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An ordinary man

November 2, 2016

by Nancy Christofferson

HUERFANO — In the early days of Huerfano County, a large family named Caviness lived on a stock ranch and farm. The parents were Henry and Nancy, both natives of Arkansas. The 1870 census informs us he was a farmer. They had nine children at the time. The oldest was James, 19, born in Arkansas like his parents. His brother John, 17, was born in Texas like six of his siblings. The youngest was a year old, and born in New Mexico. By the time of the 1880 census, they were gone, just another family drifting across the nation searching for their own utopia.

Actually, James and John had only gone to Pueblo County.

There John met a young woman named Maggie Nichols, whose father had come from Georgia, Maggie’s birthplace, and homesteaded near Rye. The couple married about 1877, when John was 24 and Maggie 15.

In 1887, John and Maggie sold their livestock and equipment but retained their land, and moved their family to Walsenburg, where John opened and operated a livery stable on Fourth Street.

Around 1890, John went from the livery business to a saloon. He wisely purchased a lot on Main Street, and then more lots, all in the vicinity of Sixth and Main streets. He built on them and rented them out to such enterprises as a barber shop, a store, a harness shop, a bakery, and a lunch counter, or café. One new building erected in 1892 became the site of Dave Farr’s saloon. John ran his own saloon in another. By 1896,

John and a partner, Albert Hausler, had built and opened a new saloon. The grand opening was Monday, September 14, 1896. The Walsenburg World noted, “This promises to be one of the most popular resorts in the city as Mr. Hausler is a well-known and popular caterer to the thirsty public.” In fact, Hausler did indeed know the thirsty public, opened a soft drink factory and in 1893 added “the agency of the Milwaukee Brewery”. When he and John terminated their partnership in 1897, Hausler kept the saloon. John had a second saloon in old Cucharas, east of Walsenburg, with partner Dillard Sefton. He left this arrangement in 1898. In May 1897, John was appointed marshal by Walsenburg’s town council. In that capacity he often worked with county sheriff Edward Farr. To efficiently fulfill the duties of marshal in a small frontier town full of saloons, gambling halls, brothels and the rough men (and women) who patronized them, Caviness needed to carry a firearm. His choice was a Colt revolver. Eighty-five years later, a granddaughter remarked the gun had no notches, but should have had at least three. John and Ed Farr traveled by train around southern Colorado to apprehend lawbreakers, and jointly arrested others wanted in places like Trinidad and Canon City. During one of these trips to Trinidad following some suspects, the newspaper noted John had been in office almost one year (though actually seven months) and in that time there had been no burglaries until January 1898 when Bernstein’s store was robbed. “We will wager that if the guilty parties are getable John Caviness will get them.”

The population of Walsenburg at the time was around 1,000, but was daily augmented by hundreds of people from the nearby coal camps. A peace officer had to deal with transients, drunks, wife beaters, brawlers, fire alarms, petty thieves and gun-toting robbers, curfew violators, mad dogs and loose livestock, and everything beyond and between. In September 1900, John got a call to “quell a riot” but upon arriving at the scene discovered the noise was caused by “a bevy of school ma’ams trying to break a bronco bicycle”. For all these responsibilities, he received the princely sum of $75 a month.

In the 1898 town election, the “efficient incumbent” defeated his rival for office 170-125. The following year he received 144 votes of the 147 cast. In 1900 he again won office, this time with voters giving him 269 to his opponent’s 165. It was his last election.

On October 20, 1900, John Caviness died of heart disease. It was sudden, and unexpected. He was just 49 years old. Maggie was left with nine children, about five of them minors still at home.

A lengthy obituary full of praise for this decent businessman, rancher and farmer, peace officer and citizen followed. Funeral services held in the family home drew a standing room only crowd, which continued to the interment in the Masonic Cemetery.

Town council was suitably saddened, but quickly appointed Oregon Pharis to replace John. Oregon lasted three months, then B.O. Griffin, the deputy county sheriff, took the job.

Without a breadwinner, the older children had to pitch in. Daughter Josie took a job teaching school at Walsen mining camp. Son Curtis, also known as Jack, at 20, may have been hired by the city police. Daughter Mollie married Fred McHarg, postmaster and owner/operator of the Post Office Store. This was an advantageous match, since Fred was earning some $1,400 a year, but the couple soon moved to Trinidad so she was no longer available to help her mother.

On the other hand, Maggie may not have needed much help. With her Main Street properties, she garnered rents. One renter was the Klein Hotel, which had moved into “new apartments” in 1898, and included an office, dining room, kitchen, parlor and bedrooms, and the telephone office to boot.

Curtis/Jack was no help at all. He had married Laura Lewis in January 1902. In February 1903 he threatened to shoot Henry Setter, a local merchant, while carousing in the Silver Club Saloon. For this, he was sentenced to three and a half to ten years in the state penitentiary. Somehow he got out of that, and in June 1904 he moved with his wife and daughter to Steamboat Springs. Too bad he didn’t stay there.

Another son, Frank, 19, died in late 1902 when his spleen was ruptured in a riding accident. In 1904 Maggie purchased a home and large lot on West Third Street. A month later she was having a “handsome frame cottage” built on the east half of her new property. Maggie knew the importance of rental property.

In 1907 she sold one of her Main Street buildings to Fred Klein for $2,500. The Parson Brown barbershop was there, but Fred intended to tear down the old wooden building and put up something more substantial to house his “modern” ice cream parlor. Eventually, she disposed of all her commercial properties. Maggie died in 1926, at the age of 64.

There was another son, Charles, born in 1887 in Walsenburg. Charles got into a spirited card game in a local saloon, the Greenlight, in October 1912 and ended up shot to death. Laura Lewis Caviness died in July 1909 in Georgetown. She was 26. She had evidently had little influence on her wayward husband, but after her death he returned to Walsenburg and joined the sheriff’s department while continuing his wanton habits.

In 1916 Curtis/Jack went on a toot among the dives on lower Main Street. He stopped in a number of saloons and pool halls, waving his gun and demanding whiskey. This was not his first meltdown, but proved to be his last as a peace officer in Walsenburg, Colorado. He died in a fire in California in 1921.

The other children of John and Maggie lived up to their parents’ expectations, living long and productive lives.

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