his trademark laugh: head tilted slightly back, cheeks stretched taut and upper lip barely covering his top teeth. Melvin Smylie is instantly likable.

When he realizes I’m not here for a bike but an interview, Smylie invites me inside, and I sit down on a couch that holds a neat stack of baseball caps and one bike helmet. His house is exactly as one might expect: framed black-and-white photos of a beautiful wife (since deceased), several well-used recliners interspersed with stunning antiques, a record player/radio tuned to oldies.

Melvin gets comfortable in a recliner, thick tufts of white hair peeking out from his baseball cap, and starts telling stories as if this interview business was all in a day’s work.

“I was born on a homestead in eastern Colorado,” he says. “You know what a homestead is?” he asks, narrowing his uncannily blue eyes behind steely gray frames at this interviewer 60 years his junior. “Government gave you a piece of land, and if you could improve it – put up fences, dig some wells and grow a good crop – why, then in three years it was yours.”

By his early 20s, Melvin had worked the rice fields in California, broke horses, put up hay and worked the corn binders in Colorado (“you know what a corn binder is?” he quizzes). In 1935, at the age of 22, he went to barber school in Kansas City. It cost him $50 for six months of schooling.

“That was the depression, no one had a car,” he says. “I bummed rides on the freight train.” Melvin sent his suitcase ahead of him and joined thousands of men “riding the rails” on America’s freight trains. These men climbed down into box cars when they could, though often their time was spent on top of the train, exposed to the elements, holding onto the rails built for the “brakies” to traverse across. He explains that the government didn’t want a lot of out of workers congregating in one place for too long, so this illegal form of travel was rarely discouraged. “The worst that would happen is you’d get thrown off and would have to get on another line.”

The freight train stories – lying flat when passing under a California snow shed, sneaking into freight cars to search for food, creating friendships and alliances with the traveling men – tumble from his mouth like the riders themselves must have, easy and quick, with no distinct direction.

Mr. Smylie surveys his stock of bikes and concludes there are just too many too count./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

After finishing barber school, riding the rails back to Colorado’s Front Range and doing a few more stints on ranches, Smylie saw an ad in a Durango paper seeking a barber. In style this time, he drove his Model A Roadster from Denver to Durango. It took two days. Durango was different then, he tells me. The west side of the 900 block of Main housed the pool halls and beer joints. “The respectable ladies all walked on the other side of the street.” He tilts his head for a hearty laugh. “South of Sixth Street, that was the red light district. You know about the red light district?”

For 40 years, Melvin Smylie worked as a barber downtown. “I remember when a haircut cost 25 cents, and a shave was 15 cents.” He pauses to let that reality sink in. Smylie remembers shaving the town sheriff: “He was a beautiful guy to shave. Nice round face, I’d lather it up and shave him down real easy. No wrinkles.” Toward the end of his barbering career he bought The Sanitary Barber Shop, at 937 Main, where Bradley’s Restaurant stands today. The bike wrenching began when Melvin started fixing bikes for his grandkids in his free time. Once he retired, all his time was free and the business simply evolved.

Melvin takes me outside to tour his motley palace of bicycles. Nothing is locked up and he admits that “they steal ’em once in awhile.” He laughs, and his cheeks stretch across the bone. “Someone steals a few; someone else brings some in. That’s part of doing business.” Somehow I doubt these are the lessons being taught at the Harvard Business School, though I think Mr. Smylie has cornered the market, not on bike sales as much as living well.

Lean and fit in Rustler jeans and work boots, Melvin steps lightly around his property, showing me his storehouse of parts. Some are in the garage along with his best bikes, some sit right in the carport where he does his work against the ceaseless roar of Main Avenue traffic. About the noise he shrugs and says “I’m used to it.” He shows me the shelf he built to put his radio on, which since has been stolen. Running his sinewy hands – each life line marked indelibly with oil – through a bucket of water bottles he tells me he got those from a downtown cycle (pronounced “sick ul”) shop. There are more parts in his several sheds in the back yard (roofs held down with wheels and bike frames), buckets brimming with pedals, seat posts, derailleurs, reflectors, patch kits, freewheels, cranks, quick-release spokes and one bag full of bells given to him by a lady from city hall. He reminds me that mostly he deals in parts, though just today he sold a bike for $40. “A girl come in that got her bike stolen and needs transportation to get to work at Storyville.” The name of the downtown bar slips off his tongue as if he was a frequent patron, though most of his socializing takes place at the Senior Center, a short walk across the street. He has lunch there every day “with the boys” and is impressed with the food, especially the salad bar.

“How do you keep track of all these parts?” I ask.

Melvin looks around, “There’s an order to it all; it’s a systemized junk shop.”

A few bedraggled stalks of asparagus gone to seed emerge from the beaten-down grass in his back yard, evidence of a garden past. Melvin points across the alley toward West Second. “My daughter used to ride horses up there, before they had all these trees and buildings.” His two daughters still live in Durango and come by on a daily basis.

“These three bikes just come in.” He gestures to a tangle of mountain bikes leaning up against the mammoth blue spruce that he planted in 1950.

“Are they any good?”

“They will be after I fix ’em up.”

Melvin Smylie works to locate a leak in a bicycle tube and apply a patch./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Mr. Smylie has people knocking on his door all hours of the day, looking to get or get rid of something. “Yesterday a fella from Aztec come up to get a Shimano piece for his coaster breaks. I had the very part he was looking for, right serial number and everything,” he beams. Melvin has fixed lawnmowers and horse halters. He’s sold bikes to Europeans who wanted a way to travel within the West’s National Park system.

“It’s kinda fun,” he says “all the different people you meet.”

He has a great rapport with the downtown cycle shops, they send people his way, and if he needs a special wrench he can go down and use theirs for free.

Smylie quit riding bikes last year when he turned 90, though he takes a daily walk and does push-ups and sit-ups every night. His mind is well oiled and spins with a rhythmic balance of work and play.

“What do you do in the wintertime?” I ask.

“Watch football and read Westerns,” he says. “And sell parts.” His lips spread in a smile.

Mr. Melvin Smylie has seen a different world bloom as an old way of life has gone dormant. He knew Durango when a barber could afford to buy a home in town for his family. He remembers when his neighborhood was a peaceful, residential zone. But he’s not bitter. He thinks the Rec Center is a beautiful building.

Looking back at it all, he says “I’ve seen a lot in my lifetime and had a pretty good time. If the Lord wants me tomorrow, I’m ahead of the game.”

As I ride away on my bike, full of gratitude for the stories I’ve heard, Melvin calls after me “keep riding your bike, it’s good for you.”









News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index