Showing posts with label Custer County. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Custer County. Show all posts

March 24, 2023

History Wars II: Where is Your Fine New Signage Now?

In 2008, I described two different narratives about the area south of Florence, Colorado, in the pre-Civil War era of trappers, traders, and would-be ranchers. 

I called it "History Wars in Custer County," which was slightly misleading, because the marker also relates to SE Fremont County. But it was a Custer Co. historical group that — annoyed by the then-Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) replacing the good ol' historical marker with something more self-consciously multicultural — decided to erect a replica alongside it.

That group is winning the battle of the elements. Their old-style sign, with occcasional repainting, has outlasted the new one, which has been erased by the gentle Colorado sunshine. 

Go to the early post to see how the new sign looked when it was new and to read some of its text. Back then, you could read it. Now, like most derelict structures, it is attracting graffiti. 

This historical-marker database lists the new sign as "marked unreadable," but you can read part of its text.

It's kind of like how well-maintained traditional buildings outlast modernist structures whose concrete splits and spalls and whose cladding falls off.

January 05, 2022

Retrievers and Me (2): The Golden Retriever Who Was a Real Professional

Horn Peak from across the Wet Mountain Valley  (Wikimedia Commons).

It was the early 1980s, I had my grandfather's Winchester Model 12 shotgun,  and my friend Galen Geer, who worked as a deputy sheriff in Custer County, Colorado while developing his skills as an outdoor writer, invited me to go mourning dove hunting in the Wet Mountain Valley, which makes up the western part of the county, bounded by the Sangre de Cristo Range.

The party consisted of him, me, another off-duty deputy, and a man I will call "Charlie." Charlie was an independent operator, a bit of a trickster. He was somewhere on the spectrum between professional hunting guide and poacher, but I was never sure where.

Among other things, he taught me to blow a predator call properly, enough that I was able to impress another pro guide one time.

So we were going dove-hunting, but we had no dog. No problem. Charlie had it covered.

We stopped at a house in the little town of Silver Cliff.

A hunting-line golden retriever.
Charlie went to the back yard, opened a gate, brought out this golden retriever, and put him in one of the trucks.

"It's OK," he said, "I have permission."

The dog was a total professional. He was the Swiss mountain guide of hunting dogs.

 "You are my clients for today? Sehr gut. Let us begin."

We moved from spot to spot, mostly pass-shooting over stock tanks at ranch windmills. 

If a dove was hit, he trotted out, found it, picked it up — and always returned it to the shooter who had hit it.

If you missed a shot, he might turn from where he sat in in front of the guns, curl his lip, and give you a significant look, as though to say, "I am a professional. Please do not waste my time. Do better."

We paid him in head-scratches and bits of sandwich. At the end of the day, Charlie returned him to the back yard in Silver Cliff. I never saw his owner.

I wanted a dog like that.

Of course, I did not get one.

Part 3: A Bulldozer of a Dog

December 11, 2019

Sheriff Porter Gets His Man, Part 2: Moonlight Subterfuge

First you should read Part 1: The Trip to Babcock's Hole
Babcock Hole, in 2004, looking south, before the forest fires of 2005 and 2011.

Babcock Hole, looking east, 2019. A ranch is in the farthest meadow, center,
and that was probably the site of Goodnight's line camp as well. In terms of tree cover,
this might be more similar to the 1877 version. The stage road came ran at the base
of the farthest ridge (right to left), passed the ranch site, and then passed out of the frame
at left.

On June 29, 1877, the moon was three nights past full. If Sheriff Porter and his companions left Greenwood at 10 p.m., they would arrive at Aikin's cabin about when a still-bright gibbous moon was rising.

