by Nancy Christofferson
LA VETA- When coal miner Andrew Pickens wrote in his journal Nov. 8, 1913, “about 3 o’clock a man was shot and killed in an auto going to Oakview they were scab ‘hurders’ [?] they were shot from ambush by partys unknown supposed to be union coal miners”, he was relating the briefest details of what became known as the Oakview or La Veta Massacre.
The fact of the matter was that not one but four men were murdered, and the union coal miners and cohorts were definitely responsible.
At this late date, it is difficult to understand the emotions and conditions of that time. The miners had been working underground in horrific dark and damp holes for centuries, handling dynamite, encountering deadly gases, having little or no professional medical services for their illnesses or injuries, and completing 10 to 12 hour shifts. Wages were poor. There were no benefits to speak of – no vacations except when the mine went idle during the spring months, or when the miners simply quit. In the case of debilitating or even lethal injuries, such as those caused by collapses of rock or coal, more often than not the miner was found by a coroner’s jury to have been at fault himself, rather than the mine owner for failing to provide safe conditions. More than one old newspaper carries the accounts of deceased miners’ coworkers collecting funds for widows and children to assist them with funeral and/or living expenses, and to get them “back to their people”, often still living in Europe or the eastern United States.
When the unions began organizing to force mine operators to provide safe and humane working and living conditions, the miners were, obviously, enthusiastic about the cause. The owners were loath to consider a reduced bottom line – if they had to pay out real money so the miners had certain guarantees, it ate into their profits. It was a volatile situation waiting for a spark to ignite it.
Thus on Nov. 8, 1913, when a scab miner had to travel from Oakview to La Veta for dental care, he picked up on the tension around him, and called the mine office to ask for an armed guard to escort him home. Four young mine guards, most often considered as unfeeling ruffians by the striking miners, drove into town and loaded him up. As their car climbed the hill just west of La Veta, rifle fire erupted. Strikers, unionists and sympathizers were on top of that hill, partially protected by an earthen dam. The citizens of La Veta were fully aware of the situation and stood upon the hill to the south to watch the action, even young children. The guards were taken completely by surprise, and were slow to react. They took shelter behind their car, and returned fire, but all four were eventually shot and killed. They were all young men; two were part time college students.
Andrew Pickens must have been aware of the tragedy, but returned to work as usual the following morning. On Nov. 10, he wrote, “I was arrested by the military.” Again, the next day he was back at work, and was often putting in 16 hours at a time on the night shift. There he stayed until Dec. 9 when “soldiers took me to Oakview they want me for a wittness on a murder case.”
Andrew spent a night in “milatery prison” and was questioned, then he was sent to the Klein Hotel in Walsenburg for the night (weather fine). He was again questioned the next day, then released. He went back to work and on the 19th he attended a meeting of the “local union No. 3018”. Then he put up the Christmas tree.
On Jan. 2, he returned to Walsenburg for a trial as “wittness for the men who are arrested for killing the four Oakview mine gards. They waived exam until Feb term of cort.” So he was off the hook for a while, and returned to the mine. At the mine, however, he makes reference to a petition the mining company received from the miners, probably a demand the union be recognized and union men hired, but the company accepted the petition and then refused to return it. The union men quickly met and decided not to work in the mine until the company “give it up”. They did not work, and had almost daily meetings. Then Andrew excused himself and left on a train for Indianapolis for the national United Mine Workers of America convention.
Alas, when Andrew returned he forgot to file his daily weather and occurrence report, and his journal does not resume until March 12. By that time he was still working and attending the union meetings. The result of the February court date went unrecorded, but in hindsight we know none of the suspected murderers were found guilty, though some of them had spent the intervening months in the county jail. That month, too, the local Socialists, of which Andrew was a member, reorganized their lodge.
Andrew spent April 7 driving people to the polls for the town election, despite the day being “stormy and snow.” His brother Joe was elected trustee, and the town voted for prohibition. Andrew, who noted his attendance at many temperance meetings, must have approved.
Though many of the local militia had been released from duty in late March and had left the area, some remained. A murder in a La Veta saloon brought their attention back to the strikers and sympathizers on April 11. On the 20th, Andrew wrote “I was in town all day the militia under command of Linderfelt and mayor [major] Hammrock fired machine guns on the stricken tent conely [colony] at Ludlow killing women and children”. The next day he mentioned the fighting continued there, and stayed home all day – the mine had closed because of having no orders for coal. On April 28, he casually wrote, “Fine but cloudy. I started for Pictou to help our boys in the fight against the company gun men we camped on priary [prairie] about one mile from Pictou” that night. For the 29th, the entry reads “blustery we got with our boys at 7 this AM at 11 we comensed battle witch lasted until 3 then we had one hour truce then started again and fought until 7 PM.” The anticlimactic entry “rained all day we started back to La Veta coming home on water train at noon” was written April 30.
These days were what we call the Battle of Walsenburg. So many bullets were fired by the strikers and the state militia that many of the city’s citizens fled. Several were inadvertently shot. Two bystanders were killed and at least one wounded, one striker was dead, and Dr. P.P. Lester, a local physician who was serving with the militia, was shot and killed. Most of the action occurred on and alongside the hogback north and west of Walsenburg, where numerous coal camps were located. The end of the battle on the 30th was the result of the arrival of federal troops combined with a heavy rainstorm that sent all the combatants scurrying for shelter.
That’s all Andrew had to say about that. However, the immediate upshot for strikers in the La Veta area was the addition of U.S. troops. The unionists had been renting the second story of a saloon on Ryus Avenue, and it became known as union hall. It was so marked with a banner. This building is now known as the Parkside. On May 9 the federal soldiers took over the hall, 23 of them even sleeping there. More troops were housed in the schoolhouse. On May 11 these troopers disarmed the strikers and confiscated all the weapons. Andrew turned in his gun as did the others. The soldiers also unearthed a cannon hidden by the strikers, and placed it in the meadow north of town where citizens lined up to take photos.
More meetings took place as the strikers discussed the recent happenings and their consequences. Andrew, being the practical man he was, attended all his regular meetings, including the Socialist gatherings, spent a day fishing (“I caught 31”) and set up a tent and “tolet” at Alliance camp. He was not working.
On June 1 Andrew accompanied “Dr Grear” to Ludlow “and I took some pictures of the ruined tent conely”. Dr. Grear was S.J. Greear, town physician and pastor of the Baptist Church. With nothing else to do with the mines closed and the federal troops leaning over their shoulders, Andrew and four of his friends took another fishing expedition, this time to the other side of La Veta Pass where they “caught 200” in the “little sangre” – Sangre de Cristo Creek. On June 11, the mines reopened and Andrew immediately resumed his job dynamiting at Alliance mine on the night shift.
And there we leave Andrew Pickens. His last journal entry was June 30. He had just spent several months in the thick of what was southern Colorado’s longest and most violent industrial war, and had little to say about it, though he writes of his involvement. Mostly, he said, he “was home all day”. He and his wife Emily raised eight children in La Veta, and several became lifetime residents. Andrew eventually worked his way up to becoming mine superintendent for the Alamo, now the site of the Majors ranch subdivision. He was watching a soccer game in that camp in March 1930 when he was “stricken” and died of pneumonia at the age of 53.
Gary M. Vezzani was elected Walsenburg’s mayor in Tuesday’s special mayoral election/recall vote. Preliminary results announced Tuesday night show that both Nick Vigil in Ward