OLD FORT LEWIS In La Plata County, settlers and farmers took up homesteads near historic Fort Lewis. Four generations later, some of those pioneer families remain, and they have a warm and intimate relationship with the Old Fort.
This summer, as Fort Lewis College celebrates its 100th birthday as an institution of higher learning, the colleges activities and those of Fort Lewis Mesa will be combined. For a quarter century, at the Fort Lewis Mesa Community Reunion every five years, residents and old-timers get together, swap stories, tell jokes about each other, and remember the days of rutted dirt roads, outhouses, hauling water and praying for rain.
The Fort Lewis Mesa Reunion will hold activities at the Fort Lewis Mesa School, Marvel, Redmesa and Breen on July 1 and 2 to bring together families from Southwest La Plata County. On July 3, Fort Lewis College will sponsor an Old Fort alumni picnic complete with tours of the historic buildings. The stories will flow just like the iced tea and lemonade because its a long, shared history unique to this corner of Colorado.
The 1862 Homestead Act opened the West for settlement and development, and the law stated that any head of household could take up a homestead of 160 acres. You didnt have to be a white male, and you didnt even have to be an English-speaking American citizen. Thousands of immigrants from within the United States and from foreign countries came to the American West to bet Uncle Sam they could live on their plots for five years, farm, fence and start families. Though the Ute reservation line crosses just south of Hesperus, in 1899, Congress opened Southern Ute lands for homesteading.
To Southwest La Plata County came Lithuanians, Norwegians, Welsh, Austrians, Germans, Italians, Spanish, French, Hispanics and brothers from Missouri. They came to claim their slice of sagebrush and to eke out a living between the coal mines near Durango, the gold and silver mines in La Plata Canyon and Silverton, and their own small farms. They grubbed out the sagebrush, the piñon and juniper. They raised chickens, sold eggs, milked cows, set fence posts and ran Herefords.
As part of becoming Americans, their children attended one-room schools, learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance, fought in the schoolyard and rode horses home. Settlers loved President Teddy Roosevelt, who frequently used the African proverb Speak softly and carry a big stick. So in 1907 ,they named Big Stick Mesa and used teams of horses and fresnos to dig the Big Stick Ditch, which diverts water from the La Plata River. Surely La Plata pioneers carried more shovels than walking sticks because the Big Stick Ditch irrigates almost 2,000 acres.
Homesteading families included the Slades, Oldfields, Pauleks, Huntingtons, Atencios, Aspaases and Eldridges. Mormon families came to the Redmesa area, and equidistant between Kline and Breen a county road corner with 13 mailboxes became a local landmark with the nickname Tin Can Corner. Pioneers helped each other with haying, harvesting, thrashing dryland wheat and looking for lost cows. As dryland farmers, if two years out of five you got more than your seed back, you did alright.
In 1994, the Fort Lewis Mesa community published a 561-page book recording homesteading stories. Patti Cordell wrote, Children learned to help as soon as they could carry a stick of wood, milk a cow, or stand on a box and wash dishes. With cooperation, determination and love, our forefathers were able to survive.
Wages were cheap but so were prices. In 1920 four lots in Marvel could be purchased for $110. Rather than be starved out by the Great Depression, families survived on potatoes, pinto beans, garden produce and deer taken during farmers season or any time a healthy buck got too close to a farmers field at sunset.
Although we had no electricity for years, and no indoor bathroom or plumbing, we had a wonderful childhood and never realized that we might be poor, Evelyn Brady Slade recalls.
Now 94, Emma Horvath remembers, Almost all of the houses were constructed of used lumber and infested with bedbugs. These pests stayed in the cracks in the walls and in cotton mattresses. When a kerosene lamp was lit at night, you could see the bedbugs crawling on the walls.
Those farm families knew the meaning of thrift. They made it to Durango only once a month or so, and Saturday night was bath time for the family, says Horvath. Water was heated on a wood-burning stove for a washtub, and after everyone bathed, the water was saved for the next morning to use for scrubbing floors, watering outdoor plants, or reheated to wash clothing.
From the beginning, these pioneer families had a special relationship with Fort Lewis. As it evolved from an American Indian boarding school to a public high school (1911-1933), they sent their children there. College classes were offered concurrently starting in 1927. Staff at Fort Lewis High School showed silent movies for mesa residents, and county fair exhibitors set up in the gymnasium. And when the high school began to offer college classes at what would become Fort Lewis A&M Junior College after 1933, farm families sent their children there, too.
For Cattlemens Day at the Fort Lewis picnic grounds, a local rancher would donate the beef.
Horvath remembers, On Colorado Day (Aug. 1) we were invited to tour the experimental plots and the buildings. We enjoyed sampling the currants, gooseberries, raspberries and blackberries that grew in those plots.
The pride of Fort Lewis Mesa was the fire truck kept at the Old Fort, and as the college prospered, local families hired on as cooks, maintenance men and bus drivers for the colleges famous school bus nicknamed The Mighty Moo, which ferried athletes to far-flung competitions provided the snowdrifts werent too high.
Connected to local families and supporting the Fort Lewis Mesa community, college administrators improvised on tuition.
In the fall of 1930, Papa went to Fort Lewis with me before school was to begin and agreed to bring them several butchered lambs that they would use for meat in the dining hall, Emma Horvath says. The lambs would pay for my fees and books.
The ties that bind are deep in this part of the county. Even though Fort Lewis College moved to town in 1956 and now has one of the finest campuses in the West, the colleges roots are in that dryland soil.
In early July, come to the Old Fort. Listen to the stories about how a college and a community grew up together. An education, after all, is just another kind of seed that carefully tilled, brings forth fruit for a lifetime.