The printed account suggests that storekeeper Morgan guided them over the saddle between the Hardscrabble Creek drainage and the small valley known as Babcock's (or Babcock) Hole, then turned back. Although Porter needed a guide — he was in unknown country and it was nighttime — the group was probably just following the Siloam Stage Road, which started in Pueblo, ran southwest to the community of Siloam, then into Babcock's Hole, and thence up Hardscrabble Canyon to the mining town of Silver Cliff in the higher Wet Mountain Valley.

Charles Goodnight, about 1880.
Babcock's Hole itself was part of the Rock Canyon Ranch, owned by the famous cattleman Charles Goodnight (1836–1929), who lived near Pueblo from 1868 to the mid-1870s, when he returned to Texas. He had established a permanent camp in the Hole, one of several "line cabins" used by his cowboys on the open range.

There was also logging in the Hole by at least 1873, with trees being cut for railroad ties, among other uses. A small stone foundation, possibly for a steam engine or boiler, still survives.

So the Hole was not exactly the deepest wilderness. Porter could probably have ridden into the valley in his wagon, but that was not his plan.
Learning that Aikin had a large family, Porter determined that it would be better, if possible, to get him away from his house before making the arrest, thereby avoiding the risk of hurting other members of the family.

It was therefore agreed that they should represent themselves as a party from Chicago who, in looking around the country, and desired to be piloted out to Greenwood. Going up close to the house, which was a low double-log cabin, Porter called until Aikin came to the door and inquired what was wanting. History of White County, Illinois, 1965 [1883].
Aikin agreed to guide them for $5. Porter assumed that he was armed with a revolver. They started out of the hole, "guided by the uncertain light of the moon, which was just breaking over the huge mountains and down into the dark valley."
When the party had gone about a mile from the house and reached an open glade where the moonlight fell full upon them, according to prearranged programme, one of the assistants walking behind suddenly, in a deep, stern voice, cried "Halt!" The prisoner turned to see what it meant, and at the same instant Porter, presenting his gun to his [Aikins'] head, ordered him to throw up his hands, which he did, and the shackles were put upon him and he was informed that he was arrested for murder.
One of the deputies returned to the Aikin cabin to inform the family that the man of the house was never coming back and also to procure additional clothing for him. Once he returned, the group walked back to Greenwood, retrieved their wagon, and rattled into Cañon City about six o'clock the following morning.

Then, with Aikin handcuffed to his wrist, Sheriff Porter retraced his rail journey to Carmi, Illinois.
The prisoner at all times denied his identity, refusing to recognize men with whom he had been acquainted for years, and while admitting that his name was John Aikin, denied that he was the man that had formerly been arrested for the murder of Stewart, until several weeks after he had been placed in jail his sister-in-law visited him, and seeing that was impossible longer to deny it, admitted his identity.
After trial in a neighboring county, he was found guilty and given a life sentence in the prison at Joliet (now a tourist attraction and concert venue).

My one remaining question: how did Sheriff Porter's no-doubt-modest budget cover this trip? Or did citizens of White County engage in a little 19th-century crowdfunding?

December 10, 2019

Sheriff Porter Gets His Man, Part 1: The Trip to Babcock's Hole

White County is in SE Illinois, part of "Little Egypt."
On the evening of March 19,1864, a prosperous farmer in White County, Illinois named Augustus Stewart was murdered in front of his family by home invaders. These were two robbers who, as it turned out, had a man on the inside, an apparently lone traveler who had arrived earlier and asked permission to stay the night. The three fled together.

Stewart's neighbors tracked the robbers' horses for some distance the next day. Two of them, the Glide brothers, escaped, but the "inside man," John Aikin, was captured and confessed. Held for trial, he broke out of jail and disappeared.

"Thirteen long years had passed away, the wife of the murdered man had gone to her grave, the children scattered, and the awful crime had almost faded from the public mind amid the ever-changing scenes and busy strife of the world." History of White County, Illinois, 1965 [1883].

The "old" White Co. courthouse, built
in 1828. Presumably Sheriff Porter
knew it well.

