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History Detective

by Carolyn Newman

PLAZA DE LOS LEONES (NOW WALSENBURG) — It was an adobe building and not particularly well stocked, but Fred Walsen’s fortified trading post in the early 1870s was a success. Massive and believed to have adobe walls two feet thick and erected near the Cucharas River, the trading post replaced the traveling peddler. Based on other trading posts, we can imagine the interior. No sawed lumber was available so probably some rough logs laid over barrels formed the counter (almost everything brought in by freighters arrived in barrels).

Cash was in short supply, therefore trades with Native Americans, coming along in groups of 20 to 500, and locals (there were about 2,000 living in Huerfano County) brought in furs, buffalo robes, Mexican corn, and wheat. Imagine the stink from the fur skins and hides. A dressed buckskin could be traded for two plugs of tobacco. A plug was tobacco, sweetened with a syrup, perhaps molasses, and pressed into a block to be cut into pieces. The trades also could be for metal items – knives, axes, red flannel, beads, powder, lead.

The real fun was the exchange of news from along the trails, socializing, even reading the newspaper only a month old. Walsen himself was known to have a sunny disposition and probably enjoyed the talk as much as anyone.

If location-location-location is the key to commercial success, Walsen, about 29, was a wise man. Already experienced from his work as a clerk at Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley, he likely had supplier contacts made and picked his Plaza location carefully. And he had been saving his money. Along the main trail through the Plaza, the trading post caught travelers on the way south to Santa Fe and those coming over the mountains from the west. A few outlaws such as Billy the Kid came by but there was little crime along the river banks. Yes, some shootings, but no stealing or house break-ins. Later the Catholic bishop passed through, and when the troops of cavalry from the forts pitched camp among the giant cottonwoods, the old Plaza was “hustle and excitement”.

Walsen left his spot in just a few short years, maybe in three or four years, and August Sporleder took over the building. Apparently Sporleder, arriving in 1873, added more adobe rooms because the Sporleder Hotel had six or eight large rooms. Then the Cucharas River flooded about 1879 and washed the hotel away; it had insufficient rock foundations. The river itself changed course. Before the flood it was along Tenth Street; after the flood and today it is farther south, closer to 12th.

Walsen gained a new partner, Alexander Levy, just a year or two after establishing his trading post and the two built a new trading post on the southwest corner of Seventh and Main Streets, where the sports memorabilia store is today. Levy and Walsen dissolved the partnership in two or three years and Levy continued in mercantile. Walsen, always a man with new plans, became a millionaire with his many interests including, in 1882, treasurer of the state of Colorado. Next week the History Detective column will be based on the 1881 account books of Alexander Levy. The photos are of Fred Walsen about 1875, and a plug of tobacco – a dressed buckskin could be traded for two plugs of tobacco.

Information is from the early writings of Louis B. Sporleder (nephew of August Sporleder), Benton Canon, and an 1883 article in the April 14, 1904, issue of the Walsenburg Yucca in the History Colorado library. The History Detective is a service of the Huerfano County Historical Society. Questions may be sent to this e-mail address: huerfanoheritagecenter@outlook.com.

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