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Cows, civil service, and a dinosaur

Graphic - Mapelli Family 1986
It was a warm fall afternoon on the patio of a local coffee shop when I had the pleasure of meeting the daughters of the man who gifted the residents of Weld County the most unique of items. After all, the rare find of the first complete Triceratops skull in the state could have ended up in numerous other places – and it probably would have made more sense to some if it had; that is, until you understand the man behind and the purpose of the donation.

Roland “Sonny” Mapelli, was known as a man who cared about his community, be that Denver, the Front Range or the entire state of Colorado. A business-owner turned elected official, Mapelli knew the value of hard work and the importance of giving back.

As shared in the Congressional Record on November 3, 1995, following Mapelli’s death earlier that year, “The Mapellis started their meat market in 1906 and, one by one, the brothers were drawn over from Italy coming to this country, some as small children, literally coming on a boat with a name and a location pinned on their clothes, and they would eventually find their way to Denver, CO…Their story is a story of success for hard workers.”

Sonny served on the Denver City Council from 1955-1959 and was later appointed to the State House of Representatives (1961-1962). He won his seat in the state Senate in 1962. It was while he was in the state Legislature that Sonny’s connection to Weld County was first made when he and fellow politician and businessman, Kenny Monfort, became fast friends.

“Sonny represented Denver, and that’s when Kenny was in politics and represented the Greeley area in a senatorial position,” said Don Warden, Weld County’s Director of Finance.

“Sonny’s family had Mapelli Meats in Denver and, of course, Kenny Monfort had the Monfort packing plant,” recalled Warden. “Initially the Mapellis were kind of distributors for Monforts, and Sonny actually moved up here to Greeley.”

Mapelli operated Mapelli Farms and Ranches and owned land in northern Weld County near the Briggsdale area.

Warden recalls Mapelli and Monfort as close friends, who would have lunch together almost every day.

“Periodically, Sonny and Kenny would have lunch with commissioners especially Bill Kirby and Gordon Lacy, because Bill had been a cattle feeder and had known Kenny for a number of years. Sometimes they would drag me along to those lunches,” Warden recalled. “Anyway, at one lunch Sonny said they discovered these Triceratops bones [on his ranch]. He basically said that this professor from CU was thinking about putting them together and actually making the skull of the Triceratops. Sonny thought it would be a good idea to donate it to the county, and we [the county] could put it in a case in the Centennial Center.

So, we agreed to that, and he agreed to pay the full cost. He jokingly said, ‘All I want is a letter for the IRS to value it,’ and I said, ‘How do you value a bunch of bones?’”

Sonny’s reply was quick said Warden, “He said, ‘Well, they’re 70 million years old. I think we could assign $1 a year for each year of age, so you’d give me a letter saying it’s worth $70 million.’ I told Sonny that ‘I’ll give you a letter, but it’s between you and the IRS as far as the value.’ I never did give him the letter,” said Warden laughing; he knew Mapelli was just joking.

While Mapelli may have been kidding about the monetary value of the fossil, he was not kidding about wanting the fossil to be gifted to Weld County. In fact, a four-year dispute ensued over ownership of the bones, as the professor who discovered the remains did not have permission from Mapelli to remove them from the property.

In a letter dated April 24, 1986, Mapelli wrote, “After 4 years, I am finally relieved and happy that I can finalize my gift of the Triceratops skull and bones to Weld County…Hopefully, the public will be able to view, enjoy and study a genuine, Weld County, 70 million year old Triceratops…”

Mapelli enjoyed the Triceratops, as well. His daughter Terri, a retired Greeley school teacher, remembers bringing her students to the Centennial Building to see the fossil regularly on field trips. Her father would meet them at the display and tell the kids all about the fossil.

Thirty-four years later, the fossil is making news again as it has been sent to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for restoration and study. And as I sipped my coffee and rambled on and on to Terri Mapelli DeMoney and Jerri Mapelli Gustafson, Mapelli’s daughters, about the project and all the fun and educational things that would come out of it, they looked at each other and smiled.

“Dad would have loved this,” they said.

By Jennifer Finch, Weld County Communications Director