Then White County Sheriff Thomas I. Porter learned from one of Aikin's cousins that Aikin was in "the southern part of Colorado" and set out to bring him to justice. In June 1877 he left for Colorado, maybe on the Illinois Southern Railroad (later calld  the Cairo and Vincennes Railroad), which passed through the county seat of Carmi, according to the map above. It was a trip of more than 1,000 miles, back when trains poked along at 25 mph or so.

After reaching Denver on June 28, he procured "necessary papers from the authorities of Colorado" and started for "Cannon City" (Cañon City, that should be), presumably on yet another train with a change in Pueblo. He arrived on June 29th.

He learned from the Fremont County sheriff there that Aikin "lived about twenty-five miles southeast, in a place called Babcock's Hole, up among the Rocky Mountains; and to effect his capture the greatest caution and vigilance would be required, as he was considered a dangerous man."

Babcock's Hole is actually in Custer County, but Custer County had been carved out of Fremont by action of the legislature only three months before, and most of its population was up in the Wet Mountain Valley to the west.

How did the Fremont sheriff know Aikin was so dangerous, if he was living peacefully? Or is the author just exaggerating? At any rate, Sheriff Porter decided to make his move at night.
Taking two Fremont deputies with him, he rented a spring wagon and team and departed about three in the afternoon. The drive might have taken him four or five hours, presumably on dirt roads that approximated today's Colorado highways 115 and 67. Or maybe longer: the text says he arrived "about dark" in the settlement of Greenwood, south of Wetmore, three miles short of the Hole. The officers "put up" their team and ate supper themselves.
Greenwood in the 1880s, a decade later. Note store building in center distance.
Taking Mr. Morgan, the storekeeper, as their guide, they set off on foot about 10 p.m.

November 01, 2012

'It's Like the Devil Went Bowling'

M. and I were eating breakfast at the sunny end of the veranda on Thursday, and we started compiling some statistics.

• Evacuations since 2005: Three (Mason Gulch, Sand Gulch, Wetmore).

And the amount of time available dropped for each one, from six hours to thirty minutes to "Go now!"

• Pre-evacuation notices that never required leaving home: Two, one in  2011 (the Biplane Fire, a/k/a the Mason Fire) and one in 2012 (the Ditch Creek Fire). We should have received a reverse-911 evacuation notice last week, but the telephone lines had already burned by then.

• Number of smokejumper drops that you could have seen from the house in the last two years: Two, one of them just across the road.

• Named fires within one mile in the last two years that made the national incident list: Three.

• Other minor wildland fires in this area in the last two years: Five? (I would need to check the incident reports at the fire house to be sure.)

• Number of Forest Service plans presented for prescribed fires, thinning, etc. in this area since 1987, the first year that I started following the issue: Several. Six?

• Number of prescribed burns actually carried out: One, in April 2000. Some mechanical thinning was also done in the area burned over during the Mason Gulch Fire. The Forest Service claims that it helped slow the fire. But no burning or thinning has been done in the actual "interface" area, close to homes.

• Number of naturally occurring fires that were categorized as "prescribed use" and allowed to burn, only to explode after the Forest Service assured residents that everything was under control: One (Sand Gulch), in 2011.

Sticking It Out

 But as much as I might call ours the "Burned-Over District" (a little scholarly joke there), I think that title really goes to the area west of Boulder, Colorado: Gold Hill, Black Tiger Gulch, Sugar Loaf, Four Mile Canyon, Sunshine Canyon, Boulder Canyon, Lefthand Canyon — All place names, all fire names.

This documentary, Above the Ashes, focuses on local residents who fought the Fourmile Fire (September 2010) on Boulder's western edge at their own homes and their neighbors', because there were simply not enough trained firefighters to cover the area. It's a good depiction of how people react — and act. (Hat tip: Wildfire Today.)

Best line: "You send four gay men into a burning house, they grab the art."

