The Colorful People of Westcliffe


John Piquette


Between 1930 and the Insane Migration of the 1990's, The Wet Mountain Valley was home to no more than two-thousand people, perhaps twice that many farm animals of one stripe or another, and about eight thousand deer. They were all spread out across the ten million or so acres (give or take nine million) that make up the Valley from Gardner in the south to the Arkansas River in the north. In fact, in the earliest days, before cars and stuff, little school houses, like the one falling down at the intersection of Macy Lane and Schoolfield Road, dotted the landscape in places strategically located as to be accessible by the majority of children who grew up on the ranches. The logic behind this, of course, was the fact that a ten-mile one-way commute by foot or pony to school in Westcliffe was impractical at best. Nowadays, all those little gray squares on the maps indicate areas originally reserved for school houses. They are called, appropriately, "school sections," and flocks of out-of-state deer and elk hunters regularly parachute into them during hunting season each year (as they are often surrounded on all sides by private land) to do their part to prevent the tragedy of Winter-Kill among the wildlife. An interesting side-note here- There's a litmus test designed to spot out-of-state hunters very reliably, and it's based on sound mathematical analysis. As follows: The distance the hunter has travelled to hunt in Colorado is equal in miles to the dollar-value of his hunting apparel, with state locality variation based on the patterns of his camo. This method really works. Try it sometime.

     As I was saying, the people of the valley in the earlier days were mostly rural ranchers, town workers and small-time merchants and educators. The community was otherwise just too small to support effective growth. Even now, it's very difficult for a person who is not financially secure to move here and hope to still be here the following year. In my own case, it wasn't so difficult, since my family goes back a ways and I have zillions of relatives in town to feed me and give me occasional shelter. It's very nice. But for the average joe-running-from-the-mayhem-of-the-city, this is not the best place to run without a good deal of start-up capital. The old families, like the Kettles, Schneiders, Rushers, the Falkenbergs, Coleman's, Camper's, etc. etc, all got their start either in ranching or in selling things to ranchers. What community there was also was enhanced early-on financially by the booming Silver Cliff and Rosita areas as well, but as we have seen, when the silver went away so did all the money and most of the people. Those that stayed behind did so at grave personal risk, unless they had some sort of tie to the original settling group of families. (Please note, as always, that my history is not based on fact. The things I'm saying come from memory and stories but mostly from imagination. Not one word of what you read here can be relied upon for accuracy).

     By 1940 or so, the area had peacefully settled into stagnation, and life was good. Growth was minimal in the entire valley through the 1970's, with the population of Westcliffe rarely exceeding four-hundred people. The local Consolidated school boasted a total enrollment, K-12, of less than three-hundred students for all of it's history up until the early 1990's, when the Insane Migration began. My memories of the pre-migration days are a little sketchy, since I was very young and for most of my childhood didn't live here anyway. I lived in Pueblo and only visited my grandparents on weekends with my dad. We finally moved here in 1980, and here I stayed until I escaped to college in 1985.

    The Westcliffe people I knew back then fell into two categories. 1. Cowboys 2. Non-Cowboys. I was in the latter category, along with most of my friends, although we had a few cross-over friendships of note. In general, we got along well with them and they with us. At least, I don't remember any major confrontations. The cowboys led, for the most part, a simple rural lifestyle, and they could always be counted upon for a neighborly hello in the mornings down at Susie's.

    There were exceptions. One such person many of you older residents will know immediately when I mention the twin .44 mags he wore on his hips and his fondness for Jack Daniels. You won't see his name here, naturally, since he might kill me, but he was, and is, quite a card. Oh, he's still around all right. But he's settled down a lot, and I haven't seen the guns in a while, either.

    As for the non-cowboys, they were mostly town people. They lived in town and worked for the county or for themselves, or for the State; a small minority of locals commuted to Pueblo or Canon City. The atmosphere was (is) relaxed and friendly, and totally pressure-free. We had a Sheriff and two deputies, one judge, one grocery store (Jennings), very little private property, and lots of land to roam on. I can remember many a day walking down Hermit road toward the mountains with my best friend Mike S., one of us on each side of the road, armed with pellet guns, shooting at any small creature that moved, including fish and certain larger insects. We were marginally successful young hunters, but the point is that nowadays such an act would earn the offenders blistering hours of lecture from some concerned land-owner or Friend-Of-The-Animals and probably a long discussion with one of the two-hundred local police officers.

    I can also remember hiding near the corner of my father's property along Hermit road with a 16 Gauge shotgun, waiting to ambush one of those little furry ground squirrels that kids think are so cute, which are in actuality disease-carrying vermin bent on destroying the lawn. I got one, one day. He popped his little furry head out of the ground long enough for me to blow it to bits. I have a witness to my hunting prowess, too; Rick Squire was driving by in his old blue chevy parallel to my line of fire. He saw the whole thing. Just ask him.

    Sometime, when I was either in college or in prison, things began to change. Fortunately for us all, though, despite the mad growth, things haven't changed near as much as people sometimes think. True, the population has almost doubled since 1990. True, land developers have practically raped thousands of acres of lovely country-side that I used to hunt or walk upon as a boy. True, lots of new people are here with strange ideas and even stranger desires for acquiring power within the community (but in all fairness, many a local, rooted lad is now in a position of authority). Yet, the beauty of the valley has diminished little. Most of the new homes are second homes, I am thinking, and lots of those people moving here are older, stable retirees. I have yet to see any serious deterioration of the community, and this pleases me greatly. Part of me, naturally, would like to see things the way they were. I would like to be able to go out to Rosita and drive like a born fool in a homemade car with my pal Gene, armed to the earlobes with hunting rifles and large-caliber handguns, trying to run down the deer that we couldn't hit with bullets. I would also like to be able to go out to what is now Bull Domingo Subdivision, where I used to go, and hunt arrowheads in the wilderness. I would also like to walk down Grape Creek a dozen miles to one of my favorite fishing holes, which is now inaccessible thanks to the new homes there. I can't do many of those things anymore, at least not in daylight, and so I find new ways to kill time- by inciting division and conflict among the many religious groups in town, for example- and I grow and adapt with the community. Most of the newer people I've met are fine, friendly and happy. And I really can't blame them for seeking out Westcliffe. The area is beautiful, unspoiled, peaceful, insert adjective here____________. In short, Westcliffe and environs represents a dream lifestyle that not many people are able to take advantage of. So who can nay-say the fortunate family who finds their way here? Certainly not me. At worst, I'll just make fun of them on my web page.

    But not today. Updates to follow regularly, as time permits. I am very busy with the Valley Ace project and others, so my updating/management time is limited. But rest assured, more is coming. I think I'll start to do profiles of local personalities. And what better place to start than my own job, eh? I think Paul will be first, unless he threatens to fire me, followed by our lumber guru Mad Mike of the Ten-Thousand Herbal Remedies And Camel Cigarettes health plan; and then my co-workers Rhonda and Bekkey. Both of these latter two make my working life an experience comparable to being on a fully loaded Boeing 747 in a flat spin. I take a lot of tylenol.