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Doing his Uttmost

by Nancy Christofferson
LA VETA —  Milt Utt was, some 60 years ago, a well known Huerfano.  In fact, he was a third generation one, and deserves recognition not only for his pioneering ancestors but also his personal aims to achieve.  Milt Utt is considered the “father” of Francisco Fort Museum.
His grandfather, Milton Utt, came to Colorado Territory from White Cloud, Kansas about 1870.  He was a freighter.  By 1871 he was in La Veta as one of the many loggers, but went into the grocery business in 1872.  In 1876 he and a partner named Jacquith obtained a license to sell groceries in the brand new town of La Veta.
Like the majority of merchants who settled in La Veta in ’76, Utt moved west with the railroad construction, and spent another five years as a grocer in Fort Garland and Alamosa.  In 1881 he went to Pueblo and “operated the first store on the mesa”.  He then tried his hand at real estate and lost his shirt, so he turned to farming.  He got a place near Rye and settled in.
Milton had a son named Frank, and this Frank joined a cattle drive from Red River, Texas, to Wyoming at age 15.  In the early 1890s Frank ran cattle in the San Luis Valley.  He worked a year or so for the famous 101 Ranch in Oklahoma.  There he honed his rodeo skills and won third in the first championship bronc riding contest in Denver.  He also worked for the Hatchet ranch in Pueblo County, the Circle Diamond east of Trinidad and several places in New Mexico.
One winter he got stuck in a blizzard with his cattle when the temperature dropped to minus 35 below zero. Without shelter, the men and animals were stuck for many days out on the prairie, killing some cattle, and Frank had his feet frozen.
Frank then moved to the future Sugar City where he worked for the National Sugar Company.  When the city was incorporated about 1900, he became marshal, then constable before returning to his first love – cowboying.
After that he returned to Pueblo County and ranched near Avondale.  In 1949 he won the county award for oldest living cowboy.
Frank and his wife Elizabeth had six children, the oldest named for Franks’ father Milton.
Milton Gilbert Utt was born in 1898.  Instead of trying to make a living ranching, he signed on with the state highway department, which sent him to La Veta in 1932, a little less than 50 years after his grandfather had left.
His initiation into La Veta life was probably during the summer of 1933 when he served as manager of the La Veta baseball team and challenged all comers in the area, towns, organizations and coal camp teams to face his players.  Quite a few Huerfano teams answered the challenge only to get beaten.
It would be interesting to know how the La Veta team supported its 1933 season.  The national “bank holiday” imposed by President Roosevelt had shut the doors of the local bank, and they remained shut until a receiver was finally put in place in October to begin sorting out who had what on deposit.  Until then, people were unable to draw funds, including merchants and other employers, so times got pretty tough.  When a meteor blew over in late March, many townspeople believed it signaled the end of the world.  Some may have cheered back up in September when a national election took place concerning the end of, not the world, but Prohibition, and Huerfano (no surprise) went wet, along with the rest of the country.
Frank (1870-1957) had three other sons, Otto, James A. and Tom Shaw Utt.  Which of these men purchased a ranch three miles west of Walsenburg back in the 1930s is unknown, since they are usually referred to as, simply, the Utt brothers.
The Utt brothers gained fame in January 1940 when the Walsenburg city attorney began condemnation proceedings against them for .84 of an acre where the city planned to build a chlorination plant for its water system.  The Utt name appeared for years after this in an ongoing battle over water rights.  In 1955, the suits ceased when the Utts, in the persons of Milton Gilbert and Frank Milton, conceded the city’s quiet title claim in district court for water rights and land at Martin and Horseshoe Lakes.
Frank Milton was the only son of Milt.  He claimed to have begun ranching and cattle raising in 1939, and running the ranch west of Walsenburg in 1942, when he purchased his first registered Herefords.  Frank was graduated from La Veta High School in 1944, so he must have started his ranching career at a very young age.  By the 1950s he and his son Denny were doing business as Utt and Son.
Their ranch house still stands.  It is the house just east of Rio Cucharas Veterinary Clinic on the south side of Highway 160.
Milt himself stayed with the highway department. In 1944 he moved his family from La Veta to the ranch near Walsenburg.  Not long after, he and his wife Ada parted company and she moved to the San Luis Valley to teach at Monte Vista.
In 1947 Milt married Wilma Boyd, a native of La Veta.  The year before, Milt’s daughter Marjorie Jo had married Anthony Tesitor of Walsenburg and the year after Milt remarried, his daughter Kathleen married a local rancher, Bob Andreoli.
So why are we looking at Milt Utt?  Because beginning in 1955, he became one of the best known community leaders in several decades.  When the La Veta Chamber of Commerce reorganized in ’55, Milt became a director of the board (his son Frank was elected president).  The next year, 1956, Milt was elected chamber president and he continued to serve in that capacity until at least 1960. He was also president of La Veta Rotary Club.
In the mid to late 1950s, the chamber had many important projects underway.  Members spent three years preparing a town airport, and they completed it in 1958. In their quest to establish some type of industry to replace the cheese factory that had just closed and the excelsior and box factory that had recently burned down, the group believed they had found a solution for employment when a chemical plant called Cotarco took a lease on 600 acres just east of town in 1955.  That was a flash in the pan.  In an attempt to provide more recreation, chamber members built a golf course south of town in 1955 by completing three holes; in 1956 they built three more.  The plan to finish nine holes did not come to fruition, probably because of differences concerning a lease on the land, which was owned by the town.  Another problem being dealt with at the time by the chamber was the announcement of the Denver and Rio Grande Western it would discontinue passenger service through La Veta.  This brought on a rash of delegates from the chambers of commerce, town and county, to Denver to argue with railroad officials, all for naught.
When John Elley approached this busy organizer about starting a museum in which to showcase Elley’s 50-years-in-the-making taxidermy collection, Milt made it happen, and he made it happen fairly quickly.
Other history lovers joined the effort, and the Huerfano County Historical Society was formed.  Milt was elected president.  The board arranged with Murray Daniels, who owned her uncle’s fort built in 1962 and was renting out the rooms as apartments, to allow the society to use the east building of four rooms for a museum.
The result of Milt and his helpers was originally called Francisco Plaza Museum.  Its four rooms officially opened with the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicating the premises on Sunday, May 25, 1958, 60 years ago this spring.
Milt Utt was still presiding over the Huerfano County Historical Society, and spearheading improvements on its now-12 rooms crammed with possessions of former Huerfanos when he died in December 1963. Francisco fort Museum was dedicated to his memory.