After reading the letters of English naturalist Theodore D.A. Cockerell, written from the Wet Mountain Valley in 1887-1889 to his girlfriend and her brother back home, I have come to a conclusion. This hard-working natural scientist perhaps shaped the way that Custer County thinks about itself.
When Cockerell arrived, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff were full of miners. On his arrival, he mentions going to Silver Cliff to see the mines.
I was much interested. They find silver here usually in the form of chloride, which is a sort of olive-green, but also, more rarely, they get it native.
And so on for a long paragraph. True, the silver-mining boom had crested when he arrived:
Silver Cliff is the principal place in the district for silver mining, and some years ago when the silver was first discovered there as a great rush for the mines and about 15,000 people were in the place at one time, but mining was not the success they expected, and very soon what promised to become a big town dwindled down to its present proportions--a small and insignificant village.
(Cockerell put Silver Cliff's population at 1,000 and Westcliffe's at 500.)
He lived part of the time at the home of an Anglo-Irish ranching family, the Cusacks, whose property is now a guest ranch, The Pines.
But mining still was going on. At one point, Cockerell thinks he has landed a clerk's job at a mine in Rosita, but due to cash-flow problems, the offer is withdrawn, and he stays with the ranchers.
There he writes quite a few observations about stockmen and cowboys--observations still quoted today--and ignores the mining industry, being more interested in entomology than geology.
Every year in September the Wet Mountain Western Days celebrates the cowboy mythos in all the usual ways. You won't find any single-jack drilling contests or prospector's burro race here. Yet which industry really built the county more?