October 30, 2012

Under the Volcano (4): This Time as Farce

The red dot at left is our brush truck. Click to embiggen.
Things have been pretty quiet on the Wetmore fire, although the Forest Service is still patrolling at a reduced level. I thought it was safe to put on my city clothes, go to the city (Colorado Springs), and do city things (drink cappuccino, visit the computer store).

Oh, no, not so fast.

As I am nearing home, the cell phone starts ringing. Another fire call. Closer to home, I think I spot our brush truck heading away through the center of the burned area, leaving a cloud of dust on the dry gravel road.

Once changed into firefighting clothes, I call on the radio, get directions, and before long am creeping in the Jeep over steep, rocky, two-track roads into the burn. I've never been here before, but the radio helps. "Yeah, turn by that old water truck. You'll see where we cut the fence."

I find the two firefighters who were ahead of me standing on a knoll, looking out over the burn. There had been some smoke, they say, but a Forest Service crew was in the area. Maybe those other firefighters were just burning a "bone pile" of charred wood, or they had otherwise stirred up smoke in their mop-up operations.

Meanwhile, we see a smoking stump a couple of hundred yards away—at the spot from which I took this photo—so we hike over and put it out. That way we feel that we have done something to justify the drive into the burn.

It will never be easier to hike through oak brush (Gambel oak) than it is today, because it will come back in the spring and be thicker than ever.

October 27, 2012

Under the Volcano (3): Random Fire Jottings

Residents arrive in a tour van to see ruins of their homes.
(Why I use the term "volcano.")

When M. and I went to Pueblo on a supply run, I had forgotten my cell phone, which is why I did not know about the fire until we started back and saw the big, horizontal smoke plume. At first I thought — hoped — it was a big grass fire out by Pueblo Reservoir. The first state patrolman who stopped us set me straight.

* * *
Stopped at the last of four roadblocks on Tuesday afternoon as we tried to get home, I talked with one of the local sheriff's deputies, who said something like, "Good luck with your house. I lost mine." And he clapped me on the shoulder and sent us through. Outwardly calm, doing his job.

* * *
Overheard at the one of the many folding tables in the firehouse: "Does anyone have, like, a team leader badge?"

* * *
From the latest update on InciWeb: "Incident Commander Jay Esperance expressed his gratitude for local firefighters and agencies saying, 'It's been an honor working with everyone.' "

It is nice to be recognized, no doubt as much for my folding-table hauling (facing the threat of arrest!) as for putting water on fire.

* * *
Listening to radio chatter, I decide that some sheriff's deputies take a positive pleasure in denying access to reporters, particularly TV reporters. (Someone from the local weekly, however, is escorted by the sheriff himself.)

TV people crack me up though: One reporter does a stand-up in front of a bare foundation. It is, however, the foundation of a roadside tavern that burned to the ground in 1948, if I have the date correct.

For print and television both, if you read the news release on InciWeb and then read or listen to the broadcast, you will see where almost every word comes from. One reporter at the Cañon City Daily Record seems to have no qualms about putting her byline on a news release without even making a telephone call or two to "put a new top on the story."

* * *
Some animals died in the fire. Some fended for themselves. On Thursday, when I was taping fliers to front doors, I came to one mobile home and found dry cat food scattered on the front steps. As I turned from the door, a tabby cat circled my feet, meeowing. "Sorry, kitty, the folks are not back yet — but they'll be here soon."

April 10, 2011

Box of Foxes

Rescued fox pup gets a drink of milk. Click to enlarge.
A couple of days ago, someone brought a young red fox pup to the people at Mission: Wolf. An adult fox believed to be the mother had been killed by a car, and the pup was found in a haystack.

One of their volunteers brought it to the rehabilitation facility run by Tom and Cec Sanders in Custer County. (They have a book out.)

Then another pup was found, and to save the wolf people some driving, M. and I agreed to pick it up in Westcliffe and bring it the rest of the way.

