by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — Every decade, sometimes every year, brought a particular set of problems for law enforcement officers in Huerfano County.
We hear of hard-riding officers tracking the horse thieves across the range back in frontier times, of necktie parties and rustlers. Unfortunately, some of these were recurring occurrences.
A local problem, because of the number of coal mines, was the theft of dynamite. Lumber yards and hardware stores routinely stocked the explosive, which was stored in warehouses. The thieves then proceeded to blow up homes, businesses, other people and, sometimes, themselves (like the miner who backed up too close to the woodstove, though his explosive had been obtained legally). In 1927, during the strikes backed by the Industrial Workers of the World, known as Wobblies, dissidents dynamited the Walsenburg home of Attorney Romilly Foote, who evidently favored the coal companies over the miners. Dynamite is hard to track, so the police had to insist on better security at the warehouse to dissuade thieves, and, eventually, with the closure of the mines and new legislation on the sale of explosives, the problem went away.
Not so rustling and horse theft. In 1917, while the sheriff and undersheriff were out chasing rustlers, “some one stole their valuable farm horses”. As if this weren’t bad enough, some idiot in 1936 stole a horse of M.Y. Farr. Duh. M.Y. was the brand inspector.
Depression days left many families starving. Rustling of sheep and cattle intensified, and Sheriff Claud Swift in 1937 organized a band of “vigilantes” made up of cowboys and cattlemen. The modern day thieves were known as “rubber-tired rustlers,” and having trucks greatly increased their take. One incident garnered no less than 28 head of sheep from ,a ranch not far southwest of Walsenburg, but the worst was the wholesale theft of 75 sheep from one of the Bustos ranches in the old Cucharas area.
These rubber-tired felons were bold enough to steal no less than 1,700 pounds of pork from the A.C. Schafer packing plant one night, and, on a separate occasion, a cool one ton of tobacco and food, worth at the time some $1,500, was stolen from the Sporleder Selling Company warehouse.
Huerfano officers in 1937 joined a coalition of about 70 men from Las Animas County that included not only local lawmen but also stockmen, brand inspectors and the brand new branch of the law called the Courtesy Patrol. The latter had the responsibility of checking loads of livestock being transported on the highways for proper brands and paperwork. Today we call the Courtesy Patrol the Highway Patrol.
The vigilantes proved highly successful, and quite a few miscreants found themselves sentenced to terms in Canon City, including hungry hoboes who were wont to snatch any available meat on the hoof and barbecue it over their campfires.
The problem again returned during World War II, when meat rationing was instituted. Again, Sheriff Swift rounded up his posse to patrol pasture lands, and again the rustlers were caught and punished. At least he didn’t get his valuable farm horses stolen while he was out patrolling.
The ‘30s and 40’s brought a different problem to Walsenburg policemen – vandalism. This was not your everyday disgusting destruction, like spray painting walls or stealing little kids’ bicycles or the Christmas ornaments off the public tree in the courthouse yard.
No, these “vandals” had serious ruination on their minds. On Halloween night in 1935, they burned the Walsenburg Golf Clubhouse on Capitol Hill to the ground, as well as the bandstand in Martin Park. This devastation so angered local citizens that the city council, chamber of commerce and Jaycees joined together “to find and prosecute those who are responsible for the acts of vandalism” on Halloween. Some of us would venture to call this “arson” rather than “vandalism.” The “vandals” may never have been caught, because the destruction continued. The golf course was a target for several years after, losing everything not nailed down, having the fairways destroyed by cars and other senseless acts.
Perhaps worse, Halloween 1937 saw not only another attack on the golf course, but, no doubt, these same vandals took up smashing tombstones (before this havoc was discovered, the police called the evening “the calmest Halloween in history”, with only five cars wrecked and six people injured). The malefactors devastated South St. Mary Cemetery, reducing to rubble many historic and recent memorials. This act is why today historians and ancestors have difficulty locating old gravestones with their irreplaceable, in many cases, dates of births and deaths. The cemetery sustained, it was estimated, at least $1,500 of real damage, and untold grief and community loss. In the next decade, vandals hit the old church at Chico, proving once again some miscreants have no respect for sacred ground.
Perhaps as a result of all the “vandalism”, the city fathers decided it was high time to update the jail for all those obviously anxious to board there. They had the place fumigated and even installed plumbing. This was in November 1937, when most city dwellers took sanitation and plumbing for granted. Iron shutters had already been installed, and wielded shut, to halt the exodus from within as prisoners treated the walls and windows of the local bastille like some revolving door to freedom.
The biggest problem of the time for law officers was the extraordinary number of robberies. The city and county were at their peak populations, hoboes and gypsies constantly drifted through, and law enforcement numbers did not coincide. And, alas, the previous June had brought a murder during a robbery of the filling station at First Street and Walsen, when George Carnes, the owner and operator, was shot and killed. Carnes was just 33 and left a wife, two sons and a daughter. The ensuing manhunt absorbed the law enforcement departments but, unlike the “vandals,” the murderer, one Loren Hanby, was finally apprehended in Texas in May 1939, was brought back to the county by Undersheriff Carl Swift and went to prison.