by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — “One of the most colorful careers in Huerfano County ended this morning with the death of Juan de Dios Montez, 87, who held nearly every county office during his 76 years in the area. He was also a school teacher, farmer and stockraiser.” Walsenburg-Independent, Feb. 21, 1938.
Juan de Dios Montez didn’t actually hold all the county offices, only two, and he campaigned for two more, but he went on to become a state legislator (twice) and a very influential citizen.
Montez was born in 1850, 1851, 1852 or 1855, considering on whether you believe the census records, the state legislative statistics or his obituary. His parents were Jesus M. and Juanita Montez of Taos, who moved to Costilla County in 1857. About 1868 the family settled in Huerfano County in the vicinity of Turkey Creek. Jesus and Juanita were included in the Huerfano County census of 1870 with eight children. A few years later Jesus’ mother, Maria Manuela, joined them on their farm. Manuela died in October 1883 at about 90 years old.
The family spoke Spanish, and Juan received his education in the same language, in which he was considered quite eloquent. He later taught himself to speak English.
Juan returned to the San Luis Valley long enough to marry Maria Trinidad Gomes on July 18, 1874 in Conejos County. Maria’s name is usually seen as Marina.
In 1883, Juan put his name up for the candidacy for county sheriff on the Republican ticket. The Democrats carried the election.
In 1887, Juan ran for the Colorado Senate, and won. He served until 1891. During his tenure he tried to obtain funding for county roads, and in 1889 he announced $12,500 had been appropriated for bridges and improvements along the Cucharas River. His second concern was education.
In 1889, he again ran for sheriff. He’d evidently been practicing politicking, because when he received the nomination at the Republican convention in Walsenburg that October, he invited the entire assemblage “to go down to Harry Gordon’s place and drink to the success of the ticket”, thereby putting the pub in Republican. That November he lost the position to George Dick. The Walsenburg World noted at the time he was a leading ranchman, and that Huerfano usually had about 700 Hispanics voting regularly in elections.
When Juan ended his term as senator, he was elected county commissioner. In 1893, he became chairman of the commissioners. In 1895, he quit and became county road commissioner, but was again elected commissioner and served until 1904. From commissioner he went to serve as county clerk and recorder and was reelected until 1914.
Throughout the 1890s, Juan seems to have served on the school board of District No. 31, which originally was called variously the Muddy Creek or Houser district. If he had indeed been a school teacher, those days were behind him.
By 1898, partly because of his county responsibilities, he had built a second home on Capitol Hill in Walsenburg. His own expressed reason for the town home was so his children could have the benefits of a larger school.
His first home was his farm and ranch in the Malachite/Redwing area. He also leased land in the Ute or Huerfano Station region in far northeastern Huerfano county to run sheep. In 1893, a trip to check on them proved so harrowing he began a petition among the neighborhood to improve the roads and build a new one along the Huerfano.
As road commissioner in 1895, he purchased the Crestones (now Chama) store, adding to his growing list of responsibilities. The following year he sold a herd of sheep to the tune of $1,500. He had been operating a store in Malachite at least since 1890.
Juan de Dios Montez was elected state representative in 1896, and served in that office for two years. On New Year’s Eve of 1902, he threw a fandango in the community hall in Malachite, which was said to attract some 400 guests.
In 1903, Montez was the subject of a local newspaper article written by Major H.B. Wise. Wise wrote that Juan had, around 1874, begun freighting for the government to Cheyenne and Fort Laramie until 1882. Then, Wise said, he became a teacher until elected to the state senate. Wise may have been a reliable source; he was married to Juan’s daughter Pauline, aka Appolonia. Well, at least he was until she divorced him several years before he wrote his article. Wise’s account is the only one we have for Montez’ “missing years”.
Also in 1903, Montez sold at least 1,000 sheep, grossing three cents a pound. That October he was elected chairman of the county Republican Central Committee.
Montez, with Antonio D. Valdes, organized a sheepmen’s association to “end the depredations of the cattlemen” in 1902. In 1904, the same duo began a business to deal with cattle, sheep and horses.
Juan and Marina had seven children who survived to maturity – Pete, Gasper C., Jake, Pauline Wise Gibson, Lucrecea Padilla, Flossie Sanders Lucero and Irene Trujillo. These are the names from Juan’s obituary and Marina’s in 1952, but they are not necessarily correct.
Juan de Dios Montez, throughout his business and political careers, was a most influential man in that he was eloquent, trustworthy and fair. By the time of his death in 1938, he had built up his ranch to 12,000 acres, and could credit himself with being a leading Republican of both county and state.