It seemed strong and not particularly dehydrated. Now it is sharing a heating pad, blanket, and stuffed animal in a kennel crate with its litter mate: a box of foxes.

Cece always puts stuffed animals in with young live animals. They like to cuddle and crawl under the stuffed ones. (It's kind of like the famous monkey mother experiment, but without the cruelty.)

There might be more fox pups up there somewhere. Either we will get another transportation call, or they will be goners before too long.

Assuming no health problems, the two rescued pups will be released in late summer.

July 19, 2009

Lake DeWeese, July 19

Trolling the north shore, 1.9 mph,
Spinning rod firmly grasped in my hands,
I arrive at the portal of dreams.

June 17, 2009

Paying the "Rural Tax" -- Digital Version

Rural life: the county road is gravel, we have to shoot our own criminals because the sheriff is 45 minutes away, and the well water is free until you have some kind of catastrophic pump failure.

Then came the digital TV switch. I got the converter boxes (one for our house and one for the vacation-rental cabin) weeks ago, but put off facing the inevitable.

Probably these are the only two houses on our road without a satellite dish. But every time I think of paying for DirectTV or whatever, I stay in a hotel and experience "thirty channels and nothing's on."

Call us an "at-risk household."

Before the Utah trip, I installed one at the cabin, which has a large outdoor antenna. It went from getting KTSC (PBS) real well, KRDO (ABC) sort of OK, and KKTV (CBS) with lots of snow to getting KKTV's three digital channels beautifully -- and nothing else.

Back home on the 15th, I put a box on our set, which hooks to a different antenna about 30 yards from the house. "Goodbye, PBS," I thought.

Well, no. Again, there was KKTV, but KRDO, which used to come in all right on the analog signal, was flat gone. No more Desperate Housewives. Sorry, sweetie. But hey, Rocky Mountain PBS, which still thinks that Lawrence Welk and John Denver are cutting-edge entertainment, is looking good. It's a pity that their programming is so tame (or a word that rhymes with tame).

Hurray for Netflix, that's what I say.

August 22, 2008

Blog Stew with Mushrooms

• Apparently, I have stumbled on a photographic cliché: when you post mushroom pictures, such as this one from 2006, you should always include the field guide!

• Another group of mushroom hunters gets lost in the Wet Mountains. (M. is cheering for the 92-year-old man, lost or not.)

Several years ago I heard a member of Custer County Search & Rescue say that mushroom hunters were the group of outdoor users most likely to get lost. She based this statement on exactly one (1) anecdote. Now she has two. It's a trend.

• Nevertheless, it was mushroom hunting that pushed me to invest in a GPS unit -- one of Garmin's cheapest. I am still ambivalent about it, and I have a whole GPS post half-written in my head.

• This is from five years ago, but apparently Russian mushroom hunters get lost too. Eleven are still unaccounted for, the article says. Not like this, I hope.

• And mushrooms are kosher, not that that fact matters at all to us.

August 14, 2008

More on the Custer County FLDS

Since I mentioned the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' presence in Custer and Fremont counties earlier, I thought I would provide some follow-up links.

Brooke Adams, who covers the polygamy beat for the Salt Lake Tribune (the non-Mormon-owned daily) recently visited Westcliffe.

She also blogged her visit here and here, producing this nugget:

Well, [the FLDS] are not the only ones keeping secrets and striving to stay private.

Trent [the photographer] has had plenty of trouble in the past getting fundamentalist Mormons to be photographed. In Westcliffe, he ran into the opposite problem: reluctant regular folk.

Yes, there are a lot of privacy-minded people here, to put it politely.

July 31, 2008

The FLDS Come to Live Among Us

Last May, the local weekly reacted predictably when the editor learned that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had established compounds in Fremont and Custer County. (That is a Fremont County example above.)

The Custer County sheriff searched one FLDS compound for zoning violations, and of course he found some. Secretive religious groups always violate zoning regulations: obedient to to a higher power, they don't have to show you any stinkin' permits.

