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High school in La Veta: The La Veta Cowboys

by Nancy Christofferson
LA VETA — An all-class reunion of the graduates of La Veta High School takes place this weekend, just in time for the school’s 106th birthday.

The new Union High School opened on Sept. 3, 1906. It was named this because it was a union of Districts #7, Sager; #9, La Veta; #15, Wahatoya; #16, Ritter and #32, Upper Cucharas. It remained legally Union High until the school consolidation mandated by the state was put into effect July 1, 1959, though it was more commonly called La Veta High. Initial enrollment was 24.

Originally, the school funding was based on a levy of 2.5 mills. For those students living out of the district, tuition was $12.50 per term. By 1928 the levy was up to 4 mills, and in 1946, 5.5. This was above and beyond the levy for the grade school.
Not a great many young people ventured beyond eighth grade in those days, so enrollment in the upper grades was small. The first graduating class in 1907 was composed of four students, Grace Ritter, Blanche Alexander, Eva Daigre and Gene Vories (not that Gene Vories!). They had one teacher, Prof. A.R. Kent. What they didn’t have was their own building.

The high school students were stuffed into the old Red Brick school of the 1880s, which had overgrown its space and then some. In July 1908, the electors of La Veta defeated a bond issue for funding to build a new school. That August, 10 or 12 citizens banded together to erect a small building to rent to the school board for use by the primary grades and thus relieve the congestion at the Red Brick.

Later, the consolidated districts of Union High voted $8,000 in bonds for the construction of a separate building. The project was started on the two-story stone structure in 1911, and though it was not completed until early 1913, classes began in September 1912. High school enrollment was 21 and the following spring just two seniors graduated. In 1914, however, there were six – all girls.

Once the building was completed and operational, it was time to start remodeling. A large room on the east was divided for more classroom space, and the cloakroom was revamped for the chemistry lab and “recitation room.” This was just the beginning of the changes made in the old building over the past 100 years.

We’ve all been told that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so athletics became an important part of the high school experience. As soon as the enrollment allowed the fielding of enough players, and not necessarily always nine, a baseball team was formed. Next to be added to the sports roster was basketball, with just five players on the whole team. This was around 1920. Football made its appearance in 1926 when the La Veta Cowboys, clad in blue and gold, took the field. Their first game on Oct. 2 was against Primero, and they lost. The first home game was against St. Mary of Walsenburg, and this was also a defeat. Finally, at the end of their first season, the boys were catching onto this new sport and they beat Sopris 34-0 in late November. The teams were all named the Cowboys right into the 1930s.

Track meets were also popular, and the winning school got a cash prize. Cash was always good because it got funneled right back into the athletic fund. In those days, the district did not fund equipment or uniforms, or even transportation to out-of-town games for that matter. An athletic association open to any and all of the public was organized in 1921 to raise funds, and the next year claimed a membership of 140. As the editor of the local newspaper wrote in 1924, “As long as athletics continue to raise the standard of education let every person in this district offer every encouragement to their practice.”

The biggest problem with the basketball program was the lack of a gym. A group of students, parents and citizens, assisted by none other than the Literary Society, leased the Micheletti building (now Jill Whitmore’s gallery) on Main Street for practice for both the boys and girls teams. When the building got a commercial renter, the kids were back on the street, so fitted up the playground with “goal posts” and baskets and played in the snow. It is unlikely they hosted many home games.

In 1936, the long-absent gymnasium was built at a cost of $4,000 to the district. The Works Progress Administration built the $21,000 addition and, once completed, it became the hub of physical and social activities with concerts, plays, games, lectures, programs and all forms of entertainment taking place there. It was said it could seat up to 500, though probably not comfortably.

Music was as important to students as athletics, and music teachers were as standard as English teachers. The school usually had a band for parades, an orchestra for concerts and dances, a girls glee club and a boys choir.
In 1925, a “new departure … in high school activities” began. It was called the Junior-Senior Banquet. By 1934 this was followed by a dance. It was not until 1938 the event was dubbed a “prom.”

Plays were presented annually by the junior class, sort of annually by the seniors and occasionally by the faculty. Also on the agenda to occupy wandering minds were debate teams, a science club, a domestic science club, Pep Club (started in 1938), school newspaper and assemblies. Outside of school, many students were involved with 4-H and their churches, not to mention home and farm chores.
Activities failed to capture everyone’s attention as was seen in 1921 when a truant officer was hired, and in 1941 when a demerit system was devised.

Around 1930, seniors started having a “Sneak Day.” This occurred anytime in April or May – it was a “sneak” after all – and the students and their sponsor or chaperone spent the time in one of the local canyons picnicking and hiking, followed perhaps by a movie or party in someone’s home. In the late ‘40s trips to Canon City to visit the penitentiary and its museum and on to Pueblo for a movie became popular. This event did not evolve into a “Senior Trip” until 1950 when the school board agreed to let the seniors use a bus for a three-day trip around the state. From there, it became a weeklong trip to far flung and distant places.

The early curriculum included mostly practical subjects like shop, cooking, typing, accounting, Latin, English, sciences and mathematics. But what most people remember most about high school was their friends and the fun they had in even the most boring classes.