by Nancy Christofferson
WALSENBURG — Seems like, back in the day, whenever Walsenburg got a new chief of police, that man had a personal agenda. The city fathers no doubt hired men who were willing to follow their directives to zero in on some particular crime, but the new chief liked to go on record as being against, say, B.B. guns, even if he had been directed by council to punish B.B. shooters.
In early days, the chief of police was referred to as the marshal. In 1900, when Walsenburg had a population barely exceeding 1,000, one marshal was enough, it was thought. The town council rethought this around 1910 when the population had more than doubled, and added a night marshal. One each, day and night, that’s it, on foot or horseback.
One particular marshal, the same one who was planning to fine train crews for blocking intersections for too long and dealt with vagrants by shooting at them, made his special targets the curfew violators. This meant juveniles on the streets after 9 pm (perhaps this is where we get the concept of the “good old days”). If it seems cowardly to target youth, remember these were the times when truant officers patrolled streets during the day for those same young people.
Even in 1937, minors were placed in jail for shooting off fireworks before July 1 and for stealing coal from beside the railroad tracks. In 1931, there were two boys thrown in jail for stealing cigarettes.
Other marshals and chiefs declared war on speeders, double parkers, gypsies and hoboes, panhandlers, unlicensed vendors, concealed or non-permitted weapons, water restriction violators, vandals, loose livestock or whatever that year’s common problem happened to be.
The chief of police in 1939, for instance, warned double parkers he would be watching. Sure enough, no more than had he said it, he actually arrested 15 of them in one day. In no way did he have a single target, however, because in November he arrested a drunk riding his horse downtown.
The chief in 1940 “declared war on drunken persons on downtown streets”, possibly thinking of the previous year’s horseman. These were the times when the local chamber of commerce was adamantly trying to prove Walsenburg was a popular tourist destination and made every effort to present the city as a clean and attractive one, which it was. Well, not counting the loose livestock. From the ‘20s through the ‘40s, lawmen became horse and cattle drovers, collecting herds from yards and gardens all over the city. As late as 1944, the chief mounted up his officers on horseback and they rounded up 14 horses from the Masonic Cemetery.
The 1940, a chief who disliked drunks downtown collared no less than 180 that year, though some might say he could have collared more. He also arrested 22 vagrants, 13 drunken drivers and 10 people for indecent exposure. The year before, 178 men and women had been arrested, but the department didn’t count vagrants or drunks. This number was said to prove that crime was on the decrease. The vagrants were actually a very real problem. In 1938, “Seventy-nine hoboes slept in the city jail Easter night.” The city, with two major highways and two railway lines, had more than its share of wanderers, most of them dead broke and hungry . It got so bad the county courthouse, for the first time in its history, had to be locked at night.
The new chief in 1943 zeroed in on those loose horses, and was the one to impound the cemetery herd. Fees were from $2 to $10 per day for reclaiming your steed. With many foods unavailable or rationed in those war times, those vegetable gardens the horses were destroying were especially important for residents. The chief no doubt got an earful when youthful apple thieves were at large, which was an annual affair.
By 1940, Walsenburg had almost 6,000 residents, so the chief and his officers had a lot more to do than chase livestock and double parkers. Imagine the headaches incurred when the federal government decreed in 1942 that illegal aliens could not have firearms of any kind, nor short wave radios, explosives or certain types of cameras, which were to be confiscated by the police. Now, how does one know which foreign-born person is legal or illegal, especially in a county where more than three dozen languages were spoken?
Then it was decided any one throwing glass on a street or highway was committing sabotage because of the tire damage it caused, and rubber was in short supply because of the war. This new wrinkle had to be enforced by the department, which owned exactly one car (a 1941 model throughout the war). Oh, and the chief also was in charge of building permits and inspections, checking car registrations, dealing with quarantines during epidemics, directing tourists, shooting dogs when rabies was present (in 1924, 38 dogs were shot by officers within two days), hit and runs and every type of misdemeanor and felony known to man.
By this time, the ‘40s, there were a chief and three officers, two of them night patrolmen. In 1950, the “force” owned a car and a motorcycle. City council issued 25 liquor licenses. The night cops walked their beats in order to quietly catch burglars and other lawbreakers “in the act”.
It wasn’t just a lack of transport that hampered officers. The one police car (a Terraplane) in 1938 got a red “Police Stop” sign on top. In 1939, the police got handcuffs, tear gas shells and black jacks. In 1954, the first car with a two-way radio was added. It was a Studebaker. Even the sheriff’s office had only three radios. In 1958, the policemen got six “riot guns”, indicating the department had grown to six officers.
Perhaps to compensate for equipment limitations, City Council liked its officers to be nicely dressed. Not well dressed, mind you, but neatly and uniformly, if you’ll pardon the expression. In 1937, the new uniforms were military style olive drab numbers, you know, kind of like the fascists were sporting at the time. The 1952, regulation uniform called for navy blue trousers, dark shirts and black ties. In 1958, officers got four-color shoulder pads with a silhouette of the Spanish Peaks. Outside of the shoulder patches, it is doubtful the city paid for any of these sartorial splendors.
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