Anti-polygamists arrived to make their case by screening Banking on Heaven: Inside Warren Jeffs' Polygamous Cult. A former colleague of mine watched and was impressed.

There is not much sympathy for the FLDS here, but a journalist friend tells me that the sheriff's move was not well-received by everyone either.

It's the legacy of Waco and Eldorado. At Waco, the Branch Davidians were shot and burned for the crime of ... what was it exactly?

The FLDS "ranch" at Eldorado, Texas, was raided and women and kids hauled away, based on one telephone call that was probably bogus. I predict that the legal dust will take a long time to settle there.

So right now the local FLDS enjoy some sympathy for having been the victims of governmental jack-booted thuggery. But that could change.

Some complain that the FLDS spend no money locally. A bigger problem would be if they were seen to be block-voting in local elections.

Don't forget that that is what made Joe Smith unpopular in 1840s Illinois. He was offering the block Mormon vote to state politicians in return for granting him favors, such as being able to charter his own bank. He ended up murdered by a mob, after being arrested for destroying the office of a critical newspaper.

I have a funny feeling that the FLDS are more his spiritual heirs in some respects than are the mainstream Mormons.

UPDATE It was amusing to note that it took less than two hours after posting this item to get a hit from the FLDS stronghold of Colorado City, Ariz.

May 15, 2008

Another Fantasy Shot Down

A missing-person case last fall in Fremont County really got under my skin. I wanted to volunteer for the search, but of course I had college classes to teach. (There are no substitute teachers at a university.)

Knowing that I would be leaving the university this spring, I decided that as soon as I was free of that responsibility, I would volunteer for the Custer County Search & Rescue. Doing so would have several benefits:

• Giving back to the community

• Meeting other outdoor-oriented people

• An incentive to stay in shape by hiking, mountain biking, etc.

• And, very likely, having some experiences worth blogging about.

Well, no.

I called the S&R number and left a message. Yesterday, while I was at the vet's office with Jack (bladder infection), someone called me back, leaving a message on the answering machine:

"We have a full complement of volunteers."

That sounds too much like, "Don't you call us, we'll call you." Why do I feel like I've been rejected by the cool kids? (Does anyone ever outgrow high school?)

So evidently I won't be the one finding the lost mushroom picker or Alzheimer's patient.

April 28, 2008

History Wars in Custer County, Colorado

You might think that the historical marker on top is older than than the one below it, but actually the reverse is true: The sign on top is a replica of an earlier 1964 sign, placed in defiant counterpoint to the newer marker that recently replaced it.

Do we have a clash of narratives?

The 1964 text, reproduced on the replica sign, reads as follows:

Much of this area's early history occurred on nearby trading posts and settlements, which lived and died leaving little trace of their existence. Such was the post built one mile west by Maurice Leduc in the 1830s and the village of Hardscrabble established in the 1840s by traders and trappers below the fork of Hardscrabble and Adobe Creeks. Hardscrabble's walls and flat-roofed adobe houses formed a protective square in the middle of county long fought over by the Ute and Arapaho Indians. Villagers traded with anyone who happened by, but the tiny community was too far removed from the main-traveled Santa Fe Trail to survive. By late November 1848, when John C. Fremont and his men briefly visited Hardscrabble on their way west in search of a central railroad route through the mountains, the village was almost deserted.

The newer (non-replica) sign's text owes a debt to the late Janet Lecompte's book, Pueblo, Hardscrabble, Greenhorn: Society on the High Plains, 1832-1856. It includes a sketch and brief biography of Teresita Sandoval, who was clearly the femme fatale of Fort Pueblo, "willing to share the drudgery and terrors of frontier life with her man--until a man she liked better turned up," as Lecompte describes her.

