by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO/LAS ANIMAS — Today, mountain living brings visions of an enviable retreat, an aerie high in the trees, with scenery all around and possibly a little brook gurgling away nearby. Peaceful. Cool. Beautiful. Private.
Back in the 1880s, mountain living was quite a bit different. Remote. Primitive. Exhausting. It took self-reliance, strength and ingenuity to build and maintain a mountain farm. So, why did people move there?
Of course, there’s no telling with people. Maybe their inner hermit drove them into the mountains. Perhaps they owned a sawmill, or were prospecting for buried riches. Maybe they really were hermits.
Whatever compelled these people, they did indeed go out of their way to settle in hard to reach clearings in forbidding valleys, the ones with two seasons, winter and July. Men, women and children. And, sometimes, extended families or former neighbors would develop their own little communities far from amenities, like roads.
These people were the true homesteaders.
Civilization moves in
It comes with some surprise when a newspaper of April 1882 reports the upper Cucharas Valley had been “all taken up”, meaning all the homestead lands had been claimed.
About the same time, settlers were filling the upper Purgatory River valley, north of Stonewall. Stonewall had been settled in the 1870s, and got a post office in 1878. But in 1883, several other post offices were opened, which shows the advance of the new residents.
In May 1883, a new post office named Stamford was established four miles above Stonewall. The description of this place was “a farming and stock-raising hamlet, 42 miles west of Trinidad.” That’s it. Five days after the Stamford p.o. opened, so did another just 11 miles farther north. It was named Nunda, and it was in the Cucharas Valley.
In June, a third opened, called Powell. Powell was perhaps five miles northeast from Stamford, but with the intervening landscape, i.e., mountains, you couldn’t get there from Stamford. To get to Powell, you had several routes, from the north, east or south, but not west, unless you hiked.
Stamford probably wasn’t much, but it was enough. The post office served a wide swath of woods and open meadows that must have been as popular as the area around Nunda. Stock raising, potato farming and hay cultivation would have been the mainstays, and the trees were undoubtedly harvested to build homes and to sell to local sawmills.
As late as the 1980s, one structure remained on the site, and perhaps still does, that was said to be the post office. It was a relatively large log building, two stories tall standing alongside the road to the Potato Patch campground, though just outside the boundaries of San Isabel National Forest and west of North Lake.
Stamford got the post office, but other hamlets dotted the nearby landscape. There were clusters of cabins whose inhabitants filled schools with their children, hosted gatherings for church and social gatherings, and supplied one another with services such as blacksmithing. Crane School, for instance, high in the Purgatory cañon, drew folks from many miles around for a good Saturday night dance. Few structures remain but there are several cemeteries (Hicks, Murray) to prove people lived and died here. More proof comes from the fact the Stamford post office survived until 1920.
The Powell post office lasted from 1883 until 1896. It lay at the head of Sarcillo Canyon (according to an 1885 guide book, but apparently accessible by Wet or Jarosa cañons), and was said to be 35 miles northwest of Trinidad. The population was scattered and consisted mostly of loggers and livestock raisers.
A year before Powell became history, a nearby “village” popped up. It was called Hicks. The funny thing about Hicks was that, even though you didn’t have to move away from Powell to be a resident, Hicks became known mostly for being headquarters of the early forest rangers.
Preserving the forest
What became San Isabel National Forest was a parcel first called the Las Animas Forest Preserve, proposed in 1901. As the La Veta Advertiser stated, hopefully, the preserve “will end the wholesale slaughter of timber” in the canyons. The preserve in 1907 was a 192,960 acre chunk in Huerfano and Las Animas counties, running along the mountains in a line 18 miles wide south of La Veta Pass. It had been reduced in size from the original plan, and much of the anticipated acreage was reopened to homesteading.
This particular new forest property was overseen by two rangers, one outside of La Veta, the other in Hicks. The position of ranger for the southern section in Las Animas County was eliminated and even the Hicks post office was discontinued in 1918. Another mountain hamlet left to rot.
Other little pockets of “civilization” also existed, and Bonnett Park was one. Others spent their productive years as unnamed settlements, usually tucked away into meadows fed by mountain streams, among the trees. It used to be common to run into a cluster of old log cabins, boasting nary a single nail, off of Apishapa and Cuchara passes. These were the homes of many subsistence farmers and their families, living off potato farming, small hay crops and garden vegetables able to withstand the rigors of high altitude – turnips, squash and the like.
Often, for a mountain settlement to survive, at least one person in the general neighborhood would supply necessities such as pantry staples – flour, rice, sugar, coffee, the ubiquitous canned beans and peaches. While this stockpile necessitated a long trip by heavy wagon to the nearest town store, and an even longer trip home uphill with the heavy loads, it was the savior during long winters and poor crop years.
These little pockets are marked by still standing homes, barns, corrals, all log, along with root cellars and potato houses constructed of logs and stones. They represented an entire lost culture of the past.
Most of the mountain villages of Colfax, Huerfano and Las Animas counties were related to mining, including coal, silver, gold, copper, iron, whatever paid. Others surrounded logging and milling activities. But there were others.
Back in stage coach days, when the mail and passengers traveled from Colorado into New Mexico (or vice versa), there was a small settlement called Pena Flor high up the Vermejo River. It served the coaches navigating San Francisco Pass linking the Vermejo and Purgatory valleys. Once upon a time, this San Francisco Pass, not to be confused with two others in Las Animas County of the same name, was the fastest way to reach the gold fields of western Colfax County from southeastern Colorado.
For many decades, from prehistory to 1911, most Huerfanos traveled west over the Sangres by way of Mosca Pass. This route became a toll road in 1871. While the road was plagued by washouts, the eastbound mail from the San Luis Valley crossed this pass en route to Gardner. Along this trail was established the Monteville post office in 1887. It is said it served about 20 homes. The final washout closed the pass in 1911, but the post office had ceased operating in 1900.
“One pass north” was Medano, where a tiny settlement called Herard briefly flourished. It was on the west side of the pass, in Saguache County. Ulysses Herard lived there from 1875 until his death in 1940. The post office didn’t last that long, just from 1905 to 1912. It served some 50 to 100 hearty mountain colonists in its heyday. The Herards, a couple with two children, spent many months apart while Mary, who was Mrs. Herard, moved to Gardner to escape the harsh winters, often with the children. She taught in several of the rural schools on the upper Huerfano and also ran the Clifford Hotel for several years in the early 1900s.
The most enduring settlement was that of Nunda on the upper Cucharas. The post office served about 80 people from 1883 to 1888 when the potato crops began failing, the sawmills were moving to other canyons, and most of the homesteaders had moved on.
Several of those former residents moved into La Veta, including William John “Bill” Culler, a barber and man of all trades. He, with two others, were credited with building the somewhat pretentious two-story, frame (not log) home long known to Cucharans as the Haunted House. Situated a mile or so above the Cuchara colony in a small meadow surrounded by trees, the house sat empty for decades before succumbing to fire in the 1930s, but its memory lives on.