History of Otero County

From History of the State of Colorado, Volume IV, by Frank Hall for the Rocky Mountain Historical Company. Chicago: The Blakely Printing Company, 1895; pp. 242-247.

Don Miguel Antonio Otero This county, named in honor of Miguel Otero, descended from one of the old Spanish families of New Mexico, head of the mercantile firm of Otero, Sellars & Co., founders of La Junta, was taken from the western part of Bent county, and duly organized under an act of the Seventh General Assembly approved March 25th, 1889. It is bounded on the north by Lincoln, south by Las Animas, east by Bent and Kiowa, and west by Pueblo. Its area is 2,050 square miles, and by the census of 1890 its population was 4,192, the largest of any county on the eastern tier, excepting Arapahoe. It may also, in strict justice, be stated that the results achieved by its people testify in a marked degree to the breadth of their intelligence and enterprise. While the superior developments about Rocky Ford and La Junta have not been accomplished without many trials, hardships, and privations running through the experimental stages, their patience and well-directed endeavors have at last been quite abundantly rewarded. Prior to 1889, when Kiowa, Otero and Prowers, and parts of Lincoln and Cheyenne, were shorn from its domain, the county of Bent covered about 9.500 square miles, and through its center coursed the great Arkansas river. Until a recent period (about 1888), the principal revenues were derived from the cattle and sheep pastured there. It was in no large degree a farming region, though as well adapted to agriculture as any portion of the state. The few farms cultivated produced mainly for home consumption, but comparatively nothing for export beyond its borders, except beef, mutton and wool. The more interesting details of its primary settlement, thirty-two years anterior to the first Pike's Peak immigration, with the general current of events down to the present, are set forth in the history of Bent county.

The town of La Junta, pronounced "La Hoonta" (the junction), now the capital of Otero County, was founded in December, 1875, as the temporary halting place of the A.T.&S.F.R.R., which had then been extended from Granada, and also of the Kit Carson branch of the Kansas Pacific which had been extended from Las Animas City. It took the place of Granada as a shipping point by wagon trains to the markets of New Mexico, Chick, Brown & Co. and Otero, Sellars & Co. being the heavier commercial traders in and the founders of the place. It was from La Junta that the Pueblo and Arkansas branch was built and completed to Pueblo in February, 1876, after which occurred the long series of exciting events attending the memorable conflict between the Santa Fe and the Denver & Rio Grande, which have been related in preceding volumes. During the winter of 1875 a large commission, forwarding and freighting business was transacted at La Junta. In 1876 the Rio Grande road was completed to El Moro, thus commanding the trade of Trinidad and Santa Fe, which left La Junta stranded and well nigh forsaken. During the period first named it had a population of three to five hundred; a year later it was simply a small and unimportant station. In 1878 the Kit Carson branch of the Kansas Pacific was sold, the rails taken up and the road demolished. Simultaneously the Santa Fe projected its main line southward to Trinidad, and across the Raton Range into New Mexico. But recognizing the future importance of the station, the company built a fine depot, roundhouses and repair shops and made La Junta the headquarters of the Colorado division.

La Junta The town was incorporated under state laws in the spring of 1881, and Mr. J.C. Denny was its first mayor. Its growth was insignificant until after the large influx of settlers from Kansas and other states in 1885 and succeeding years, who began to experiment with the soil. By the census of 1890 it had 1,465 inhabitants, but since this enumeration was taken its growth has been very rapid. In 1891 a great many houses were built and occupied, and the population increased to 2,500. The Santa Fe company moved its train crews from Pueblo to that point and naturally enlarged the scope of its operations there. La Junta has become a strong commercial center in recent years. It has four churches, the Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal and Methodist; and elegant school house costing $12,000; three weekly newspapers, the "Tribune", Otero County "Democrat" and the La Junta "Watermelon"; four hotels, a bank (First National, T.M. Dickey, president); an opera house, and other institutions denoting prosperity. The railway company has a fine hospital. It is the principal center of stock-growing and shipping interests, the trading point for farmers. It is also the general transfer point to and from the main trunk of the Santa Fe (which extends from Chicago to the Pacific coast) and the Pueblo branch.

The Pueblo and state line division of the Missouri Pacific railway does not touch La Junta, but enters the county from the southwest corner of Kiowa, and runs southwesterly to its terminus at Pueblo. The Santa Fe line strikes Otero about the center and runs thence across the southwestern corner, while the Arkansas valley branch extends from La Junta northwesterly to Pueblo, which gives the county three strong lines of rapid transit and many shipping stations, whence its products are readily sent to profitable markets, east, west, and south. A glance at the map of the state will show the advantages of La Junta's position, under the influence of the new era that is producing wonderful changes in that highly favored portion of the Arkansas Valley. It has passed through all the trying stages of artificial growth, decline and misfortune, to a new resurrection that is filled with promise, based upon new blood and wealth gathered from a soil that under proper tillage produces abundantly, and also from its large cattle and railway trade.