The newer (non-replica) sign even hints at sex:

Despite some company policies forbidding interracial marriages, unofficially many trading firms of the nineteenth century actively encouraged their agents in the field to wed Native American or Hispanic women. Such unions were good for business, as they fostered lucrative cross-cultural relationships. (Full text here.)

The replica sign is the work of the new Wetmore-Hardscrabble Historical and Genealogical Society, also responsible for signage at the so-called Kit Carson Rock. Do they find the new text too "complicated," or do they just miss the familiarity of the old sign that stood for forty-plus years?

In his book The Past is a Foreign Country , David Lowenthal writes, "Viewing the past as wholly ideal, the traditionalist seeks refuge in mystical connection with his great and ennobling heritage, but is partially absorbed in and subconsciously attracted to the new influences he affects to despise."

December 14, 2007

The (Probably Bogus) 'Kit Carson Rock'

The so-called Unmarked for decades, the so-called "Kit Carson Rock" in eastern Custer County, Colorado, has recently sprouted a new sign, part of some locals' attempt to reclaim the past and commemorate things in the uncomplicated way that they used to be commemorated.
Close-up of the so-called
Here is a close-up. If you can read "C. Carson" in there, your eyes are better than mine. But there is no "W" in "Christopher Carson."

Furthermore, Kit Carson could not read or write. He could barely scrawl "C. Carson" on documents when he had to. Illiterate people on hurried cross-country rides from, let's say, Fort Pueblo to Taos do not pull chisels from their saddlebags and start carving during a lunch stop.

I am not a geologist, but that does not look like the rock from that part of Hardscrabble Canyon, where sandstone predominates. Someone could have asked Professor Anderson, but I do not think that anyone bothered to do so.

The legend of the rock has been around for a while, however, even with that problematic "W".

A 1948 Forest Service map of the San Isabel National Forest pictures it too, complete with the protective iron bars. At that time, Colorado Highway 96 ran past it, before the road was re-routed.

Local writer Hal Walter came to the same conclusion: the rock has nothing to do with Carson.

But I suppose some people want to associate a famous name with this area--and Carson certainly might have traveled up Hardscrabble Canyon, one traditional route towards the Sangre de Cristo passes and into the San Luis Valley.

Trying to claim he carved his name, though, is sort of like saying "George Washington slept here."

Meanwhile, take Walter's advice and read Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder.

It is a tightly paced story of the interaction between Carson, the New Mexicans, the Navajos, and the US Army during the 1840s-1860s.

Sides writes without bias of the Navajos' raids on the New Mexican settlements, the Hispanic slave-catching raids against the Indians, and finally of how Carson, who himself had many Native American friends, accepted the task of forcing the Navajos on the "Long Walk" to Bosque Redondo and captivity. An excellent book.

Meanwhile, I will have more to say of the attempt to control the story of the past in Custer County.

October 06, 2007

Theodore Cockerell and the Cowboy Mythos

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?

September 05, 2007

A Naturalist in Custer County

I am reading Theodore D.A. Cockerell: Letters from West Cliff, Colorado. (That is "Westcliffe" today, our county seat.)

Cockerell was one of the classic late-Victorian naturalists. He was born in a London suburb in 1866, and he and his brother used to visit William Morris, where they no doubt were caught up in pre-Marxist socialist fantasies of people living in organic communities and printing their own tasteful wallpapers.

He was passionate about natural history from an early age: "Very early, indeed, it was given out that 'Theo is found of animals," he writes in a memoir.

His brother Sydney, another boy naturalist, later directed the Fitzwilliam Museum. (Cambridge bloggers please copy.)

No one can write about Custer County in the late 19th century without quoting Cockerell, for the letters he wrote to his fiancee and her brother in 1887-1889 remain an important primary source for the social history of this county in that era.

Some lung ailment brought him to Colorado. It does not sound as though he had serious tuberculosis, but "lungers," many of them English, were a recognizable social group back then, particularly in and around Colorado Springs.

