by Nancy Christofferson
CUCHARA- Outdoor recreation is a given when one vacations in Cuchara. No one can resist hiking or just enjoying a short walk to take advantage of the clean mountain air, the smell of pines or the sight of the quaking aspen, the scuttling clouds and shadows they cause on the slopes of the Culebra range, Dakota Wall and Three Sisters.
In the early days of Cuchara, then Cuchara Camps, its founder, George A. Mayes, offered several types of recreation for his guests. He had riding and pack burros, a tennis court, croquet grounds, campfire supplies, fishing equipment for use on his stocked lakes or in the river, a rude golf course. Surely a visitor could find a sport to his or her liking. Of course, “the youth,” now known as teenagers, had their own forms of fun. Daytime hikes and climbs followed by dancing and singing in the pavilion in the evenings were popular, while the older set enjoyed visiting and strolling, and swapping stories around the community campfire in the evening into night.
The first stab at organized enjoyment of the great outdoor possibilities of the Camps was in 1939 when the Huerfano Outing Club of Walsenburg, which was affiliated with the Colorado Mountain Club, sponsored its first “nature study camp.” It was successful enough to have a second the following June, when 32 people were in attendance. The nature camps took advantage of all things outdoors – hikes and climbs, plant and tree identification, geology, animal life and even archaeology.
The Outing Club existed for the enjoyment of Mother Nature in all her many manifestations and members were as liable to be found scaling the West Spanish Peak as exploring Huerfano canyons for tepee rings, Indian points and pottery. They assisted visiting paleontologists in uncovering fossils and prehistoric bones and once even found the wreckage of a downed US Army training plane that crashed near the summit of Greenhorn Peak. The club also was responsible for having the Huerfano Butte marked as a historic site, and a member actually built the first stone monument there.
World War II brought an end to the Outing Club’s nature studies, and Cucharans were left to find their own outdoor amusement. In the 1940s and ‘50s most mountain trails were so heavily traveled the paths could not be overlooked. The following jaunts were just another good excuse to go for a picnic; weekly if not daily climbs of the Rock Wall, topped with K and T rocks, walking the trail between Blue and Bear Lakes before the road was built to the latter, walking to the Forks or the Gap, even to La Veta, or to the old dump above Spring Creek and on to the Haunted House. Breakfast hikes were enjoyed, with the participants hauling everything from cast iron skillets, silverware and plates to bacon and eggs along winding and uphill trails.
Indoor recreation also was important, and the center of this was the old Chuck Wagon. There the community gathered for Bingo games, dances, travelogues presented by summer neighbors. A rainy day was often cause for a gathering of card players, which was a good enough excuse to have a piece of homemade pie, as long as one was there anyway.
The late ‘40s and ‘50s also were a time of rapid growth in Cuchara, with many new homes going up, and an absolute spurt in population. The Chuck Wagon, despite being enlarged, proved inadequate to seat everyone wanting to attend the weekly bingo games and other activities, and the Cuchara Association, organized in August 1952, determined it would give the Camps a playground, custodian, street lights and community center.
In 1956 ground was donated to the Association by the Albrights, Larrabees and Masintons for just such a community center. A contract for a large stone building was let to a La Veta contractor, Charles W. Keeling Jr., better known as Bud, and construction began immediately. Conveniently, the highway department at the time was removing the old sharp curve at the northern end of the Camps, just west of today’s Timbers restaurant, and cutting down the precipitous hill there. The dirt removed was used to fill in around the new foundation of the growing community center, affectionately called the Rec Hall.
Keeling boasted he would have a roof on the Rec Hall before the snow fell – rash words at 8,600 feet altitude in late September! Sure enough, snow fell and worked ceased for the winter. In fact, it ceased for quite a while longer and the following autumn the Cuchara caretaker, Art Prator, had to install supports to prop up what had been completed against winter snows.
1958 saw more construction, including the installation of window panes by Cuchara kids. The next summer found those panes popped out and laying shattered on the ground.
The next year building was rushed and the new Recreation Center opened for community use in June of 1960. Loraine Hector was director and oversaw all events, which included daytime games for the young, such as ping pong, cards and dominoes, and evening activities such as covered dish dinners, the ever-popular bingo games (which always ended with a blackout game that awarded the winner no less than five dollars!), travelogues and, eventually, Friday evening “platter” dances for the teenagers. When the Cuchara Hermosa club formed in 1965, it had its first annual art show, called the Flower and Art Festival, the first weekend in August.
For the past 18 years, former Cuchara “kid” Bruce Johnson has kept a recreation program alive so that today’s children can be as active as yesterday’s were. Hikes to the Haunted House site (the actual house burned down in the ‘50s) and other popular spots, the annual fun run and bingo games are just a few of the entertainments still enjoyed through his program.
Go to http://cucharavalleyrec.com/ for more information.