Rocky Ford. - Two towns of this name were founded, the first at the river forty-five miles above Las Animas, by A. Russell, in 1868, who started a trading store there, and in 1870 sold an interest therein to Mr. G.W. Swink, when the firm became Russell & Swink, who also received and distributed the mail. From 1870 to 1874-75 many settlers located on the Arkansas, and the station mentioned above became a general rendezvous for them. After the completion of the Santa Fe road to Pueblo, the post office was transferred from the river to the railway station, three miles southwest, and the store of necessity followed the post office to the same place, where the present town of Rocky Ford was laid out by Russell & Swink. This occurred in 1877. Six blocks were surveyed and platted, and trees planted on the streets. In 1887 an organization took place, when 400 acres were platted, Swink's town, therefore, soon became quite a thickly populated community. Realizing the attractiveness of a beautiful site, he and others planted a great number of cottonwood trees, which, being well cared for, soon made this a lovely oasis in the otherwise treeless region. Other settlers came, built houses and began tilling the soil, first in garden patches, but gradually extending their efforts to general agriculture by the construction of ditches. The success of these endeavors attracted others. It was found to be one of the most desirable farming countries of the west.

Santa Fe Flyer The tributaries of the Arkansas river, none of them very large, are Horse creek from the north, Timpas creek from the south, and the Purgatoire, or Rio Las Animas, from the southeast. The chief dependence of the farmers, however, is lands exclusively by irrigation, placing no reliance upon natural rainfalls. In 1890 three large irrigating canals were taken out, the High Line, Otero and Bob's creek, and extended into the heart of the agricultural region, one 80 and another about 100 miles in length, and calculated to reclaim nearly 200,000 acres of land. By their intelligence, vigor and enterprise the people have made Rocky Ford one of the most inviting towns in southern Colorado. Within five years they have converted the primeval desert about them into one of the richer granaries and fruit-growing districts of the state. In that time, also, the settlement of a few hundreds in the country has been increased to more than 5,000, for it has had material accessions since the official census of 1890 was taken.

Somehow, at an early stage, the idea of raising watermelons as a specialty came to be suggested, as the result of the high state of perfection attained by gardening. Each year it became apparent that melons could be made an important element of their internal economy, and by general adoption their highest hopes were realized. By recommendation of Mr. George W. Swink, one day in each year is set apart as "Watermelon Day", and the people of the state are invited to come and feast upon their abundance of this fruit, and at the same time witness the profusion and excellence of other products, as grains, grasses, vegetables, etc., etc. How this plan was executed, and its value as an advertising medium, are known throughout the commonwealth, and as far east as the Missouri River. These festivals have been held annually about the 7th of September for the past five years, and are attended by the governor, state officials, and some thousands from various quarters. These gatherings have been very effective in making widely known the advantages of that part of the Arkansas valley, and from them have been evolved much of the gratifying development observable in all branches of husbandry.

Melons attain a size and perfection here witnessed at no other place in the West, some weighing fifty to sixty pounds, and are of delicious flavor. Much of this is due to the qualities of the soil, and a genial climate, but more, perhaps, to the care and attention given them in process of growth. Other specialties are alfalfa, and the harvesting of the seed of this remarkable forage plant.

We now come to another and still more profitable branch of industry of recent introduction, the advance of horticulture. In 1885 Mr. J.H. Crowley, the section foreman of the A.T.&S.F.R.R., purchased a tract of land about two and three-fourths miles from Rocky Ford, and with his family took possession. The next spring he and Mr. Swink set out thereon a number of standard fruit grafts. The first experiment in this line, however, was made by Mr. Swink in 1877. The results attained in 1884 convinced him that the valley was an excellent fruit country, hence he planted more trees, and encouraged others to do likewise. Mr. Crowley was the first to establish a nursery. From the small capital at his command, he began purchasing different varieties and planting them. It was an experiment, of course, but as the settings throve and demonstrated their adaptibility, he continued his purchases, and two or three years the demand for such trees advanced beyond his ability to supply. The small saplings grew rapidly, and in due course came into bearing. At last accounts he had forty varieties of apples, fourteen of plums, thirty-three of grapes, eight of cherries and twelve of pears, beside all the varieties of small fruits, all of which when sufficiently matured became largely productive. In size and flavor these fruits were unexcelled. From the evidence thus far developed, Otero county seems destined to be a very productive horticultural section of the state, since many, indeed nearly all, the farmers, taking precedent from Mr. Crowley's experience, have devoted certain parts of their lands to fruit growing.

Melon Stand The Rocky Ford Milling and Elevator company, a home corporation, in 1890 built a large and very complete flouring mill capable of producing 100 barrels per day, which is supplied from wheat growing districts in that vicinity. In 1891 they completed a large elevator for storing grain. In 1890 the Bird Brothers of Nebraska erected a canning establishment in the town, which gives employment to many people, beside furnishing a ready market for surplus tomatoes and other vegetables. Here about 10,000 cans of such goods are prepared daily. Rocky Ford has two good hotels, many mercantile houses and small manufactories; one weekly newspaper, the "Enterprise", extensive lumber yards, one banking house (the State Bank, T.F. Godding, cashier), a post office, two churches (the Methodist Episcopal and Presbyterian), an excellent public school, a good water system, etc., etc. West of Rocky Ford is the small town of Catlin, and near the western boundary of the county the town of Oxford.

