by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — It’s become a custom for newspapers to ring out the old year with a full condensation of the events of the previous 11 months, complete with highlights and lowlights.
However, this writer does not do new news, so this year end wrap-up covers another newsworthy time – 1917, or 100 years ago.
1917 was a pivotal year in many ways. It is known as the time the people of the United States “lost their innocence” by ending the nation’s period of isolationism and entering a horrific world war, the first organized wartime “rationing” of food, and the introduction of Daylight Saving Time.
In local news, it was a time of growth and prosperity. Huerfano County’s population was about 16,000, with more than 5,000 in Walsenburg and 700 in La Veta, meaning some 10,000 people were living in rural areas, which were booming, and in the coal camps.
The number of rural residents had been encouraged the year before with the expansion of the homestead laws, which now allowed a settler to claim 640 acres. There were many, many hundreds of acres available in the dry farming area of eastern Huerfano County, and claimants turned up daily, especially for the land in the Rattlesnake Buttes area. Land filings averaged 15 per week. Due to a few years of relatively high precipitation, farmers were harvesting record yields, and market prices were good.
The coal camps were many, and some of them boasted populations in the hundreds, such as Rouse, Walsen, Cameron and Ideal, all Colorado Fuel and Iron Company properties. The company added more housing in these camps during 1917, as well as a giant stone bathhouse (with facilities for women), a new and improved $15,000 clubhouse (the Young Men’s Christian Association took over the administration that year), indoor toilets and other amenities in Rouse, most likely the largest camp at the time with as many as 1,500 residents.
Total coal production from Huerfano mines that year was more than 1.8 million tons from about 30 reporting mines. Of 2,767 mine employees, both the Walsen and the Rouse each had about 300 miners to produce an average daily tonnage of 1,200.
In January 1917, the Victor American Fuel Company scored a coup when it received a contract to provide the Italian government with 20,000 tons of coal per month at $4.00 a ton. Shortly thereafter, the company allowed its miners to unionize.
Walsenburg, as usual, jumped to fore of modern inventions in January when the city fire department purchased a $2,000 fire truck. A brand new doctor opened an office in January. He was a specialist in children’s diseases and the first such to find Huerfano County. Still, the stalwart Dr. A.S. Abdun-Nur was appointed official county physician. The outgoing county stenographer found new work doing public typing in the Roof and Dick building.
Also in January, the Walsenburg Clerk’s Association threw a masked ball that was attended by 400. The association was probably the second largest union in the county after the United Mine Workers, at a time when unions were active in every occupation from barbers and butchers and carpenters to truck drivers.
Two theater owners, Paul Krier of the Star and Archie Levy of the Strand, announced big improvements to those premises, with the Star’s new brick building to seat more than 700 winning kudos for most ambitious building project of 1917. In mercantile news, the store of M. Bernstein, a fixture in Walsenburg for several decades, lost as much as $1,500 one night to a robber.
Walsenburg tried to clear up an old problem in February – trying to assign numbers to every street address in the entire city. Didn’t work – ‘burgers continued to identify their locations by “next door to the meat market”, or “it’s the yellow house next door to the one on the corner”.
In La Veta there was some agitation over the rumor the Spanish Peaks were to be made a federal park.
Sixty miners at Mutual went out to demand a pay raise such as the one Victor American offered – but then we see that company had a fine new customer. In the same spirit, the pinsetters at the local bowling alley went out on strike for higher pay and shorter hours.
Possibly the first electric advertising sign went up on Walsenburg’s Main Street for the J.W. Smith Dry Goods Company, which stated, “We must light up, or shut up”. The longtime Krier store nearby countered with a floodlight to highlight the American flag on its roof.
The war in Europe brought out a wave of nationalism among the immigrants for their home countries. In March 1917 a 24-piece Italian band was organized to play in the camp clubhouses and elsewhere, and war films were headliners at the theaters. Still, a seer from Denver assured Huerfanos “there would be no war in Germany” for them. The newspaper noted “Everybody around here seems ready to fight the Kaiser.”
Diplomatic relations with Germany had been terminated in early February, and on April 6 the US government formally declared war. The local cavalry troop under the leadership of Ralph Levy and Walter Edwards was ready to “help whip Germany” with their 35 recruits. They were mustered into service in early May with a contingent of 62. Late in April 3,000 people turned out for the memorial services at Ludlow Monument. In agricultural news, the Fruth and Autrey Ranch shipped 420 calves for $30,000. Speaking of Fruth and Autrey, their Oakview mine had ramped up production until it was the third highest producer in the county in February.
May came in with the headlines all miners and their families dread, the story of the Hastings mine explosion. One hundred and twenty-one men were later listed as dead.
That fancy children’s specialist, Dr. Taylor, disappeared that month when presented with his hotel bill of $100. Movie goers in La Veta were treated to a showing of “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” (in eight reels) that May.
While the newspaper was full of lists of names of those being inducted into the military, along with those who voluntarily enlisted (including the three who joined the engineer “corpse”), other lists appeared carrying the names of the six graduates of La Veta High, along with the eight from Huerfano County High School.
The date of June 1 might well have been another to go down in infamy in the eyes of many. Colorado went dry that day, and Huerfanos were not in favor of such a dastardly trick. By the end of the year, the nation followed suit. The prohibition era was on.
Two general stores were opened in the Rattlesnake Buttes area to serve all the homesteaders flooding in. The post office and two school buildings would not appear until the next year.
By mid-June, Liberty Bond sales in Walsen and Cameron had already topped $15,000 EACH. In addition, war taxes were collected on everything, including dance and theater tickets. “Meatless” and “wheatless” days were proclaimed, along with suggested recipes.
That month saw the opening of a Red Cross headquarters in the Mazzone building. Every community and most camps had a chapter, and fundraising and pajama sewing projects were ongoing. By December the organization could claim more than 1,500 Huerfano members (factoid: the International Red Cross won the Pulitzer Peace Prize for 1917).
La Veta was the scene of several youth clubs teaching gardening and sewing, but the big news locally was Cuchara Camps. In its short existence, it was already the scene of a popular dance pavilion, 20 cottages, a commissary, hotel and restaurant, post office, telephone and a public park, all offering sports and social activities. Why, on one day alone in early June, no fewer than eight automobiles passed through La Veta on their way to the resort.
County Judge Joseph H. Patterson ruled in mid June that Walsenburg was by law a city of the second class, meaning town board rulings had NO standing in court.
Continued next week