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Facts and fiction about the Fort

Just when you thought you knew everything about Francisco…

by Nancy Christofferson

LA VETA — “It is a little known nook; fact is, I have never seen anything in print about it. It is a spooky old place where you can unleash your imagination and picture the old Plaza with big-hatted gents lounging around, riflemen standing on the parapet in the night blackness”.

So wrote Arthur H. Carhart for the “Colorado Wonderland” magazine in October 1953 about “the old Plaza Francisco” in La Veta. While the focus of his article was the “Self-Service Postoffice” of Postmaster Uncle Billy Hamilton, Carhart evidently spent some time wandering the premises and visiting with Grace Penne, the longtime resident of the private residence attached to the south end of the plaza. She gave him quite an earful.

Above:  Arthur H. Carhart (1892 -1978), was known as America’s first champion of wilderness, the first Forest Service landscape architect, and the most popular conservation writer of mid-century America.  He visited La Veta and wrote about Francisco Plaza five years before it became the Francisco Fort Museum. For more information about Carhart, look for the book, “Arthur Carhart: Wilderness Prophet”, by Tom Wolf.

Carhart was a bit of a celebrity of the time – a conservationist before anyone else was “thinking green”, the author of some two dozen books and more than 4,000 short stories and magazine articles focused on wildlife, preservation and the joys of enjoying nature. He is credited with having a great deal to do with the establishment of the first Wilderness Reserve, the Gila in New Mexico way back in 1924. He also liked history, and recognized the significance of an old crumbling adobe plaza off in the middle of nowhere.

It’s doubtful he set off a stampede to visit what the locals called the ‘Dobies’. In fact, he toured the plaza at a time when the rooms were apartments and storage. It would be another five years before Francisco Fort Museum became a reality.

As early as 1880 the plaza gained respect for its antiquity as “the first building constructed in the Cuchara Valley and its oldest landmark.” The buildings were less than 20 years old then. Another 20 years later the local editor was lauding ongoing efforts to preserve the plaza as “an interesting relic and momento . . . a monument to olden times . . . when the foundations of a prosperous country were being laid”.

Back in 1926, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution had placed a plaque marking the site of “the first well in the Cuchara Valley”. There was a great dedication ceremony and it was apparently for this occasion that Mrs. L.B. Sporleder Sr. wrote a history of the Francisco and his fort. She took her audience all the way back to 1856 when the colonel became sutler at Fort Massachusetts in the San Luis Valley. He had previously been operating a store in Rio Arriba, New Mexico. He was said to have built the first house at the new Fort Garland when it was opened in 1858.

Mrs. Sporleder noted Francisco’s farming and ranching enterprise around his fort that he’d had built on the banks of the Cucharas River in 1862-63. The Rocky Mountain News in July 1868 had written of the 735 acres under cultivation there, planted in wheat, oats, corn and beans. A force of 25 farmers was overseeing these fields, and they lived in and around the fort where there were a grist mill, carpenter and blacksmith shops and other amenities.

The News also covered the arrival in Denver of 500 or 600 head of fine cattle from the Cucharas in 1870.

Francisco Plaza has been much covered in newspapers and periodicals over the years. Above: The fall 1953 issue of Colorado Wonderland magazine included information about the old Francisco Plaza in an article by Arthur H. Carhart about La Veta’s “self-service post office” run by postmaster Uncle Billy Hamilton. Other stories in the issue included Bighorn Sheep Return to Colorado by John London; 1953 Big Game Hunting Prospects in Colorado by John London; Best Deer and Elk Hunting Areas in Colorado for 1953; and Colorado Cameraland by Felix Pogliano, Jr.

In 1978 the Pueblo Chieftain had a six page spread about the museum, written by Eleanor Fry who was a historian and feature writer for the paper. Fry was using the old issues of several newspapers to do her research and it was mostly about Colonel John M. Francisco during his years in the early 1860s as a merchant in Pueblo. [As an added bonus, the section of paper also includes interviews with singer Tom Jones, and with Bob Denver on his role as Maynard G. Krebs on the Dobie Gillis series].

The Chieftain sent Rob Rutherford to Francisco Fort in 1986. He was mostly taken with the mishmash of articles exhibited, from the petrified hummingbird to a case of seashells displayed next to a set of “prehistoric Indian points”, the miners’ checks and farm equipment.

Not only have the newspapers provided information about the fort and its occupants, but guests do too.

Francisco Fort Museum officially opened on May 25, 1958. It had four rooms, all chock full of interesting historical artifacts. It was an immediate hit. Volunteers manning it that summer counted more than 5,000 visitors, including those from South America, Pakistan, Japan, Russia and Germany, who signed the guest register that first summer.

Two of those curious guests were my sister and me. Little did we guess we would return as adults to live in La Veta and one of us would get involved with the museum some 20 years later!

A benefit of working in a museum, especially one so extensive and all-encompassing, is that one learns something new every day. Most of what I have learned is about specific articles in the collection, some of them identifiable to the uninitiated, and their uses.


John M. Francisco’s legacy isn’t just bricks

The most interesting things I have learned from guests concern the original plaza builder, John M. Francisco, from some of his many descendants.

When the museum first opened, there was not much information about Francisco, beyond his election to the territorial legislature in 1861, his management of the plaza/ fort, and his courtly, Southern gentlemanly manners.

Things have changed. For one, there was his will, leaving certain bequests to the two children he recognized as his own. There must have been a lot more children, judging from the descendants who have visited. They are black and white, English and Spanish speakers, from near and far. Several were former legislators from Kansas, others live no farther than Pueblo. The first one I met was back in the 1980s, a handsome African American man who spoke warmly of his grandfather John Mays Francisco. He was curious, of course, and merely wanted more information about the man and his business. His visit was the first time he had seen a photograph of the “courtly old Southern gentleman.”

Just four years ago two sisters came by. They said they were great-granddaughters of the colonel. Their great-grandmother, they explained, was a Native American stolen by Francisco and kept by him long enough to have three children. These ladies’ grandfather was named Andrew, an old Francisco family name.

Perhaps the most interesting relative we’ve run across never even visited the museum. Some summer residents found HIM, and he was delighted.

One of the most interesting things about this grandson of Francisco was that he had the last name of Franciscus, which the family had changed to Francisco about two generations before the colonel was born in 1820.

Our summer people ran into this gentleman in 1991 in Puerto Rico, where he was a resident. He provided a sketchy genealogy that showed our colonel’s first American ancestor arrived in the early 1700s from Holland, purchased land from William Penn and settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He said his nationality was Swiss, and he’d traveled to America with a party of 50 or 60 Mennonites.

John Mays’ grandfather George appears to be the one to change the name to Francisco, and the one to move south to Virginia.

Our Francisco may have rued the day his granddad changed the name, because when John Mays ran for reelection to the Colorado territorial legislature in 1862, he was defeated by Denverites who thought the name sounded “too Spanish”.

His loss was our gain. He left politics behind and settled in the Cucharas Valley to build his agricultural empire. He donated land to the new town of La Veta in 1876 so many of us live on his old wheat fields and grazing lands.

He was apparently an old reprobate but we have to give him credit for building his fort and thereby becoming the founder of La Veta.