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Cucharas: by any other name

HUERFANO — On September 20, 1872, the village of Cucharas received its new post office. It also had an old post office, spelled Cacharas, that had been established December 8, 1870. As Cacharas, it was the only post office between the Huerfano Butte and Trinidad. People had been calling the village home since the fall of 1862 when eight families, mostly from the San Luis Valley, arrived to settle. Previously, these families and others had used the area for seasonal grazing and probably for raising crops. After a long summer, they packed up and returned home to avoid troubles with the Utes and the Plains Indians. These included Kiowa, Jicarilla Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho and others that had dominated this region for centuries while they hunted buffalo and antelope. The first eight families included those of the three Jaquez brothers, Esquibel, Roybal, Valdez, Valencia and Vallejos. Not long after they arrived the Bustos family joined them. Most were sheep raisers and subsistence farmers. Their little settlement was located on the banks of the Cucharas River along an ancient and well-traveled Indian trail that guided them between the mountains and the prairies. Besides being on the Indian trail, the community was located along the stagecoach route between Denver and Santa Fe, established in the summer of 1862. Another advantage was being not far south of the Huerfano County seat of the time, at Autobees, near the junction of the Huerfano and Arkansas rivers. While no mail was delivered TO Cucharas, mail coaches passed through the area regularly, so some employment was offered for the settlers in tending stock and assisting with passengers and stagecoach drivers and guards. Cucharas was a “swing” station, where teams were

changed, on the Barlow and Sanderson route. Shortly after the inauguration of the route, Confederate sympathizers robbed the mail coach at Cucharas as it was en route to Fort Garland. By 1865 there were said to be 371 people in the vast expanse named Huerfano, and 336 were Hispano. Of these 371, about 50 were eligible voters, i.e., men over 21 years of age. Along with the first settlers came their slaves. Most of these were Apache and Navajo, and they were treated as part of each family. These people adopted their owners’ surnames, were trained and educated and were often even granted the right to inherit. One of the first tasks of these settlers and their helpers was to build irrigation ditches, or acequias. A plaza was established in 1866 on the north side of the river. Whatever commercial activity was taking place happened there. Within a few years, the plaza also boasted the district school and a Catholic church along with a few general stores and surely, a saloon doubling as an inn for those traveling the trails. Some of Huerfano’s earliest officials hailed from Cucharas. It didn’t matter that many of them could not speak or write English, because most of the territorial records were written in Spanish anyway. The fertile soil and miles of grasslands also spawned some of Huerfano’s first wealthy landowners as crops and livestock herds thrived. In August 1874 the Rocky Mountain Herald referred to the “new little town of Cucharas”, noting it had been surveyed and lots would go on sale “in a few days”. This bustle of activity was the direct result of the announcement the Denver and Rio Grande Railway would build into the settlement. The Southern Colorado Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the D&RG, platted the town and filed the paperwork August 1, 1874. As all good plans do, this one went astray. The D&RG did not complete its narrow gauge into Cucharas until February 22, 1876 (or March 1, depending on the source). The railroad’s future plan was to use the town as a division point after the rails west were built. As of 1874, the immediate plan was to continue construction south to the coal mines near Trinidad, and that was finished in April when the tracks reached El Moro. The railroad activated the small community of Cucharas. It soon became the shipping point for not only the local sheep but also local coal. Until the tracks went west into Walsenburg, coal was hauled from the Walsen mines to Cucharas by wagon, then shipped by rail to the Pueblo steel mills and points north and east for private markets. Employment with the D&RG was practically guaranteed once the right of way reached over La Veta Pass and into the San Luis Valley. Crops and livestock came over the pass to Cucharas while merchandise and supplies went west. North-south traffic was also heavy. As a section point, the D&RG built numerous business related structures, as well as a commodious brick hotel for travelers and employee housing. Stores were opened and speculators of all stripes flooded into the community seeking a quick buck. The post office was known as Cucharas, but the platted town was Cucharas City, and the railroad hub was known as Cuchara Junction. An 1885 guidebook instructs us as to the pronunciation of Cucharas as “Q-charr-us”. It was 49 miles from Pueblo and the cost to ride that distance was $4.00. By 1889, some 60 trains a day passed through the community. Cucharas soon had two school districts, the original District No. 12, was called Cucharas or occasionally Cuchara Junction. The other, District No. 25, had a newer building, Bustos School, which was often called Lower Cucharas. Or Cuchara. Later it was called Valdez for longtime school board president and sometime teacher, Leonides Valdez, then Fairview. Ah well. Teachers in both were necessarily bi-lingual, though in earlier days the teacher was assisted by an interpreter. By 1898 when Casimiro Cruz was the instructor in District 12 and top students were Alex Guerrero, Eulalie Bustos and Pedro Manzanares, the school counted 121 students. Peak student enrollment in the district was 170 in the 1906-07 school year. There were two to three teachers as the numbers fluctuated. District 25 usually enrolled some 30 to 40 students. Around 1894, a Turkish settlement located at its own plaza at Cucharas. For Christmas, they provided “one of their bears to E.L. Duncan (a butcher) for holiday meat”. At the same time, one of the local hotels was advertising hot sulphur baths to treat blood diseases. By the end of the decade, several more large stores had been opened and a Chinese medical specialist was practicing. Progress in an old railroad town could be measured by the number of saloons. Cucharas counted several but in comparison with other towns of its size, consumption was modest, although there were numerous serious accidents, some resulting in death, among the section crews and even passengers who imbibed too freely. Cucharas as a town folded up as quickly as it had developed. After the major hotel burned down in the ‘teens, taking the depot with it, the place never regained its former prosperity. The post office remained open until January 15, 1921. The school districts operated for several more decades until they were consolidated with Walsenburg in 1954.