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The end of an era?

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO —  It was 86 years ago the Walsenburg World Independent, March 22, 1932, announced the demise of a familiar friend. “An old landmark built by Walsen and Levy 52 years ago… is being torn down.  It was once the southernmost building where Main Street ended in a pole corral.”  The store was located at Seventh and Main streets, and by the time it had been enlarged with even more structures to its final size, occupied about four lots along Main and extended back to the alleyway.
The old building of the ‘80s was not even the first store owned and operated by Fred Walsen and Alex Levy.  Their original building dated to 1870 when Fred Walsen arrived in town and opened a trading post.  The settlement he moved into was composed of numerous small adobe homes, a large adobe dwelling affording protection from the Native Americans, and a rudimentary Catholic church.  Most of these were arranged along the old trail now approximating Main Street and were close to the Cucharas River.  A series of floods removed them before anyone thought to replace them with more solid construction.
When the “new” store (28 by 106 square feet) was built in 1881, not 1880, it was just one of two huge mercantile firms, the other being the Unfug trading post established in 1872 a block north at Main and Sixth.  Nor was it Walsen and Levy for long – the duo ended their partnership later when Walsen had been elected state treasurer in November 1881 and moved to Denver.
Levy kept up with the times and sometimes preceded them.  His may have been the first retail store in town to install electricity, for instance.  When the first “light plant” was completed in the spring of 1889, Levy had an impressive 19 electric lights placed, creating a “beautiful” store.  He also installed water from the new water system, which unfortunately was not a permanent system.
A newspaper of the time extolled the beauty of the premises, with its varnished ceilings and handcrafted display counters and drawers.  Near the front of the store was the ladies department, carrying some $2,000 worth of goods, followed by the men’s furnishings before one arrived in the shoe and boot department.  Even the business office was “elegant”.  Paper goods, cutlery, patent medicines, and linens were included.  Altogether, the stock on hand was estimated to have cost more than $40,000.
The new store connected to the old, which measured 25 by 56 feet.  Here could be found hardware, groceries and candies.  The rest of the space offered everything from brooms to heating stoves.
More buildings went up behind the store next to the alley, including barns for grains, hay, hides and pelts and “thousands of pounds of beans.”  There was a coal house and a large bin for coal oil.  A two-story barn held stalls for the accommodation of horses, harness, feeds and all types of wagons.
Between the buildings an open space was left for the convenience of on- and off-loading goods.
The store boasted a telephone from the beginning. It was connected to the depot and to the firm’s branch store in Walsen coal camp.
Just as the business block had gone up piecemeal, it came down the same way.  First to go were some of the large wooden storage buildings on the alley side, which were torn down in 1900.
In 1910 Levy sold the buildings with a 600 foot frontage on Main to William Krier for $8,000 in 1909.  The next year Paul Krier, a nephew of William, opened the original Star Theater there.  Other businesses shared the premises in 1910-11, such as M.A. Sanchez’s The People’s Store, which occupied a great deal of the 1881 building.  In 1926 new brick buildings replaced the alley-side structures.
Right at the corner of Seventh and Main, a parcel was sold to the Lenzini family to open the Walsenburg Tire Shop.  This was the part torn down in 1932.  Paul Krier had moved to his new theater building farther south of the former in 1917.
Thus, the old landmark turned into a more modern one, and was forgotten.
It might be noted the Unfug trading post, a stone building facing Main at Sixth, suffered the same fate.  It was sold to Krier family members in 1893 and replaced with a fine brick building featuring plate glass windows, and grew until it swallowed the entire corner, street to alley.
With modern tastes changing, new inventions like the automobile requiring not liveries but repair, repaint and accessory shops, not to mention filling stations, demanded that many of our towns’ old faces be updated. Periodic flooding of the downtown areas, like in Trinidad as well as Walsenburg, accentuated the need for higher foundations and stronger structures.  The unreliability of Walsenburg’s water supply was another factor for change, and the outcome was the replacement of old adobe and frame buildings with new brick or stone, flood and fire resistant ones.
In La Veta, several old landmarks bit the dust.  The first to go was the old Depot Hotel, erected right by the tracks on railroad property, which was torn down in 1896.  The Denver and Rio Grande no longer needed “dining stations”, so that old friend disappeared, to the chagrin of the local editor.  D.D. Ryus’s Old Reliable store, built in 1876, was torn down in 1903 to make way for a new two-story brick building.  The other notable landmark that was demolished was the old railroad roundhouse in 1939.  It had been built in the late 1870s to service narrow gauge engines, converted in 1900 to handle the large standard gauge locomotives and in 1909 enlarged to handle more engines.
La Veta, however, is proud to have what was called even back in the 1880s the oldest building in the upper Cucharas Valley.  It is, of course, Francisco Plaza, or Fort, if you will, constructed in 1862 by John M. Francisco. One of the first issues of the Huerfano Herald in November 1880 noted seven families and a few bachelors were making their homes in the many rooms of the fort.
As early as 1881 Francisco was having the not-quite-20-year-old building repaired when he arranged for a new roof and floor on the large room on the southeast side.  This was originally, it is said, a granary and storage.  It measured 40 by 60 feet, and like the rest of the plaza buildings, it was built of adobe with a flat dirt roof and dirt floor.  Even partitioning off a portion for a meeting hall for the local volunteer band and town board sessions, enough room was left over for the storage of hay. It was this section of the plaza that was the first casualty shortly after the beginning of the 20th century.  Even as it was being removed, other rooms of the fort were being “modernized” (although water and electrical service were still years in the future) in 1902.  At the same time the big building was taken down, numerous sheds on the property were also removed.
Francisco had died in March 1902, so these changes were made after that to improve the rooms he had occupied for so many years.  His niece with her husband and infant daughter moved into those rooms the following summer, and the husband went on to build a “veranda” and other porches, install new doors, windows and floors for the comfort of renters.
So it is that Francisco Fort Museum has wood floors and pitched roofs.  Its first wood floor dates back to 1869.
It is thought that two-thirds of the original fort still stands.
Other early preservationists offered more buildings to be moved to the site of the fort to create a village of sorts.  There are a school, two early stores, a blacksmith shop once used as a homestead residence, and the original town hall built in 1912 and now featuring the ancient fire bell used in early days.
While it is obvious decrepit buildings must be removed for the safety of the people, it is good some of the venerable old buildings of the early days remain.