The Arkansas Valley Agricultural Experiment Station, established under state laws, began farming operations on the lands of the state on the south side about one mile from the town, March 1st, 1889, since which time it has been instrumental in introducing several new crops, and establishing new and better methods of cultivation for those formerly produced. It is carrying on a series of experiments with Irish potatoes, which promise to be of great value to the surrounding country. It has introduced many new and improved varieties suited to the soil and climate, using the best known methods of cultivation, and studying new methods with special reference to irrigation. The results obtained thus far indicate that there are grand possibilities in store for the Arkansas valley when the hand of the progressive farmer shall lay hold of the forces of nature and awake the latent resources of soil and climate. By these and individual efforts the people have satisfied themselves that everything producible in a semi-tropical climate will reach perfection there. They raise all the cereals, vegetables, sorghum cane, broom corn, peanuts, the sugar beet and certain varieties of tobacco. In 1890 there were about 18,000 acres in crop. Thousands of cottonwood and other trees have been planted under the timber culture act. For miles about Rocky Ford there are great fields of melons, the yield being about 1,000 per acre. These find markets in Trinidad, Pueblo, Denver and the smaller towns along the railways. Numerous small tracts of five to ten acres about the town are used for gardening and fruit raising. Otero county has no advantages of mountain scenery. The general aspect of the country is that of and open and comparatively level plain.

Some very extensive improvements have been made upon the north side of the Arkansas, along Bob creek, where the state has located large bodies of agricultural land. After running several ditch lines, it was found they could be reached by a canal from the Arkansas. Mr. Swink first called the attention of the locating agent of the State Land board to that section, and after thorough investigation the board decided to occupy it under the right given it by Congress. Several canal companies were formed and much surveying was done, with the view of building a ditch, but all schemes failed until Mr. T.C. Henry, of Denver, organized the Colorado Land and Water company, and constructed a fine large canal at a cost of over $400,000. This canal was taken out of the river some ten miles above Nepesta, in Pueblo county, and runs northeast to Horse creek, covering more than 40,000 acres of the state land and as much more in the northwestern part of the county. There are several large reservoirs in the system. It enters Otero county north of the center of the west line, and runs north of the Missouri Pacific railroad. The Arkansas River Land, Reservoir and Canal company's ditch, T.C. Henry manager, starts at a point some three miles west of La Junta on the north side of the river, and covers about 165,000 acres in Otero, Bent and Prowers counties. It is nearly 120 miles in length, including the Prince Reservoir lateral in Prowers county.

Santa Fe Roundhouse The recently established town of Ordway, named for Mr. George N. Ordway, formerly of the Denver board of supervisors, who owns a splendid farm there, is situated on the line of the Missouri Pacific railroad some twelve miles north of Rocky Ford, and fifty miles east of Pueblo, in the center of a rich agricultural section. The town site is one of the best in the state; is well laid out, with reservation for a park, church and school building. It has a good reservoir and waterworks, and is a Prohibition town, all contracts and deed of real estate forbidding the sale of intoxicants. At the last election it had 100 votes. Great expectations of the growth of this new and well-situated community have been formed, and it is believed that the full measure of its hopes will be realized.

The Holbrook ditch, partly built in 1891, was taken out of the north side of the Arkansas, between Rocky Ford and La Junta, running thence to Horse creek. It covers some 30,000 acres in the northeastern part of the county.

By the foregoing epitome it will be seen that many wisely-ordered and costly improvements have been entered upon, vast areas of virgin land prepared for tillage, and some great enterprises inaugurated, from which must inevitably grow large wealth and prosperity. All the conditions for such results are of the most favorable character.

The county officers for 1890-91 were; Clerk, J.E. Gauger; treasurer, John Fisher; county judge, Uriel Sebree; assessor, C.N. Allen; sheriff, A.H. Gentry; coroner, Charles Barnes; superintendent of schools, S.R. Lyon; surveyor, W.N. Randall; clerk of the district court, T.M. Dicky; commissioners, John Carson, R.A. Steele and John C. Vroman.

Schools. - By the census of 1890 the total school population was 763, with an enrollment of 497, and an average daily attendance of 297. There were 11 districts and 9 school houses, with 545 sittings. The value of the property was $6,940.52. In 1891 the total was considerably increased by buildings erected at La Junta and Rocky Ford.

By the assessment roll for 1890 the total assessed valuation of taxable property in the county was $2,222,429.21. There were 55,227 acres of agricultural land, valued at $315,489, and 40,000 acres of grazing land, valued at $60,000. Of live stock returned, there were 4,798 horses, 366 mules, 17,478 cattle and 7,245 sheep.

The county is being rapidly settled and the cultivation of lands enlarged. The Santa Fe railway company is doing much to foster its growth.