Dealing with the doldrums

February a dull and dreary month

by Nancy 
HUERFANO — Despite having at least two popular holidays, February is possibly the absolute nadir of the year.  Ask any editor – where do you get news in the dead of winter?  They will reply “Nowhere”.
Unless the weather is particularly newsworthy, as in unusual, life in our neck of the woods goes dormant during the cold, dark, windy months.  These are the winter doldrums.
If you haven’t checked, the definition of doldrums is “a state of inactivity, stagnation”, or in a word, a “slump”.  Also, there is the variation of, “a spell of listlessness or despondency”.  If that doesn’t describe February, nothing does.
Generations of Huerfanos and their neighbors to the south have coped with these doldrums with various degrees of success.  Usually, very little success, but still, they have tried.
To come up with some, if not interesting, at least fun, reading matter, old time editors relied on a mixture of humor and trivia.  Alas, old time humor does not travel well since the words of the 19th (and sometimes 20th) century are often archaic, and one man’s humor is another man’s insult.  Here are a couple of real knee-slappers from early days – “Enemies of the cigarette never make light of it”, and “A cigarette is a roll of paper, tobacco and drugs, with a small fire on one end and a large fool on the other.”
As to trivial events – coverage was treated seriously to cover up the fact that, really, no one cared. For instance, the Huerfano Herald of 1882 gave a nice report on the “magic lantern show on Bible history at the Baptist Church”.  Also, “the handsome and talented Jasper Butts” gave a dance in Gardner.  Naturally, being February happenings, these items might have been somewhat blown out of proportion.  The Fat Man’s Association election held equal interest.
A recurring February theme was the closure of school “years”.  In those days, school classes were only given when there was money to pay the teachers, and when the term’s cash flow fled, school was closed.  This was always an editor’s bane.  Was he upset that children wouldn’t get the education to take over his job someday, or was he just put out because the kids were back on the streets?  Probably not the latter because a pretty winter’s day in the mountains brought out “all the young and old children” with their ice skates, sleighs and sleds, affording him a chance to write about newsworthy injuries.
One year February was so dull the editor was forced to stoop to poetry, or a form thereof.  Here is someone’s effort, “Little prairie zephyrs/Little grains of sand/Bring expressive ‘cuss words’/Into great demand.  The sincerity of the ditty far exceeds its beauty.
One can understand a complaint about the weather when an item in the same issue informs the public that “Friday was the coldest day ever known in this country.”  The temperature dropped to 30 below, and the high for the day was 10 below.  Anyone could be excused for grouchiness at a time like that, especially those whose bathrooms are out by the back gate.
Folks tried to help the suffering editor by having social events of one kind or another.  Besides magic lantern shows, there were traveling, well, quacks.  In 1896 La Veta was visited by one Professor Massie and his lecture on Phrenology and Hypnotism.  Attendance for the big event was not recorded (though what else was there to do?), but it wasn’t too long after that the same editor haughtily wrote that one of the professor’s volunteers at another location had died under the effects of hypnosis.
The same year a group had a hilarious time at “The Old People’s Banquet”.  About 20 were there, feasting and dancing, reminiscing and no doubt gossiping.  It was kind of interesting before the editor pointed out that the old people were 60 or more. Sixty!
It probably wasn’t funny at the time, but Becker’s store in Walsenburg in February 1897 had a sale on a “Nice style of walking hats, 10 cents and 25 cents”. First it would be good to know what in fact constituted a walking hat, otherwise we are doomed to visualize a hat walking.
Up in the Apache community, “T.W. Thomas has been unwell since the long wedding trip he took last week.  The worst of it was that it was another fellow’s wedding.”
Just for filler, our editors used to use the otherwise empty February columns to list the academic standings of the school children or, as late as 1903, the list of Huerfano County High students “neither absent nor tardy”.
An example of hard news in La Veta in 1899 was that some of the local merchants were trading in their old coal oil lamps for the modern new gasoline lamps.
Pretty much all of the towns and coal camps threw at least one big party during February.  We had the Silver Mountain Band playing for cash to buy themselves instruments in 1898 in La Veta, the firemen’s fancy ball in Walsenburg in 1896, Elks novelty dances, old time dances, a benefit masquerade ball in Pictou in 1902, many Spanish American masquerades and carnivals (confetti and serpentines free, at the 1924 event), and various other festivities.  The presence of the “Original Black Aces” with their peppy jazz and original songs on February 20 said it all in 1925 – it was the last weekend before Lent started.
It got so boring in February that no item was too trivial to print.  So it was in 1913 when the editor reported on a gasoline burner in the high school chemistry class in Walsenburg exploding and the fumes empting out the other classrooms.  The same week, a gasoline coffee urn caught fire and set the La Veta Hotel ablaze.  One wonders if some people may have been sorry they’d discarded those old coal oil contraptions.
Walsenburg business people got so lonely that 250 of them attended the 1927 annual Chamber of Commerce banquet and meeting.  In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Nelda Johnson School of Dance had to hold an annual Revue of the youthful students in the Fox Theater to seat the large audiences.  An extra exciting Revue in 1932 presented Nelda and her partner in a ballroom waltz demonstration.  So imagine the lines forming in front of the theater in 1934 when “Little Women” starring Katharine Hepburn came to town! Now that was real entertainment.
In 1933 some larcenous types got bored enough to steal a phonograph and records from St. Mary school and pencils from Rocky Mountain camp school.  No books, just pencils.
The Depression seemed to be over in February 1939 for many, not just the financial depression but the personal ones, when an exceptionally wet month or so brought “the best conditions for raising crops in 10 years” that had to raise farmers’ hopes.  A free band concert at HCHS that included a jitterbug contest did the same for teenagers, and contracts for new builds and remodels caused high spirits among Walsenburg contractors and laborers.
In February 1940, coal production statistics were back to normal, annual wages for Huerfano miners totaled $976,538, and more than a thousand were employed in 24 mines.  Their children, among others in the 54 school districts, were promised they would soon have a hot lunch program and not have to carry cold sandwiches or somehow make it home and back during the noon break from school.  Within two weeks, the program was feeding some 1,100 students.
Old age pensioners got their promised, but rare, full monthly payment of $45 that February.  The UMWA announced its miners could work six days one week in February provided they got time and a half for the sixth day.  Works Progress Administration crews were building the Walsenburg golf course, completing a riprap project to contain the Cucharas River around the Cameron bridge, and La Veta’s new water system.
This may have been the least boring of any February, before or since.