By Forrest Whitman
San Acacio Church is not often visited. It’s located south of San Luis, Colorado, and out of the way for most tourists. Getting there you pass a dozen fascinating places to stop.
You’ll pass right by Fort Garland. As the sign says, “You pass by all the time, so why not stop?” Even if you’ve read the history of the fort you’ll see some little things when you go in yourself.
The famed “buffalo soldiers” made their impact here and you can sense them even though the fort is all reconstructed. These were young African American men straight out of the south in most cases. Not many of these men were warmly welcomed anywhere. Yet they seem to have found a kind of home in their residency at the fort (1876-1879).
The dioramas about the “battle at the Gettysburg of the West” are well done. This is where the Colorado volunteers gathered in 1861 and set off in March of 1862 to meet the Confederate troops.
As depicted, the battle of Glorietta Pass was won when the Union troops destroyed the Confederate supply train. But was Col. Chivington responsible for “coming across” the train? The diorama says that. But, what about the alternative history presented by New Mexican historians? That story is about New Mexican volunteers. They knew a side path that led Colorado troops to destroy the Confederate supplies.
The drive is lovely in winter with the snow-covered mountains gradually coming together as you reach the southern end of the San Luis Valley.
At least some of your historical chit-chat can concern Kit Carson. His portrait is there in the fort. He is the most famous commandant. Kit was married to a mostly Native American woman and adopted two Native American kids. He had a reputation for being friendly to Indians. Yet he led the terrible war against the Navajo. Some have called that a genocide.
Next stop is San Luis itself. Sangre de Cristo Church is quite lovely. The reredos is hand-carved and especially nice. You can look up and see the Stations of the Cross curving up the mountainside above town. During Holy Week that path is bright with young people doing their devotions in ski jackets as well as more traditional folks in muted colors.
Also nice is Sonia’s Restaurant with her good burritos. Sonia will be happy to explain why two Mormon missionaries are helping out in the kitchen. You can also stop for supplies in the R & R Grocery. It’s Colorado’s oldest business.
As you head south, you’ll see a few relics of the old Rio Grande railroad line that wound that way. There is the occasional box car converted to farm storage use. A few of these are worth stopping to take a look at.
And then there’s the church. Located in this very remote end of the Valley, the church is a treasure. The building itself is emblematic of the many village churches built by the Hispanic (they probably would have said “Mexican”) people who first settled Colorado.
The church is the oldest in Colorado. It’s proven to have been in use since the early 1850s, and it is still in use today. Though the building has often been changed and remodeled, the thick adobe walls are sturdy and will be standing for the centuries ahead.
The setting is impressive too. Set in open fields with the mountains just on the horizon, this is a perfect winter scene. Even the re-purposed box car made into a stable next door fits in. The adobe walls around the court yard are huge. The model of the church alone is worth stopping to see. It sits with no advertisement in the courtyard.
The site was chosen after the miracle of 1853. That year the men of the village were all tending sheep in the mountains. Only the women and a few old men remained. When an Indian raiding party appeared, they could only pray. Suddenly the Indians (Utes or Comanches) turned around. They saw the village defended by at least a thousand well-armed warriors. You can’t fight ghost warriors and the village was saved.
Don’t rush coming north from San Acacio. There’s always the temptation to tear up the road on “straight as an arrow” Co. Hwy. 17. But Moffat, Colorado, has a surprise. That’s where you’ll find Grammy’s Kitchen where everything is homemade. It’s run by three generations of the same family “born and raised in Moffat.” Even the floor is from the old Moffat School gym. “Homemade” even includes ice cream. We stopped on Saturday night where the locals come for prime rib.
Winter is a good time to head south to San Acacio and stop along the way.