by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO- The editors of the newspapers in Walsenburg and La Veta were darned hard-pressed to come up with good news for their readers through the Depression years of the 1930s, with drought affecting farmers and stockmen and rampant unemployment among every one else.
However, as 1940 dawned, Walsenburg’s World-Independent found a ray of hope when it reported. “The European war was reflected anew in Colorado today with the placing of an order for $1,200,000 worth of steel billets with the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company at Pueblo.” No mention was made of just which side of the hostilities was doing the ordering. This was good news because of the number of Huerfanos employed at CF&I’s steel plant who were directly involved with such war production. A further piece of good news was the lowering of gas prices to 19 cents.
Effects of the Depression lingered in Huerfano County, with ruined fields and pastures left in sand and dust, and unemployment still high. Relief projects to employ men with families continued (the last one was not finished until 1942). In hindsight we realize the only relief from the Depression was World War II, but in those early days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on the Axis powers the huge impact of the coming four years could not be visualized.
Rather, our editors dismally pointed out the loss of population in the county, from the peak of 17,062 in 1930 to 16,088 in 1940. On the other hand, Walsenburg gained 352 residents during that decade, and La Veta went from 782 residents in 1930 to 891 in 1940. These fluctuations were caused by ruined farmers and unemployed coal miners moving into the towns.
War restrictions on all types of food, appliances, rubber products and anything made of metal brought only mild complaints from most, because they were accustomed to the lack of luxuries caused by the Depression years. And, after all, they could smoke all the cigarettes they wanted. So instead of crowing about progress and expansion, the newspapers turned to patriotism. Each January during the war years, the editors made an effort to record the response to war bond sales (always more than 100% of the county’s quota), blood donations, Red Cross drives and scrap (metals, rubber and paper) collections. In other words, Huerfanos were made out to be the finest and most generous of all citizens, and they were to be congratulated. And sure enough, Huerfanos just kept on giving.
The early 1950s brought yet another war – Korea – and a drop in population from the 16,088 in 1940 to 10,549 in 1950. Walsenburg lost a few more than 250 residents, and La Veta, nearly 200, a 22% decrease. There was no good news, except for the expansion of the registered Hereford industry.
The World-Independent was only too happy to crow in January 1952 that the city might be down, but it wasn’t out. Business, it claimed, had actually improved by 10-15% during 1951. Some coal mines were still producing, though at a fraction of their 1930’s production, and the big mines were mostly closed. In 1955 the same paper noted that old age pensions and welfare payments were the largest payroll in Huerfano County. La Veta wasn’t talking.
Most of the remaining people in the county were making ends meet – longtime Huerfano Treasurer Tom Solomon released figures in 1955 that 93.7% of the taxes due for the year had been paid, and the next year, 97.2%. By 1959 the economy was stable enough to allow the county commissioners to approve a raise for officials from $4,100 to a whopping $4,700 a year!
The ‘60s weren’t quite so notable. Granted, Walsenburg’s first woman mayor, Ethel Stacy, was sworn into office in January 1960, but at the same time her first meeting was taken up with discussion about canceling health insurance for council members and their dependents now that it was up to $14.90 each per month. This was not good news.
The 1960 census found slightly more than 5,000 living in Walsenburg, 632 in La Veta and just 7,867 in the county. This was not good news either, and unemployment was again increasing as more coal mines and businesses closed.
In 1961 Dr. James M. Lamme announced he was closing his hospital at Seventh and Albert streets, and petitions were being furiously circulated in support of a new facility. Not only that, but county residents were sorry to see the ongoing gas war end, and prices per gallon shoot up to 33.9¢ a gallon. Imagine!
1963 saw the construction of 60 low-rent housing units in Walsenburg, which reflected mixed blessings – more jobs in construction but at the same time, more low income families. Building permit fees swelled city coffers by $1,130,000 that year, a huge improvement over 1960’s $57,500. But tax collections had risen to 98%, so go figure.
In January 1965, it sounded like good news when the newspaper recorded that city building permits totaled $276,919.50, but then it had to ruin the feeling with the fact that of 107 permits, 20 were for low rent units at a cost of $228,600.
Whether it was good news or bad (time would tell in each case), in 1962, the county clerk and recorder issued 55 marriage licenses, and in 1961, 69.