Saving Saguache: Life takes root in an old town
Set in the northern San Luis Valley, Saguache served as one of the early gateways to the San Juans and the Western Slope.
When Durango was just a twinkle in railroad baron Gen. William Palmer’s eye, Saguache became an established town in 1874, two years before Colorado’s statehood. For those of us who regularly drive from Durango to Denver on U.S. Highway 285, Saguache is about halfway. Next time, rather than just getting gas there, stop for a longer look.
Named in 2009 to Colorado Preservation Inc.’s “Most Endangered Places List,” the town is experiencing a mini-renaissance and an artistic revival anchored by the 4th Street Diner & Bakery, which is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily and longer on weekends. I judge Colorado restaurants by their breakfasts, and I pay particular attention to my favorite – huevos rancheros, or eggs sunnyside up, tortillas, whole pinto beans and green chili. The 4th Street Diner serves breakfast all day, and my huevos were excellent.
My wife and I were the only tourists in the place. Locals with bashed and beaten cowboy hats clinked spoons around their coffee cups and tried to stare down their mammoth cinnamon rolls. After breakfast, I took the historic walking tour of the 4th Street Business District.
Pronounced “Suh-watch” from a Ute Indian word, the small town and county seat once had 1,200 people, but population peaked in the late 1920s and now full-time residents number about 500. Many of the town’s historic houses have become second homes both for Denverites and out-of-state hunters seeking a base for fall forays into the Gunnison country to the west.
Hills around the town represent 35 million-year-old volcanic fields with grass on top and occasional basalt boulders. At one time, sheep surrounded Saguache and made fortunes for a few sheepmen who bought up smaller farms and ranches from earlier generations of Hispanic settlers who had ventured north in the 1860s from New Mexico.
On the north fork of the Old Spanish Trail from 1829-1848, Saguache has long been a crossroads. Otto Mears helped found the town. He began with a log cabin store where he traded with Utes before building one of the first flour mills in central Colorado. When Colorado cannibal Alferd Packer stumbled out of the San Juans after a brutal winter, Saguache residents were the first to question why Packer was so healthy and what had happened to his companions.
But Saguache never got a promised railroad, and it is not situated on a river. The town grew slowly, and in 1929 the Saguache Bank was one of the few in central Colorado to survive the stock market crash. Then the Great Depression took its toll. Many folks drifted away, but some stubborn local residents refused to leave.
One of those Saguache stalwarts is Dean Coombs, who runs the family business: The Saguache Crescent newspaper. Now in its 135th year, the paper is still printed with a linotype machine bought new by his father in 1921.
Painted an eye-catching yellow, The Saguache Crescent building, erected in 1874, leans a little into the wind, but so does the newspaper itself. Everyone knows that small-town newspapers are failing across America, but 62-year-old Coombs, publishing the paper his family bought in 1917, apparently does not realize that. He’s content with a weekly circulation of 430 for his four-page broadsheet and a newsstand price of 35 cents. There’s not much advertising, but he publishes all of Saguache County’s legal notices.
Visiting his newspaper building, I found aged calendars, decades of dust, blocks of standing type with phrases such as “huge garage sale” and “graveside services,” ceiling stains along the roof and no computers. Not even a laptop. Coombs does all the printing and publishing himself, but has no time for reporting, so he simply runs whatever notices and stories local citizens contribute.
“I started out at 26 with all my life ahead of me, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he tells me as he sits in front of his vintage hot-lead typesetting machine. “I’m in a small town that didn’t grow, but it didn’t die, either. So I’m still here and so is the newspaper. People walk in with copy. I do no reporting.”
The oddity of The Saguache Crescent’s lasting legacy as the only Colorado paper still using handset type has brought a “CBS Sunday Morning” film crew to town, and stories about the Crescent have run in the Los Angeles Times and even the English version of Al Jazeera. Mountain Valley High School in Saguache had 375 graduates in 1964 but only 125 last year, yet the paper still comes out every week.
In the back of the building is an 1898 Chandler & Price open-platen job press like the one I worked on as a high school student in Lamar. The old presses had no safety stops, and I almost lost my right hand trying to straighten a crooked envelope. As I tell that story to Dean Coombs, he nods knowingly, “No piece of paper is worth your hand.”
It’s Monday, the day Coombs prints the Crescent before Wednesday’s weekly mailing. He’s busy, so I thank him for his time and walk down the street to two buildings that make up Saguache Works, a combined thrift store, welcome center, organic and local food store, and exercise/dance studio.
Lindy McDaniel, 70, and Marge Hoglin, 65, bought the two buildings, one constructed in 1897 and the other built in 1910. They started a nonprofit to help revitalize their community.
“We always say it’s two old ladies with two old buildings,” McDaniel quips.
In their store, I learn about holistic management on the third-generation Blue Range Ranch, started in 1897 and committed to increasing biodiversity with grass-fed, certified-organic cattle.
I read about the Rio Culebra Agricultural Cooperative of small local farmers raising heirloom specialty crops of Bolita beans, Haba beans, Chicos corn and crops grown without pesticides, herbicides and free of synthetic fertilizers. Also near Saguache, Green Earth Farms produces fresh vegetables, medicinal herbs, herbal healing products and cosmecuticals.
“Business is pretty good. Yes, it’s impressive,” says volunteer Sara Fernandez.
Because Saguache County is the third poorest in the state, “People are thrilled to get $8 an hour,” explains McDaniel. “We’re hoping to expand the natural food store. We sell local foods without much of a markup.
“We want to make good food affordable,” she adds.
The nonprofit seeks to offer quilting and knitting workshops and to start a fiber-arts cottage industry to train residents to make warm window coverings. There are also plans for a coffee and ice cream shop to be ready for this summer’s tourists.
Celebrate Saguache. Stop by on your next trip to and from Denver and be there Oct. 11 for the first Alferd Packer Festival. The town hopes to cash in on the Colorado Cannibal’s cachet by selling Packer burgers, hosting a rib cook-off, a beer garden, a cannibal crawl and a “run for your life.”
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.