by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — For every Chief of Police and County Sheriff who took office, there was an expressed agenda as to which crime or particular problem was at the time the most important to address, such as rustling, prohibition, gambling.
Rustling was tackled by having ranchers, cowboys and other volunteers assist the lawmen in patrolling the range. Mostly the problem was solved with the end of meat rationing in 1946.
How city police dealt with children caught roller skating downtown, which was mandated by City Council as a problem worth addressing, is unknown, but the problem somehow went away.
Not every problem suggested an immediate solution. The city marshal who was hired to deal with those carrying concealed weapons, for instance, had a tough job. By their very description, these weapons were concealed and thus difficult to locate without a search, just like today. It may be an indication of the futility of this marshal’s job when one learns he resigned. Problem not solved.
Curfew violators were other early targets. Night marshals often collared these, but the schools stepped in and hired a truant officer. Problem solved. Well, dealt with, anyway.
A serious crime in the eyes of the railroad companies was the theft of coal from the railyards. Local officers were expected to deal with these thieves, which they did. This was an ongoing dilemma that only got worse during the Great Depression. For instance, in 1933, the Colorado and Southern stated it lost 100 tons of coal per month to thieves. Thus we read in 1940 about a thief who got 10 days in jail and a $5.00 fine plus court costs of $6.60 for taking coal from the yards. Earlier, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad had taken the problem so seriously it had hired guards for the railyards. This was in response to wholesale theft, like when trucks pulled in and hauled out tons at a time. “Railroad detectives” in 1936 captured six “young men” and threw them into jail. Once the yards were properly secured, the railroad let its special agents go, and the thefts were turned back over to the city. And to the sheriff’s department for those walking along the tracks and picking up the odd chunk of coal along the way, especially alongside banked curves where the slope caused coal cars to tip. And, yes, the railroads expected the law to prosecute the offenders. Problem not solved.
An issue that has plagued schools probably since schools were invented is traffic around the buildings and crossings. In 1937 this was approached by forming what was called the Junior Police Patrol. During the 1939-1940 school year, these youngsters reported no less than 700 traffic violators.
In the early 1930s, downtown traffic was a huge mess. With more than 17,000 county residents and thousands of tourists on Highway 85-87, which was Main Street, and Highway 160, compounded by having no traffic lights, officers could not attend to all infractions. City Council added a Traffic Policeman in 1931 to solve this particular problem. He was T.P. “Doc” Steele (he’d trained for the dentistry), and he ticketed double parkers, speeders and, during an eight month period in 1933, tagged 235 cars for not having current license plates. Problem possibly solved.
An all new specter rose its head in 1926. It was called mariguana, which was so novel at the time people were using the Spanish spelling. Law officers nationwide blamed increased crime and vandalism on its use. The problem escalated and in 1935, Sheriff Claud Swift confiscated $5,000 worth of plants, or about 200 pounds, we’re told. And this at a time when a person could go to a restaurant and have a full meal, including coffee and dessert, for less than 50 cents!
In 1936 a transient musician was found to be carrying the weed in his car, was fined $10 and got 60 days in jail for it. The U.S. Treasury Department tried to solve the growing problem with education, and sent out posters showing the plants “to fight against the narcotic”. It did not solve the problem.
By 1937 mariguana had become known as marijuana, and the entire country was becoming aware of it. Officers of both the city and county were destroying plants found along alleys and country roads. In August that year a concentrated effort yielded “enough marijuana to set an entire city raving mad” in numerous raids. The Chief of Police blamed the current upturn in crime on it, and vowed to destroy all plants found within the city.
In 1938 the Chief said, “marijuana causes insanity and that it has always been a curse to Southern Colorado”. By January of ’39 things had only gotten worse. The students of the Rouse-Lester Junior High reported they had been approached by “peddlers of the drugged weed” (though probably not in those exact words) and it was feared other students might be contacted and lured into something they would regret. In Walsenburg, the problem was taken to the student body, which numbered nearly 1,200 in the public schools alone. The athletes became the first to condemn marijuana use when they joined to adopt a resolution to avoid usage and discover who might be distributing it. This was an important, and effective, step. While the presence of marijuana in Huerfano County became less prevalent, nationwide it must have still continued for in 1940 a film, “Marijuana”, was made. When it was booked at the Gem Theater in July, it was advertised as presenting “the truth about drug addicts”, but cautioned it was not recommended for children. After this, the mention of marijuana became very rare in local conversations and newspapers, or, at least, for a few decades. Problem postponed.
One thing sheriff’s officers were always responsible for was missing persons. In early days these were usually sheepherders or travelers lost on the prairies or in the valleys during blizzards or the like. In later days the missing were more often hikers and climbers, mushroom hunters gone astray, and airplane passengers whose craft had gone down. Deputies were assisted by volunteers. It was not until 1976, when Jerry Conder was sheriff, that a Search and Rescue team was officially organized by volunteers who received training in first aid and life saving.
Possibly the first official sheriff’s department tracker was a real dog, a bloodhound, to be exact. Said dog tracked and discovered some alleged murderers in March 1895. He also found some missing children. His fame was such that his owner was hired to take the bloodhound to several other counties to work his magic nose.
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