WALSENBURG — A big man – six foot three – came to Walsenburg in 1907, long before the Coal field War of 1913-14 began. As the son of a coal miner in Pennsylvania, John R. Lawson, 36, quit school at eight and started work in the coal mines, first as a boy picking out rock from the coal and then as a trapper boy opening and closing ventilation curtains. When he arrived in Colorado, he worked as a coal digger in the Walsen mine at the west edge of Walsenburg but later moved to the western slope. With so little education behind him, he began to study math and mining at night. Perhaps he could become a mining engineer. As a union leader in the early strike of 1903 in northern Colorado, his home was dynamited along with four others. The bomb had been placed against what his enemies
thought was his bedroom, but actually the little family (he had a wife and a three-year-old daughter), were sleeping in another room. Still, they came after Lawson; a mine owner blasted him with a shotgun in the abdomen, which crippled him for some months. When other miners learned of Lawson’s courage on behalf of the United Mine Workers, he became better known in union circles and became a union organizer. In fact when Lawson returned to Huerfano County as an organizer, it put his life in danger. He regarded the court house as “little more than a branch office of the C.F.&I Co.,” a coal mine company. The court house was the kingdom of Sheriff Jeff Farr, labeled “the animated beer barrel.” The first Walsenburg meeting Lawson had with miners as he tried to enroll them in the union had to be moved out of town on to a mountainside, away from the chief detective of the C.F.&I. and the mine camp marshals. Word got around about his union work. One evening as Lawson walked up Walsenburg’s Main street from a restaurant, he passed Sheriff Farr and another man. The second man followed Lawson and told him it was time to leave Huerfano County. Lawson did not leave. The next day Shorty Martinez, six feet six inches tall, a Farr deputy, arrested Lawson and accused him of having a gun. Lawson did not, but suddenly Shorty produced a little revolver, placed it against Lawson’s coat, and Lawson was taken to the county jail for a week for having a concealed weapon. Lawson was among those complaining about Sheriff Farr, who made up charges against men and ordered beatings. Lawson himself was known as unflappable and soft spoken. Often he was the one trying to calm the strikers and trying to keep the angry men from plunging into hasty shootings. This strike of 1903 collapsed. Lawson went on to help organize coal miners in northern Colorado, and worked the strike of 1910. It was September of 1913 when the next big strike began. Lawson was more experienced by now and was a persuasive person, as well as energetic, and he shuttled among the tent colonies of the miners in Southern Colorado. As the strike continued into December, this union organizer brought bags of fruit and candy for the children of the striking families while mothers made rag dolls out of the old clothes for the girls. To show the extent of this strike, in March 1914, strike benefits were being paid to 20,508 men, women and children. One former union man, Charles Snyder, appointed himself as a bodyguard to Lawson, but actually he was paid regular paychecks from the detective agency hired by the coal companies. In other words, Snyder was a spy on Lawson for the coal companies. By April the violence in Huerfano and Las Animas counties was beyond Lawson’s or anyone’s ability to control. Then came the Ludlow massacre April 20, 1914. Lawson was not at Ludlow that day but arrived later, likely bringing weapons. Accusations flew back and forth. Men were found – some within his own union – to testify against the union organizer. At one point Trinidad Judge Jesse G. Northcutt’s agent offered two women $1,500 to testify against Lawson. They refused. Others however were willing to be witnesses against him. Whether Lawson was a hero or a villain, he and hundreds of others were brought to trial for actions during the strike. He was convicted in April of 1915 of murder on perjured testimony and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. This verdict later was thrown out on appeal after some witnesses took back their testimony. He was then released. Information is from the book Out of the Depths: The Story of John R. Lawson by Barron B. Beshoar and also from Blood Passion by Scott Martelle, who will be speaking at the La Veta library April 15. Other information is from Killing for Coal by Thomas G. Andrews and The Great Coalfield War by George S. McGovern and Leonard F. Guttridge.