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October fests and firsts

September 28, 2016

by Nancy Christofferson

HUERFANO — October is almost here, and it’s officially that favorite season called autumn – the time of crisp, cool temperatures, white capped mountains and hillsides of varied bright shades of changing foliage.

Around here, it also has long marked a time of new beginnings. The crops were in, the woodpile stocked, the kids in school. It was time to turn one’s thoughts to other pastimes and possibilities.

October in La Veta means Oktoberfest, the closing event of the vacation season. It was started on October 17, 1987, and featured live bands for street dancing and listening, a beer garden and arts, crafts, and food vendors. It was a smash hit, and by the following year the word had spread and an estimated 2,500 people showed up.

Unfortunately, the creator of the popular event had died the previous May in a car accident, so the second Oktoberfest was dedicated to her. The Candy Cocco Scholarship Fund was established to recognize those young people who contributed to community life in some way, and the fund has, through the years, been expanded to benefit those in need as well. So it is not all fun and games, but an investment in La Veta’s future.

Walsenburg had been enjoying Octoberfests for many years, in fact, since 1906 when the first celebration was called the autumn fair and supper, followed by a “ball”. The ladies of St. Mary Church had banded together to produce this festival, and when they were done, they had more than $600 for the parish treasury.

In 1907 the men took over, and the Knights of Columbus presented their annual ball Oct. 24. It was preceded by a supper prepared by the ladies, and served in the courthouse. With the plans for a parochial school taking shape in 1910, the supper in the courthouse was followed by a dance in the armory. For the church and soon, the school, to own their own facilities to provide suppers and dances was still in the future.

The “autumn” event became known as the St. Mary Bazaar in 1911. It became a huge fundraiser for the church, school and parish, earning thousands of dollars every fall when up to 4,000 people attended the featured events, which included three or four ethnic dinners, bingo, dances, bocce and boxing tournaments, entertainment (think pet parades and frog jumping contests). Not least of the many activities were the prize drawings, which eventually would yield a brand new car to the lucky ticket holder, or a ton of coal, plus merchants’ gift certificates, turkeys or sides of beef, appliances and even handcrafted afghans and homemade fudge.

By 1990, the Bazaar was relabeled Octoberfest. The main events were dinner, a dance, prize drawings and Mariachi Mass. Receipts could total more than $10,000. The 2011 event honored St. Mary’s longtime and dedicated priest, Msgr. Howard L. Delaney on his 100th birthday.

So if the first fests were introduced in October, what else was new? Glad you asked!

Our earliest newspapers in Huerfano County, from the 1880s, reveal the big news was – yup – politics. In those simpler days, candidates, especially county ones, declared in late summer in time for the primary election, then amped up their campaigns through the fall. Luckily there was no television, so if one wanted to be involved, he or she had to be there, at the conventions, the baby-kissing speechifying, the official ribbon-cuttings and other public events. Excitement, such as it was, reigned for a few months, and then was over in early November. By December, folks had basically forgotten who was elected, who defeated, and possibly even who they had voted for. Or why.

Schools also were much on people’s minds. In La Veta, October 1911 brought news of the contract (for $9,984) being let to build a new and modern stone schoolhouse to replace the old 1887 brick model. The very next week, construction started. Plumbing and heating contracts for $1,800 had been signed. The same month, the coal camp of Oakview opened its new school.

Forty years later, in 1951, La Veta’s school board dedicated its new elementary school.

In Walsenburg in 1919, that school board too signed a contract. It was for a much needed high school, and it went to Emilio Ghione for $66,000 – big money.

In 1935, a special election provided approval for a Works Progress Administration project to replace the historic Washington School with a new building to cost $127,000.

In October 1975, the name for the new high school (to replace the burned out facilities) was chosen. It was to be named John Mall for its longtime superintendent. In 1926, the long wait for St. Mary School’s auditorium and gymnasium ended with the formal opening October 19 of a new addition on the ever growing campus. The celebration featured – what else? – a chicken dinner and a dance. The addition also housed classrooms, cafeteria and assembly room, all costing $85,000. The auditorium was built to seat some 700 people.

No sooner had the new school addition been toasted, excavation finally, after 20 years of promises, began on the city’s new union depot.

The next year, 1927, was another of Walsenburg boom years. First National Bank’s new building at Fifth and Main was completed at a cost of $75,000. It had been chartered in October 1903. Its precursor, Walsen’s bank, had opened 39 years before at the same site, and this was the institution’s third building. The same month in 1927, the Jellison Transfer and Storage Company started construction of a $5,000 cement and brick warehouse, 35 by 80 feet, with a full basement. The membership of the Methodist Church voted to build a new house of worship instead of remodeling. Their first church had been dedicated Sunday, October 27, 1889. Western Army Stores Company opened a branch at 725 Main, in what was known as the Joseph Building. M. Kalmes added a stock of ready-to-wear to his store at Seventh and Main.

In mining news, this also was the month the International Workers of the World, or IWW and best known as the Wobblies, saw about 80 of their number, serving as pickets in a major strike in the southern coalfields, arrested and jailed. After this, local miners of Huerfano and Las Animas counties were augmented by a caravan from the northern fields for a parade through Walsenburg followed by a mass meeting at the county fairgrounds.

In transportation, October was the month the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad completed and opened its new standard gauge route to Alamosa in 1899. In 1876 the company had officially opened its narrow gauge right of way into La Veta, which was incorporated October 9. Ninety years later Colorado Highway 12 was officially dubbed the Scenic Highway of Legends. The “new” Highway 160 to the San Luis Valley was completed over North Veta Pass and opened in October 1963.

Organizations also headed the news. In 1909 the Slavonian Education Club was incorporated. In 1965 the Walsenburg Golf Association was organized. In 1937 the Veterans of Foreign Wars was reorganized at its first meeting October 4 in the new headquarters at 524 Main. For Halloween 1959, chapter members burned the mortgage for their home on West Sixth Street. Disabled American Veterans Chapter No. 16 organized in October 1932 with 18 members. Friends of the Arts Guild started in La Veta and elected its first officers in 1975.

Whew. We’d better spend the rest of September resting.

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