by Mary Lowers
As summer flowers freeze in pots on the porch, even the dog tries to sleep in until the sun’s warmth hits the house, and with snow on the peaks surrounding us we prepare for winter. The San Luis Valley is a high mountain desert with an average precipitation of 10” annually. In the highest and largest alpine valley on Earth we often record some of the coldest winter temperatures in the nation. Historic tactics for surviving and thriving in the cold season have changed, in some ways, surprisingly little.
The 1880s recorded low temperatures which are still records today. The so-called Great Blizzard of 1888 killed humans and livestock up and down the Rocky Mountains. Thousands of cattle were lost to the storm, some dying when their noses froze to the ground as they tried to dig out something to graze on. Over two hundred children, mostly trying to walk home from school, died in this blizzard which blew in with no warning. Temperatures dropped nearly a hundred degrees in twenty-four hours. In 1913 a blizzard hit Denver and left 45.7” of snow, closing the city down. A hundred years later 2013 was one of the coldest on record for the SLV.
Folks in the 1880’s prepared for winter much as valley residents do today. Lots of time and energy went into tightening dwellings and stockpiling food and fuel. Most houses were much smaller than they are today. Beds came down for the night either like Murphy beds from the wall or hung on chains from the ceiling. The advantage to the chain beds was that they could be raised to take advantage of the heat rising. When my grandpa was a mining inspector up around Ouray at the turn of the twentieth century, he said on really cold nights in some of those little cabins on remote freezing mining claims you would need a ladder to get into the chain beds near to the ceiling for warmth.
In addition to the time-consuming tasks of keeping warm and fed, keeping occupied was often a challenge in the cold times. Dark and cold is depressing and happy distractions are needed. Popular indoor pastimes included some games we still know today, such as cat’s cradle, checkers, chess, dominos, marbles and all manner of card games.
Early Spanish/Mexican settlers used games and plays to pass the time. El Canute was an originally a Native American game played outdoors. To play, a wooden disc had a hole burned part way through in which a piece of iron could be placed. A number of discs were then hidden, including the one with the hidden iron plug, in a dirt, sand, or snow pile. Two teams vied to find the disc with the hidden plug. One team from the sidelines chanted a challenge to the other team, who guessed which disc held the iron. It was kind of like the old shell game where a bean is hidden under one of three walnut shells, but bigger and better. One hundred cylinders were used, and the whole community participated. Singers chanted during the whole game like cheerleaders on steroids. Songs were made up on the spot to fit the pace of the game and the music. These contests were usually held in the late fall or winter.
Another popular game was pelota del chueco which is similar to hockey. The game was played with a sturdy stick of oak (chueco) and a ball (pelota) made of wool or rawhide. This game was often played after church on Sunday and villages challenged each other to matches. Frequently the losers had to throw a dance for the winning team. Winter sports like ice skating and sledding were popular. Old timers in town have told me that in the winter North Crestone Creek froze hard and was cleared so the kids could skate or slide from north of Mica Ave. all the way through town.
Without movies or television, let alone the internet, home-grown plays were popular. Los Comanches was a pageant which retold the story of DeAnza’s victory over the Comanche leader Green Horn. Los Pastores was a play where the cast takes the drama from house-to-house, telling the story of Mary and Joseph trying to find shelter. It’s still preformed today in places with Hispanic roots. As towns in the valley were established, churches became important social centers. When my Dad was growing up in Cripple Creek and Victor, local churches and lodges often sponsored community plays. Themes were often stories from American history, Bible stories, or contemporary events. My dad said one time they did a play about General Pershing and Poncho Villa, a hot story at the time. Some shows were similar to Crestone’s Cabin Fever productions, showcasing local talent.
Most towns had adult forms of entertainment like dance halls and saloons. In The Life of an Ordinary Woman, Anne Ellis reminisced about her youth in Bonanza, “In speaking of population you did not count people anyway, you counted saloons and dance halls. In Bonanza there were thirty-six saloons and seven dance halls.” Even small towns and mining camps boasted billiard halls and bowling alleys. Newspapers kept folks in touch; many towns had multiple newspapers. At the turn of the twentieth century the Crestone district boasted at least five newspapers.
There were many fraternal orders and lodges. These organizations were very popular. They included the Masons, the Eagles and the Odd Fellows to name three popular lodges. In the valley many Spanish/Mexican communities had a Sociedad Protección Mutual Trabajadores Unida (SPMDTU), a benevolent service organization that preserved their culture and served their communities. These lodges and organizations are still active today.
School kept children busy in the winter season when more students could attend, as they were not needed as much at home. One-room schoolhouses appeared on many ranches. Teachers often had only an eighth-grade education. Families read aloud to one another to pass the long winter nights. If you take a look in the old schoolhouse in Crestone you can see the big woodstoves which still get the building toasty warm.
Many families were their own musical entertainment. Sheet music with the popular ditties of the day sat on every piano. Many people played instruments. Reading aloud kept many entertained on frigid nights.
Hot springs have always been popular in the valley, particularly in the cold of winter. Many built bath houses for visitors. Mineral Hot Springs, now called Joyful Journey, by the 1920s had in addition to soaking pools, a post office, a dancehall and skating rink.
Many families living at high mountain altitudes could not spend much time outside in the dead cold of deep winter. My grandfather designed an indoor rec space in an old barn for my dad and his brothers and sisters. You could roller skate or play marbles on the barn floor, and he designed a fireman’s pole that went from the hayloft to the barn floor. In the old days, just like today, it took imagination and planning to come out the other side of a Rocky Mountain winter.