by Mary Lowers
In late August I took a trip though the Liberty Gate at the southeast end of the Baca Grande and went back in time, to the day when miners and ranchers populated the area. I was fortunate along with my photographer friend Brisa Storey and old friend Patti Rodriguez in getting to tag along with multigenerational Crestonians: George Sherer, Anita Betts, and Shawn Hollmer on a trip to the privately owned ghost town of Liberty just across the old Baca Ranch boundary.
On the Liberty Road we drove though fields of brilliant yellow sunflowers, tall rich green grass, piñon and many tall pines towering over the smaller vegetation. The soil grew sandier and the air smelled more rarified. In 1904 Luther Gross, according to George Harlan’s history of the area Postmarks and Places, commented, “my fondest memories of the trip to Liberty are the smell of piñon and yellow pine trees in the morning after an evening rain and the sight of herds of antelope as they left the edge of the timber and raced to the open country where they would stop and watched the creaking mail buggy with its trotting span of horses pass out of sight.”
Our first stop after crossing the wide, shallow, clear waters of Deadman Creek was the town site of Duncan. Of the some 1500 ghost towns in Colorado, Duncan and Liberty are among the most obscure. Duncan was founded by legendary miner and entrepreneur John Duncan, who found gold ore in a layer of quartz “float” near the town site. Duncan built his hand-hewed log cabin and began to sell town lots to miners looking for that big lode. When George Adams bought the Baca Ranch he contended that the residents of Duncan were “squatters” on his land because he thought he owned (or should own) not just grazing rights on the ranch but mineral and water rights as well. He took the case against the miners and their town to the US Supreme Court. In 1893 Adams won the case and the eviction of the Duncan citizenry began.
US Marshalls tasked with clearing out the town took up residence in John Duncan’s cabin, the only structure standing today in the former town. Residents were paid $125 for each structure and were allowed to buy the buildings back for $10 if they moved them. The ranch allowed Duncan’s cabin to remain on site for the use of ranch employees while working this section, which was the most easterly part of the Baca Ranch back then. In 2011 the Forest Service, which managed the area, with a volunteer crew rebuilt the cabin log by log.
We stopped and wandered a bit around Duncan. While structures themselves are missing the stone foundations allowed those in the know like Sherer and Hollmer to describe the town. George says, “We can only speculate what entire town looked like.” As we walked we found treasures the rains had washed up, including stove parts, bottles, cans, china and glass from the mining days. It is important to remember to enjoy the artifacts but not take them with you. They tell more of history when in left in the context in which they were found. Shawn took us to see an apricot tree still flourishing in the ruins. He told me, “I found this tree in full flower when I came out here in the spring.” Without another apricot tree close enough to pollinate it, the tree never bore fruit and was not torn up by bears and other critters after that fruit. Sherer and Hollmer had figured out where the old cemetery was west of the town site on a low hill.
According to Postmarks and Places, “Upon their eviction from the Grant, evacuees from Duncan went their separate ways. Some went to Crestone and took up residence there. Others left the mountains permanently. A few elected to cross the Grant’s east boundary and start anew at Liberty. For the next two decades Liberty was to be their home.” Many structures from Duncan moved to the new mining town built on the site of a mining camp known as Rocky Mtn. “Forty-six days after Duncan was closed,” Harlan tells us, “John Norvil delivered the first sack of mail to the new Liberty Post Office.” It is not a big mental jump to, as Paul Sherer does in his history In the Shadow of the Mountain, that “no doubt the name they chose for their settlement was rooted in their frustration at being thrown from the land that they believed they were entitled.”
As we continued south on the road from Duncan to Liberty we discovered the same monsoon rains that had unearthed treasures for our perusal had washed out the road, rendering it impassable. So, having driven as far as we could, we left the vehicles and walked into Liberty up rocky, sandy roads until we came to a hunting camp lodge built by a Walsenberg family by the name of Lattimer. They once owned Liberty and tore down some buildings to build their lodge. In the late 1970s the late Maurice Strong purchased the town as a wedding gift for his wife Hanne. It is very rocky and steep, and the pines are tall as we proceed.
We crossed the rechanneled waters of Short Creek where in the mining days, we were told, Noah Mayer had built a water wheel, traces of which can still be seen. It was, Hollmer said, used for a laundry. This rerouted channel runs into and through a double cast iron white enamel sink perfect for washing dishes. A few feet from this spot is the old barber shop where Liberty’s live-in caretaker resides. He knew we were coming, as we had permission to be there. Liberty is on private property and generally not open to the public. Hollmer and Sherer were on a mission to measure for a new roof for one of the town structures that may have been the school. The view from this part of the old town is breathtaking. You can almost touch the Great Sand Dunes to the south and just before them are massive rock cliffs dotted with trees.
