Saguache Museum is the core of the community

Article by Martha Quillen

Museums – May 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

In his 1959 book, Guide to the Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps, Perry Eberhart says, “Saguache is almost as colorful today as it was during its early years. One of the few county seats in Colorado without a railroad, Saguache has retained its frontier personality. Cowboys still dress the part here. The city is interesting and prosperous.

“At one time, just a few years ago, Saguache boasted the greatest wealth per capita of any city in the United Sates. That was when cattle and sheep were king. The city’s financial status has not sagged severely since.”

Unfortunately, all of Central Colorado sagged during the 1980s. But Saguache still celebrates its history with gusto.

Every year Saguache opens its museum on Memorial Day weekend, with a parade, barbecue, and all-day crafts fair. Everyone is invited to participate, and all proceeds go to the Saguache County Museum.

The town dates back to 1874, when it was organized as a supply town to serve ranchers, prospectors, travelers, and the nearby Los Pinos Indian Agency. Even though there were mines nearby, Saguache has been principally an agricultural center throughout its history.

In his book, Eberhart claimed Saguache “was as rowdy a town as any on the frontier. Every other building was a saloon or gambling house. Girls and gunfights were fast and frequent.”

Eberhart then goes on to laud Saguache’s propensity for horse-racing.

Actually, although Eberhart was obviously an earnest admirer, he clearly exaggerated Saguache’s propensity for vice. Early on, Saguache built both schools and churches, facilities some mining camps omitted.

But Saguache does exalt in its history, a trait which may explain Eberhart’s enthusiasm.

What popular historian could resist a town that glories in the telling of local legends?

ONE SUCH LEGEND concerns the famous cannibal, Alferd Packer, who was jailed in Saguache County after he turned himself in at the Los Pinos Indian Agency (on the other side of Cochetopa Pass) in 1874.

The town of Saguache was new then, and Lake City, although it is now close to the site of Packer’s undoing, did not yet exist. Thus, Saguache Sheriff Amos Wall kept the prisoner in a make-shift dug-out jail at his ranch.

But Packer escaped.

Aug. 22, 1874 must have been an embarrassing day for Saguache — since nine years went by before Packer was recaptured and tried. But Saguache made the best of Packer’s escape.

Today, at the Saguache museum, Alferd Packer resides in the ladies’ cell of the escape-proof jail Saguache acquired after the turn of the century. Also on display are handcuffs and leg irons.

Saguache is definitely not going to let Packer get away again, and the museum also features another Colorado legend.

OTTO MEARS, Colorado’s famous roadbuilder, once lived in Saguache, where he ran a store. While in Saguache, Mears built toll roads over Poncha, Cochetopa, and Marshall Passes, started several newspapers, traded with the Utes at the Los Pinos Agency, got married, and managed a shipping company with his partner, John Lawrence.

Then Mears moved on to become known as the Pathfinder of the San Juans. It was often said that Mears could build a roadway anywhere, a decree Mears proved when he designed the Ophir Loop; it looked like an over-sized roller coaster, but it was built to serve trains, and it did.

Mears negotiated treaties with the Utes, founded several railroads and served in the state legislature.

But the Saguache Museum also pays tribute to many lesser-known, but no less important local celebrities. The Memorial Room features the Doctor Shippey corner, which displays the equipment of a country doctor who served the area for many years.

The Wesley DeCamp Room is dedicated to an old-time cowboy who contributed many items for display. The exhibit includes spurs, branding irons, barbed wire, guns and other western accessories.

Other museum highlights include a pioneer kitchen, a school room, a Spanish-Indian room, a parlor, a blacksmith shop, old wagons, machinery, and a mineral room which includes a darkroom display of fluorescent specimens.

The Saguache County Museum presents furniture, clothing, china, silver, photographs, portraits, mining paraphernalia and ranching equipment with a strong focus on the lives of those who settled there.

In Saguache, the local museum is greeted annually with the community’s stellar festival. This year the parade line up begins on the school grounds at 10 a.m. The theme is “Reflections,” and awards will be given for best of theme, prettiest, funniest and most original entries. To participate call Lynn Sawyer at 256-4279 or write her at P.O. Box 23A, Saguache CO 81149.

At noon, the barbecue features Coleman’s Natural Beef and Saguache’s own secret sauce, $5 for adults, and $3 for children 12 and under.

The all-day craft show and sale will be in Otto Mears Park. Entrants will be charged $5 for space, and must provide their own tables, table cloths, change, and shopping bags. Those interested in entering an arts and crafts table should contact Ruth Skinner for an entry form, at 655-2283, or write P.O. Box 222, Saguache CO 81149.

The Saguache County Museum includes the old Saguache jail, complete with sheriff’s office, maximum security cage and graffiti. Other exhibits are housed in an old school which dates back to the 1870s. With much remodeling, the school building later served as a courthouse and finally a residence for jailers and their families.

The museum celebrated its grand opening in June of 1959, and now commemorates that event every Memorial Day Weekend. You can find the Saguache County Museum on Highway 285 in Saguache.