Trailblazer:  Asa Gilbert Arnold

CUCHARA — Seventy years ago, on Dec. 9, 1943, one of the Cuchara Valley’s favorite and most colorful characters died. He was Asa Gilbert Arnold. He earned the sobriquet “Uncle Acey” through his entertainment of the small and large but ever avid listeners of his tall tales. Asa Arnold was born in Johnson County, Kansas, now mostly suburban Kansas City, in 1869. In 1873, his parents and their six children set out in a prairie schooner for parts west. Somewhere out on the prairies, Asa’s father died, and Mary Arnold, his mother, continued the journey to Colorado. By the 1880s, she was included in the census for Las Animas County where she was cooking at a sawmill. According to Asa’s granddaughter, Lucille Drury, Mary married a Mr. Marquis, owner of the sawmill. Asa later said he’d come to the Cuchara Valley in 1886 to work for Charley Mack on his ranch near the Gap north of Cuchara. Perhaps the whole family accompanied him, or perhaps they followed. At any rate, they lived in La Veta by 1890. Years later, Asa could still remember the names of those living on the ranches of the upper Cucharas in the 1880s. In 1890, Asa’s sister Ella May married William Hibben Woodruff, a La Veta merchant and postmaster who, between 1904 and 1909, built three of the stone store buildings on Main Street. Also in 1890, another sister, Lillie, married James Hill, a resident of Walsen. This couple lived in Walsenburg for a good 30 years. A third sister, Cepha, married several times. Asa’s brother Charles Levi married in La Veta and left about 1903 to make his home in California. Asa himself married Lucinda “Lou” Fain Jan. 22, 1893. She was the daughter of Fountain Mayfield and Lucinda Fain, residents of La Veta since 1881. Their first child, a son named Fain, was born late that year and seven more would follow, though only six would survive until adulthood. They included, besides Fain, Frank, Cepha, May, Ortis and Fred. Asa is said to be the first ranger for the San Isabel National Forest. This is not exactly true – he actually preceded the national forest. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, many residents of the Cuchara Valley were bemoaning the loss of trees to sawmills, mine prop mills and railroad tie manufacturers. It was a common problem in mountainous areas. A forest preserve was first proposed in 1901, to be called the Las Animas. It was to encompass a very large area in northwestern Las Animas and southwestern Huerfano counties. This proposal called for the withdrawal of those acreages from homestead entry. Homesteaders were aghast at the loss, and creation of the preserve was delayed. When it finally earned congressional approval in March 1907, it consisted of 192,960 acres. Within a month, its boundaries were again cut. Another month went by and in April, Asa applied for the job of ranger. In June, he was named ranger for the north half of the preserve, or that in Huerfano County, and another man took the south portion. Part of Asa’s job called for him to “eradicate” predatory animals. He would also have been responsible for issuing timber cutting permits, livestock grazing leases, blazing trails and possibly reforestation of the over-logged areas. In 1909, the Las Animas Forest Preserve was merged into the San Isabel National Forest, Las Animas District, by President Teddy Roosevelt, and Asa was out of a job. So Asa packed up the family and with the in-laws, the Hills, moved to the western slope. The Hill family continued on to California. Lou Arnold died in Hotchkiss in 1913. Lou’s obituary said she died of peritonitis at the age of 41, and an infant died as well. Asa packed up the kids and returned to the Cuchara Valley. Asa evidently preferred the wilderness to town living, but had to provide his children with schooling. They often stayed part of the winter with his mother in La Veta, who by this time had remarried and was Mrs. R.E. Roberts. Come spring, however, he was back in the hills exploring, cutting and milling timber and raising potatoes and kids. Like his father-in-law, F.M. Fain, Asa loved poetry. The teens and ‘20s were the time of Cuchara Camps’ blooming from a small campground to a growing summer resort. Started in 1907 by George A. Mayes, the Camps was developing into a village of cabins and cottages. Asa provided timber, and probably muscle, to build some of these, assisted by his sons. Asa especially seemed to enjoy the gregarious evenings around the campfire with the tourists, where he regaled them with his tales of being an Army Scout, and hunting buffalo out on the plains. His listeners became legion, and remembered his words. He sang, told stories and related tales of old times he may have heard from earlier settlers. He obviously held forth to listeners in La Veta, too, because some of those who were youngsters in those days recalled his hair-raising and heartrending stories until their old ages. He was Uncle Acey, and he was to be listened to. In 1916 Asa leased the Mayes ranch on the Cucharas and won the contract to carry the mail between Cuchara Camps and La Veta. In the 1920s he worked part time at the Oakview coal mine, where his son Frank was stable boss and the family lived next to the mule barn. Fain and Ortie also worked at Oakview. Asa continued to build trails, serving as the foreman of a crew working between the Spanish Peaks in San Isabel National Forest. He also provided props for the mine from his sawmill, and earned a mention in a January 1925 newspaper for his tenacity in sledding those props into town via sled during an especially snowy spell. The next winter he was back direct a crew in building trails around Blue Lake. Asa is credited with naming Bear Lake. Back in the La Veta area, Asa had built a cabin on Chaparral Creek in the mid ‘20s, after his tent burned down, on land homesteaded by his wife and where his sawmill was located. He and his son Frank built a good road to reach it. He continuously enlarged and improved his mill, as well as purchasing or leasing more timber land. He also retained a cabin south of today’s Cuchara. He could be found at one of mountain homes in all months of the year, in cool summer breezes, when he’d be joined by relatives, or in five feet of snow, when no one could visit. Whether on foot or on something four-footed, he covered miles and miles of the back country, discovering ancient trails, uncovering old glory holes and all kinds of unexplained sites. He wrote verses about many of these mysteries. By the 1930s, most of the Arnold clan was living in California. Mary Roberts died there at the age of 80 in 1930. Asa and Frank and his family remained in La Veta where Asa was felled by a heart attack at the age of 74.