by Nancy Christofferson
LA VETA — Way back when, 1876, in fact, things were looking mighty promising for Huerfano County. Despite General Custer’s setback at the Little Bighorn in June, Colorado was all agog on August 1, because that was the day it became the 38th state of the union. Closer to home, it was the same year Huerfano County got a railroad.
The tracks were built from old Cucharas into Walsenburg first, then continued west, past the newly opened Walsen mines, to the little hamlet of Spanish Peak, also called Francisco’s Ranch. The new post office named La Veta was established in August, and the Town of La Veta was first incorporated Oct. 9, 1876.
More importantly to the burgeoning town was the news it would be the terminus for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad until the completion of the right of way and tracks across La Veta Pass and into the San Luis Valley. Railroad and land promoters foresaw great potential for the new little town. It was thought at the time the process of laying the tracks over the mountains would take approximately one year.
This news also excited outsiders. Entrepreneurs and outlaws alike could hardly wait to get to the little frontier town to make their fortunes. Hundreds of railroad graders would swarm into town, mostly bachelors but some with families, and all who would need food and shelter, not to mention entertainment and something to wet their whistles.
All walks of life, all trades and professions, thronged into the tiny village. The brand new town fathers were flummoxed as how to create order for this mass of humanity. They established the theory of the business license to not only feed the town coffers but to keep track of who was doing what. While most of the licenses were initially issued to saloons and liquor dealers, every other profession, well, legal profession (gamblers and prostitutes needn’t apply), right up to and including auctioneers and express wagon providers, required a license.
Except doctors. By the fall of 1876, La Veta boasted four – Dr. James Erwin, the oldtimer from the Georgia Colony and already well established, Dr. T.A. Barber who also had a drugstore and remained in town for another decade, Dr. Charles A. Washington, and a Dr. Clutter. The latter came in with the railroad and continued west with it the following year.
In November of’76, a horrible crime shook even the hardened residents of the little frontier town. This was the brutal murder of an elderly couple, John Brown, over 60 years, and his wife Sarah, about 55, natives of Georgia. The couple lived a few miles east of town, and were minding their own business one bad day when a rider came into the farmyard and demanded money. Mr. Brown claimed to have none, and for his honesty, he was murdered. The stranger went into the house where Mrs. B was preparing supper. When she, too, claimed they were poor folks with no cash on the premises, she was also murdered. A grown daughter, Mrs. Rice, watched as her mother was bludgeoned to death with the stranger’s handgun. She hid her baby and rushed outdoors, where the stranger caught up with her and beat her senseless, again with his gun, and left her unconscious in a ditch. Then the stranger rode away. He didn’t know it, but he had the wrong farm.
Mrs. Rice was very badly hurt, and was taken into town for treatment. Dr. Washington, obviously the epitome of caring healers, gradually nursed her back to health.
As a result, Dr. Washington became the man of the hour. When on Jan. 10, 1877, the good doctor married young Mollie Kemp, no less than the Colorado Chieftain correspondent, journalistically named “C”, wrote up an account of the festivities. He was absolutely beside himself with pride, for he had foretold of the coming event, which was the first wedding in the new Town of La Veta.
Mollie was evidently the daughter of Tully Kemp, who held a restaurant license in La Veta that had cost him $1.50 for a three month duration. Tully had also had a son, “young Kemp”, and the duo was to be found in the just-established town of Garland the following summer. Tully in Garland City was being considered for the post of Justice of the Peace. Correspondent C tells us “The old gentleman has seen a good deal of rowdyism in his time, and may do as much as any other and get light pay for it.”
Rowdyism hardly does justice to Mr. Kemp’s experiences in his former home of La Veta. His daughter, the presumably blushing bride Mollie, had traveled with her new husband to Trinidad, and there she got a very rude shock indeed. This was in the form of another Mrs. Dr. Washington, who, it developed, he had forgotten to divorce. One can imagine her embarrassment and horror.
The good Dr. Washington fell rapidly in the esteem of the La Veta residents who just months before had idolized the man and his healing powers. How the mighty had fallen! Thus, five years later, when they read of his latest escapades, there was no doubt a lack of sympathy.
In December 1880, the pages of La Veta’s own newspaper, the Huerfano Herald, carried the news that the dastardly Dr. Washington had been lynched in Otero, New Mexico. His crime was “chloroforming a girl to death.” Perhaps she had declined to become yet another Mrs. Dr. Washington. A later issue gave some more particulars, stating that Dr. Washington had left La Veta after mistreating his wife and was banished. Further, the paper said, he’d murdered his own partner as well as his infant child. The editor added the information that Dr. Washington was about “35 to 40 years old, handsome and well educated.” Not well educated enough, it seems, to think he could get away with bigamy and murder, even on the frontier.
And thus was La Veta’s first hero unmasked, defamed and punished.
Oh, and the murderer of the Browns? Local lore was that he too was a guest at an old fashioned necktie party, but in reality he fled to New Mexico, where the governor refused to extradite him.
And that’s the rest of that story.