Working odd jobs to pay his bills and assiduously reading and collecting specimens, Cockerell founded his own Colorado Biological Association and solicited memberships. He returned to England in 1890 and obtained a curatorial job in Jamaica. (I lived there too, but in Mandeville, not Kingston.)

His lung trouble reoccurred, so he and his new wife returned to the Rockies, living and teaching in Mesilla and Las Vegas (I've been there). Then he moved on to Colorado College (I worked there too), and on to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he finished his career as professor of zoology. (I went to graduate school there).

The young Cockerell is a little too much of a naturalist some times, proud of his learning. Disembarking in New York in July, he writes, "It is very hot and the place swarms with Musca domestica." Like just saying "flies" is not good enough for him. But his essential good nature comes through. ("The green banks of Staten Island look good for snails!")

Right now I am reading of his trip west, which includes the inevitable digressions:

• The difference between British and American trains.

• The difference in prices. The US was more expensive then, at least for meals and travel. How things change.

• American "misuse" of "shall" and "will."

• The presumption of all these struggling little prairie towns with "City" in their names.

Cockerell's letters were also collected in an edition called The Valley of the Second Sons -- in other words, the Wet Mountain Valley.

More excerpts coming from time to time.

January 14, 2007

Colorado's lost ski resorts

Many of Colorado's failed ski areas could be summed up in this quote about the Stagecoach area near Steamboat Springs, which operated briefly in the early 1970s.

The whole rationale for the ski area was to sell condos and home sites, but the area was such a ragtag operation that the real estate folks had no traction at all.

"To sell condos and home sites" was also the rationale of the sometimes snow-starved Conquistador area near Westcliffe, which lasted from 1976 until the late 1980s. I can think of two other small day areas here in Custer County, such as Silver Park on Colorado 96, which also came and went fairly quickly. Now another is planned near Lake Isabel, but the developer keeps missing meeting dates with the county zoning board.

One area not mentioned is Ski Broadmoor, where at least two generations of Colorado Springs kids learned downhill skiing, if they were not at the Pike's Peak ski area, which is also gone as well.

This trend troubles me: I have not gone downhill skiing for years, just Nordic, but where do people go who don't have the bucks for the Vails, Breckenridges, etc.? Where can you learn to ski after school if you do not live in a bona fide ski town? That was the important niche that areas like Ski Broadmoor filled.

In skiing, like hunting, there are plenty of opportunities for the well-heeled, but the entry steps are getting higher and higher, unless you are connected through a club or something.

Right now, another ephemeral ski area is open, right here at Owl Lodge. After three feet of snow in the last three weeks--not that all of it is still on the ground--we have reopened our Nordic ski trail system that involves our driveway, the sloping lawn of the rental cabin, and a little bit of the 1870s Siloam Stage Road that runs through the property.

Apres-ski activities include writing book reviews and syllabi, but the bar is open.

July 11, 2005

Conspiracy theories

First, for the people who have asked where we are staying, here is a photo of the camp. . It's really not bad; the house is about 300 yards away. Our nearest neighbors are cows and burros.

Officially, the fire grew to 8,000 acres yesterday. I am getting informal reports that it is really at least 12,000 acres and the truth is being suppressed. I hope not--that is to say, I hope that we are just seeing information-lag and other snafus and not a deliberate policy.

While I was still at the house this morning, the tanker helicopter thundered over at low level about 8:30 a.m., headed south. For those of you who know the area, it was clearly flying towards Custer County Road 387 and the North Creek Road, which leads into Beulah. Beulah is in the cross-hairs today, but there is fear that an east "upslope" wind could push the fire back towards us along CR 387.

I could tell that we had a typical bi-level wind situation. At the camp, which is something over 8,000 feet elevation, there was a typical westerly breeze. Down at our house, which is at 6,600 feet, the breeze was picking up from the east. Composite radar seems to show most of the smoke in western Pueblo County, but I not trained in interpreting those images.