As we walked up hill to explore more of the town, George pointed out, “town buildings and houses were close to mining claims so the miners could walk easily to work.” As we walked down what must have been a main road, out croppings of hard rock that miners love appear more often. After going round a switchback or two we saw the cabin Sherer and Hollmer want to roof. There are two rooms in the structure and plaster can still be seen on the walls. Windows in the cabin face south and east and the frames have traces of a light mossy green paint. Looking south the setting is beautiful, filled with the differing shades of the pines, aspen and what Sherer told me was buck bush.
After the measuring for the new roof was done, there was speculation whether this cabin had indeed been the old schoolhouse. The first record of the Liberty School District #29 was the 1906 eighth grade final exams found in the records of the Saguache Superintendent of Schools. The eighth grade exams were important because most people back then did not stay in school past eighth grade. Teachers were paid $30 to $35 a month. In Postmarks and Places George Harlan says, “As in many mining camps the schoolhouse was the nucleus of community activities.” There activities included church, box socials, and dances. School was held in Liberty between 1906 and 1919.
In its heyday Liberty was a busy place. In Crestone: Gateway to the Higher Realms, James McCalpin tells readers “the Liberty Mining and Milling Company owned mines including the April Lode, Mountain Deer, the Yellow Bird and the Yellow Metal. “These mines made up what’s called the Liberty Lode. In 1902 a stamp mill was built along Short Creek. There were one or two newspapers. There was a hotel, barber shop, shoe repair, an emporium, a bar and a livery stable and feed store. According to Postmarks and Places, “It was aid for the evening meal at the Liberty Hotel; Martha Ott served three kinds of meat, one of which was wild. Mrs. Ott’s husband Wesley provided the wild meat which was usually deer, sometimes bear or mountain sheep. In the words of an old timer, Liberty was a hell raiser.”
Violent death seemed to plague the little mining town. The first recorded murder in Liberty was the killing of local bully Jim Stewart by Charlie Thompson of Sand Creek, who worked as a mulcher at the Commodore Mine in Creede. The murder took place just a few days before Christmas on December 23, 1900. Jim Stewart had forced Thompson at gun point to humiliate himself by crawling down the main street in Crestone while barking like a dog. Postmarks and Places describes Jim Stewart as “Liberty’s local bully, a large unkempt man with a foul disposition. Many considered Stewart an outlaw. Rumor had it that four men had died from his pistols.”
A few days after the incident Thompson told a fellow miner in Creede he was leaving for Crestone to tend to “unfinished business.” This business turned out to be shooting Jim Stewart who was near Liberty on upper Sand Creek. According to Postmarks and Places, Charlie Tompson lay in the shadow of the large Twin Pines, a local landmark. He ambushed Stewart on his way to get the mail in Liberty. After Stewart on horseback passed the Twin Pines, Thompson rose up and stepped into the middle of the road saying , “Jim I’m gonna kill you.” His shot knocked Stewart off his mount. Thompson ran off west toward Hooper.
“Despite having half his body blown off, Stewart remounted his horse and travelled nearly a mile reaching Liberty Flats a sunny park east of Liberty.” Noah Mayer, 13, looking for family cows, found Stewart who had fallen from his horse. The young man ran for help and Stewart was taken to Liberty. He died seventy-two hours later. Thompson was convinced to turn himself into authorities in Crestone. The records of the trial were lost. Locals claimed that Thompson was acquitted.
The senseless double murder of Mrs. Boyd and her unborn child by George Boggs occurred in Liberty late one night. Mr. Boyd was working the night shift when the killings occurred. Mrs. Boyd, who was afraid of her unstable neighbor, had nailed her front door shut but Boggs broke through and shot the pregnant woman with a .44 Bulldog Revolver. Figuring he’d murdered her, Boggs returned to his cabin which was close to the Boyd house. There he put his pistol in his mouth and blew his brains out. Postmarks and Places says, “Talk in Liberty was that Boggs had become mentally unbalanced.” Mrs. Boyd and her unborn child were buried in the Duncan Cemetery and Boggs was laid to rest along the Grant fence a half mile south of Liberty.
I could not help but think of these tales of Liberty as we wandered through mountain meadows to the ruins of the livery stable and bar. Hollmer told me two brothers owned the businesses. I could nearly smell the horses and mules as we explored the ruins of the stable studded with nails and hardened old leather scraps. We found what Sherer and Hollmer thought may have been part of a blacksmith’s forge.
Wandering to the nearby bar building and looking into the large window frames I could see rectangular tables set around the floor littered with what look like barrel staves, possibly from beer or whiskey barrels. There were doors on both sides of the building. I could easily imagine the flow of traffic through the establishment: miners coming by after a long shift for a beer and the news. I can envision locals sitting around gossiping and strangers passing through, waiting for their horses to get new shoes next door at the livery stable, and someone playing a rousing song on a piano at one corner of the bar.
All too soon we were walking down the steep road from Liberty to where we had left the trucks and begin the trek back to Crestone. As we come up on Deadman’s Creek Sherer pointed out the old road which ran to Hooper. Most of the supplies for Liberty came from Hooper on the road west from the creek. Brisa showed us the pictures she took on our trip back in time. The magic of this trip will stay with me.