LA VETA — Francisco Fort Museum in La Veta became a reality when it was officially opened on May 25, 1958. It is now open for its 58th season. What more appropriate site for a museum could there be than the historic buildings fondly called “the ‘Dobies” by local residents? In 1958, Francisco Fort, or plaza, was just four years shy of being 100 years old. When John M. Francisco had his adobe fortress built in 1862, the structure represented one of the commonest forms of construction on the Colorado and New Mexico frontiers. They were not all called forts but rather plazas, or placitas. Some were real forts, with bastions or towers for defense, and included the famous Bents Fort and several at or near the site of the later city of Pueblo, which were referred to as “the Pueblos”. The military had Fort Wise, which became Fort Lyon, and Fort Garland. Except for the latter, all these were situated near the banks of the Arkansas River. In northeastern New Mexico were Fort Union and Alexander Barclay’s older fort nearby. The privately owned fortifications served dual purposes. They were trading posts most importantly, but also large ranching and farming enterprises employing dozens of men who needed housing. They supervised tradesmen of all types, cooks, herdsmen, laborers and skilled hunters to provide all with fresh meat. The plazas’ many rooms housed these men, their wives and families and any travelers seeking shelter. These plazas and forts were all built of adobe bricks. Being far from the mountains, timber for construction was difficult to obtain. In the case of Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley, it is thought the military hired Indian craftsmen from Taos Pueblo to supervise the building project. As fort sutler, Francisco may have hired these same men to build his store at Fort Garland, and relied on them again to build in the Cucharas Valley. We are told Francisco had a wing of four rooms built first, and it was completed in the summer of 1862 when it opened as a trading post. He had sent his business partner, Henry Daigre, to oversee the building project. Daigre had about 18 helpers. The crew first built four wooden shanties near the site of the proposed plaza. These were their only shelter as they began the process of mixing adobe mud to make bricks, then constructing the fort. The walls they devised were about 18 to 20 inches thick. The thick walls were not just for protection from marauders but also for temperature control. Rooms varied in size but averaged around 14 to 16 feet square. They built two wings to these specifications, east and west, for the trading post and personal accommodations, then a third on the south to serve as a storage area and granary. Each room had a door and window facing into the courtyard in the center, and a fireplace or chimney for a wood stove. It appears that Francisco’s, being of
later construction than some of the other plazas of the 1830s and ‘40s, had glass windows originally. There were no doors or windows on exteriors facing outward from the courtyard. The three wings formed a U-shape said to have measured about 100 feet on each side. On the east was a tall fence of sharpened logs. The flat dirt roofs of the buildings featured parapets where sharpshooters could hide if there was trouble. Many plazas used their dirt roofs for raising vegetables, but it is unknown if that was the case at Francisco’s. The fort was built near the Cucharas River amidst fields of crops. These included vegetables such as pumpkins, beans, squash and potatoes, and grains like corn, wheat, barley and rye. Some of the fields were irrigated from the river and others by way of ditches. The crops were mostly for sale or trade, and were taken by wagon to the military forts of Colorado and north to the gold mining camps and new settlements along the Front Range. One oldtimer recalled as many as 500 oxen at a time could be found grazing in the valley near the plaza. Francisco’s was advantageously situated near the foot of what we call La Veta Pass, but was then generally known as Abeyta Pass. This was a major route from the plains into the San Luis Valley and beyond. A toll road was built and heavily used by freight wagons, herds of livestock and travelers on horseback. A military road linking Forts Union and Garland ran nearby as well. The fort’s residents no doubt saw some type of traffic almost daily, depending on the weather. Francisco Fort was known variously as Francisco’s Ranche, the Cucharas Ranche or Francisco’s Plaza. On one map the site appears as Daguirre, for Daigre. Nothing is known about daily life in Francisco Fort. No one left a journal or diary. Perhaps there was nothing to record. Longtime La Veta resident Hiram Vasquez, who arrived at the fort during its construction, later recalled incidents and people, but his reticence about his own adventures has left us with few facts. Francisco was a serious businessman. He had owned and operated sutlers’ stores at Forts Massachusetts and Garland, at Cantonment Burgwin near Taos and, some sources say, at Fort Union. With a partner, he’d built and run a ferry across the Conejos River. He supervised thousands of acres of farm and ranch land and hundreds of head of livestock. He arranged contracts with the military to supply food after he’d resigned his sutler’s commission. He had a general store in South Pueblo, at least until his manager absconded with the funds. He supplied other stores at Pueblo, such as Albert Gallatin Boone’s. He served as a legislator in the first Territorial Congress. In other words, during the 1860s he traveled widely and often. By the 1870s, while in his fifties, he slowed down and spent more time at his fort. Around 1872, the Denver and Rio Grande Railway announced plans to build a route across Abeyta Pass. Other plans included establishing towns along the route. The financial panic of 1873 set these plans back, but by 1876, construction was underway. Francisco, no doubt realizing his fort and the community growing around it would be bypassed if no incentives were offered, donated the townsite of the future La Veta to a town company for development. When the narrow gauge railroad finally arrived, it came right to the doorstep of Francisco’s Fort where the depot was located. Francisco maintained his home in the fort for 40 years until his death there in 1902. After he died, his widowed sister-in-law inherited the premises and rented out the rooms as apartments and businesses. Through the years since the museum was founded, many people have toured the buildings and informed docents that their families had lived in such and such rooms. The old fort is showing its age now, but at age 153, it should.