With a little help from our friends

Recent donations to the Francisco Fort reveal new treasures

by Nancy Christofferson
LA VETA — Whether people intend to help Francisco Fort in La Veta observe its 60th year as a museum or they coincidentally decided to donate keepsakes of historical interest, the past few months have seen some interesting new items come into the collection.
One of these is a singular book, entitled the ‘True Story of a Bashful Girl’, privately printed by its compiler to memorialize his great-grandmother, Annie Powell.  Full of historic photos, it showcases the Powell family, the ranch, and especially Mrs. Powell’s art, both in watercolors and wood, for she was not just a painter but also a sculptor.  Many of her wood carvings have been on display for decades in Francisco Fort.  The book tracks Annie from her birthplace in Canada to the family dugout in Oklahoma, her marriage to Charles Powell in 1903, and their move to Cuchara in 1907.  The story was written by Annie herself.
The book also tells the story of Annie and Charlie’s daughter Wanda Rosalie, best known to local residents of the upper Cuchara Valley as Wanda Jameson.  Charlie owned and operated the old Cuchara Camps resort, then sold to Wanda and her husband Albert Jameson, and this trio was responsible for The Camps’ evolution into Cuchara by means of adding services and building and or renovating the structures both commercial and residential.  Wanda served as postmaster for the community and even taught in the little schoolhouse there . Her hospitality (and fresh garden produce!) left deep impressions on all who knew her.
A rather odd contribution came in by way of mail from :), aka anonymous.  It is a bank check register, enumerating checks written between 1915 and 1918 on an account with the La Veta State Bank.  It includes the notation of a payment to C.J. Rilling for coal in the amount of $12.85, to Sporleder Feeds for grain, $7.95, to the county treasurer for 1916 taxes, $3.59, to G.A. Edmonston’s store, $1.45 for socks, and to J.K. Kincaid’s store, $1.75 for overalls.  There is also a $2.50 donation to the Red Cross and the $1.00 membership fee paid to the local Farm Club.  Tucked in the little book is a cancelled check on the First National Bank of La Veta dated January 30, 1926, and from this we learn the check writer’s name, James K. Herbin.
In company with the check register is a list of eggs produced by the Herbins’ hens, by day, in August 1949.  These, the list also noted, included the 12 dozen sold for $6.24 to Gambles store.  Jim took the money in trade.
The Herbin family came to La Veta in 1883.  John Herbin, the father, was a Frenchman who immigrated to Canada where he married.  He was a watchmaker by trade but became in La Veta a farmer, rancher, prospector and coal miner. He brought his three children, Fred, then 18 and an occasional newspaper writer and editor, Sarah, six, and James, or Jim, three years old.
The latter two became well known residents, though certainly not model ones.  They were, in a word, peculiar.  Their father died in 1893, so Fred became head of the family until he too died.  After their stepmother died in 1929, Sarah and Jim lived alone in their house on the ranch between La Veta and Cuchara.
Jim and Sarah had their own way of doing things. Jim liked to work his fields by moonlight.  He harvested his hay and grain in March.  He called his methods “experimental”.  Sarah was convinced in later life that mice infested her bed so she refused to sleep in it.  She kept innumerable cats around, probably because of those dreaded mice.  She was also, apparently, afraid of plumbing, and hated to bathe or use the toilet. She spent her entire life in old-fashioned long dresses and bonnets.  She saved every piece of paper that entered the house, newspapers, magazines, catalogs and other mail, even cereal boxes.  All these she stacked in ceiling high piles that were a trick to navigate for visitors (though they didn’t have many because of Sarah’s mistrust of strangers).  She claimed to be saving the stuff to read later when she had time.  She and Jim traded with local merchants, but only if they stayed open late since the Herbins liked to come out only at night.
Both Jim and Sarah delighted in winning ribbons at the State Fair.  Their many awards were carefully saved and ensconced in their own special room.  What they won them for was “crops”.  Unlike normal people, the Herbins hand grew these “crops”.  They were more like specimen plants, grown individually, and borne proudly off to the fair and home again to be displayed with their winning ribbons.
Sarah was said to be a “concert pianist”.  Her “melodeon” is in the collection of Francisco Fort.Just recently a collection of photos, along with a few letters, came into the museum.  One of them is shown above on this page.
There is no identification of the person pictured. Judging from his weapons, handcuffs and night stick, the man is in law enforcement.  And while his two calendars show different months, they are definitely from 1939, as are the car license plates on the wall.  If this is indeed from Huerfano County, and surely it must be, it is probably a photo of the sitting sheriff, Claud Swift.
Swift was elected in November 1934 and took office the following January.  Within two weeks of his swearing in, he was faced with “two men supposedly crazed by marijuana” who terrorized several young women.  Swift declared war on marijuana.  In September ’35 he and his men confiscated 200 pounds of marijuana, worth at the time some $5,000.
Not only was marijuana rampant in the ‘30s, so were robberies and thefts, cattle rustling, vandalism and violence.  In addition, though prohibition had ended in December 1933, federal agents were still actively seeking violators of the liquor laws, i.e., moonshiners, which were rife in the area, and gamblers.
Besides a number of armed robberies in different stores, and especially filling stations, during his first month in office, Swift faced the search for five escapees from the county jail in mid February.
The 1930 official census showed Huerfano County to have a population of 17,062.  Several thousand lived in the two municipalities, and the rest were scattered on farms, ranches and in coal camps.  This is a lot of people to police.
Swift chose for his undersheriff his younger brother Carl, Jim Woomer of Badito was his first deputy, and Claude Vallejos of Turner camp was jailer.
Times were tough while Swift was in office.  When he first began, Huerfano County was in the midst of the Great Depression as well as the worst of the Dust Bowl days.  “Poor” was the economic standing of the majority of the citizens, who were unemployed.  Hobos wandering the country seeking work, food, shelter and other basics easily found their way to Huerfano by rail and highway.  In one instance in 1938, 79 of them were housed in the jail just to get them sheltered.
In answer to the rustling problem, Swift organized a volunteer vigilante group known as his “range deputies” to protect livestock.  Another of their jobs was to guard the annual wool crop, freshly sheared and stored for shipment.
The most serious of crimes during his tenure were several murders.  After George Carnes was murdered in his service station in Walsenburg, the Swift brothers trailed the murderer to Texas and brought him back for trial.  The awful killing of Deputy Fidel Aguirre in Gardner was another, and the Swifts made their case to send the murderers to the penitentiary.
Swift served until 1953.  During his time in office he declared war on juveniles, gambling, BB guns, and arsonists (after the burning of the Walsenburg Golf Clubhouse).  During the World War II years, his duties expanded to include the collection of short wave radios, firearms and explosives from illegal aliens.