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Booming

by Nancy Christofferson
    Sometimes, in retrospect, times look less promising than they did at the time of their occurrence, because we learned the hard way. 
    An example of this was during the 1920s in Huerfano County.  The plains area east of Walsenburg had filled up with farmers homesteading their 160 acres during the ‘teens.  Many of these people relied on a government publication issued in around 1914, which listed properties by township, territory and range.  This booklet told the prospective homesteader that most of the lands available received more than 14 inches of precipitation annually, and back then, this was true.
    However, the ‘teens were good to Huerfano County, with ample rain and snowfall.  Looking back, we realize this was uncommon.  Farmers from all over the United States hopefully proved up their claims by building their soddies or little frame houses, plowing up the prairie grasses that had held the soil for millennia.  We know the result today, it is history, but back then science had not caught up with modern techniques.
    Weather conditions became harsher and really, more typical of this area.  The rains slowed and winds increased.  By 1925 many of those homesteaders had swallowed their pride and hope and headed back east.  Abandoned houses dotted the landscape for miles around the Rattlesnake Buttes country (one of them belonged to this writer’s great-grandparents).  Where once were school districts and voting precincts, now were only sagebrush and tumbleweeds, devoid of people.
    The county newspapers stopped “booming” agricultural achievements and possibilities, but being the one-men chambers of commerce they were, they had to come up with good news.  The Walsenburg World turned to coal mining for this good news, when in 1925 Huerfano produced fully one-fifth of all coal mined in Colorado.  Too, some 3,700 men were employed in these mines, and merchants were happy, as were county officials who had plenty of taxes to rely on for roads and bridges, schools and services.
    1928 started out well for the independent coal miners, whose raise of 32¢ a day was welcomed.  This made the miners the lucky possessors of $1 per day more than they had received just one year before.  But there were only 940 men employed in Huerfano’s seven independent mines, and the miners working for the big companies were not faring as well.
    The company miners, who numbered in the thousands and were mostly members of the United Mine Workers of America, or UMWA,  were out on strike and being tempted by the International Workers of the World, called the Wobblies.  This group of agitators arrived in the county late in 1927, and staged a mass demonstration in early January 1928.  Picketing and violence on the streets caused the mayor and police chief to close all businesses where miners could assemble, such as pool halls, and to prohibit all gatherings and parades that would attract new recruits to the IWW cause.  In the uproar, a 15-year-old high school boy was killed, and confusion reigned.  An estimated 600 marchers and 50 cars joined his funeral cortege.  The strikers then burned several railroad bridges, effectively cutting off production from the mines northwest of Walsenburg.  Another teenager and a miner were then killed in a wild gun battle in downtown Walsenburg before saner heads prevailed and the strikers returned to work.  The IWW pretty much gave up on Huerfano County.
    Most Americans entered 1929 with hope in their hearts and capitalism in their minds.  It was a time of having fun and amassing wealth.  When the stock market crashed that fall, Huerfanos were blissfully unaware of the repercussions.  Instead, the papers noted the county was second in the state in numbers of miners employed, an average of 2,500. and the county had actually under spent its budget during 1929 and had some $22,000 carry over. In fact, it was several more years before the “trickle-down” effect really spelled disaster to Huerfanos.
    The 1930 census showed 17,062 people, the most Huerfanos ever, and the county was the 16th most populous in the state.  It was ranked second in coal production for Colorado.
    By 1933, however, the Depression had engulfed Huerfano County, and there was not much for the country editors to crow about.  In February, the Red Cross was distributing potatoes to the needy, especially farmers who most felt the ongoing drought, and relief projects were hiring unemployed men at the princely sum of 50¢ an hour, but they only were allowed to work four hours a day until they had completed 30 days, and then they were unemployed again.
    1934 brought more relief work, and the coal mines continued to produce well.  But both the county commissioners and City Council were contemplating empty coffers early in the year, and wondering how they would make it through to 1935.  Federal projects now paid $7.50 a week for 15 hours work.  Huerfano was one of the hardest hit counties in the state during the Depression, and somehow, all the busy work on highways, national forest improvements, bridges, riprap projects, soil conservation repairs and other projects turned the tide, and by January 1937 the World editor boasted “1936 is the best year, economically, in the past five for the city or Walsenburg.” Whew.