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The Great Salida Badger Fight

Article by Roger Henn

Local Lore – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT WAS DURING the Depression, and our family was so poor we didn’t even have an automobile. Wherever we had to go, we generally either walked or rode our bikes.

We boys made astonishingly long trips on bicycles. These were without the fancy gears of today’s machines, and going uphill meant pushing the pedals a lot harder than going on the level. The king of bikes in that day was the Iver Johnson, a hardy bike that — like the Model T Ford — was available only in black. It could hold up under the day-after-day task of carrying the 150 or so newspapers we carried on Denver Post routes.

But if we were going a hundred miles or more, a bike was out of the question. Hopping a freight was the answer. And so we traveled from Denver to Pueblo and from Pueblo to Cañon City and on to Salida by train. We were headed south to spend a couple of weeks with old George Pugh, who had a hardscrabble ranch out of Salida between Maysville and Garfield on the road to Monarch Pass.

I was with my brother Frank, who was six years older than I, and we had just finished a trip through the Royal Gorge in an empty boxcar. But as that part of our trip had been during the night, we’d had no chance to enjoy the Royal Gorge’s spectacular beauty.

We arrived in Salida in late June in the middle of the 1930s. It was early morning and we set out to find a cheap café and to have breakfast. At that time Salida was a railroad town; it was the center of operations for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. It was still some years before the main line of the D&RGW would go through the Moffat Tunnel, so the main line west ran through Salida, up the Arkansas River, over Tennessee Pass and down the Colorado River to Grand Junction.

The yards in Salida were busy handling and servicing this route. Every track in the yard had a third rail which was between the two outer rails. This was to accommodate the narrow gauge locomotives and cars — Salida was the “Narrow Gauge Capital of the World.”

Not only did the narrow gauge operate over Marshall Pass down to Gunnison, Montrose, and Ouray, but it also ran over Poncha Pass into the San Luis Valley and Alamosa. At Alamosa it joined the tracks that criss-crossed the state line between New Mexico and Colorado to get to Durango and eventually to Silverton. At Alamosa, the D&RGW line continued southward as the “Chili Line” to end in Santa Fé.

There was still another branch that went out from Salida, following the auto route to Monarch Pass; this served the CF&I quarry and carried limestone from Monarch to Salida where it was transferred to the broad gauge and ended at the Pueblo steel mills.

WE FOUND A CAFÉ near the busy railroad yards and enjoyed hot cakes, sausage, a cantaloupe, and milk for 35 cents. There was an advertisement for a Badger Fight stuck on the café window, but neither of us made any comment about it because, I guess, neither of us knew what a Badger Fight was.

We set out to find a barber shop where we could get a bath. In those days, barber shops often offered that convenience for a price, and it was a much needed service during the depression when many men were riding the freight trains from place to place because there was nothing better for them to do. Also in those days, the barber shop was a gathering place where the men of a community could exchange news and discuss happenings.

As we waited for the water to heat up for our baths, we found the talk that morning was all about the forthcoming Badger Fight. We had never heard of a badger fight, let alone seen one, so we listened eagerly, and it sounded like a really exciting event.

The basic facts were that a captured badger was put into a ring with a fierce dog and they fought until one or the other was killed. A great deal of discussion centered upon what kind of a dog could best fight a badger. The general feeling seemed to be that if it was a pit bull, the odds were against it because the bulldog would set his teeth and never let go while the badger would scratch the innards out of the bull dog. Perhaps a large police dog would be a better option because of his quick movements and snapping approach. It wasn’t long before betting was going on with the barber holding the stakes, and we decided to stay overnight to see the fight.

SALIDA WAS FILLED with conventioneers. Some fraternal order was holding a regional gathering. It might have been the Eagles or perhaps the Owls — I don’t remember. But they were gathered on street corners excitedly discussing the Badger Fight, which would be held on the outskirts of town in the fairgrounds.

When it began to get dark we hiked on out to the fairgrounds and joined a horde of men waiting to get into the building that housed the arena. When the doors were opened, we all poured inside. There were board seats on risers all around the interior of the building, and in the center, on the ground, was a pit formed by boards about four feet high.

Men were passing through the crowd taking bets; it seemed the badger was favored. I’d never seen a badger — all I knew was that they were very fierce with long claws that could tear a coyote or dog apart.

The impresario came out and began an exciting spiel. He was dressed in an old frock coat, and he had a pointed beard, moustache and long white hair reminiscent of Buffalo Bill’s. He set about getting us organized.

He announced that this would be a fight governed by rules. First, he needed three judges. Who would serve? Of course the conventioneers immediately nominated their Grand Dragon, and two others were selected. Then the impresario needed time-keepers — did anyone have a stop watch? No one had a stop watch so two men were selected who had gold watches hanging from their vests. Several “handlers” were needed — four each for the dog and the badger.

The dog was brought in. He was huge, part-mastiff, scarred and very nasty looking. Then “Buffalo Bill” stopped the action.

“We’ve got to have a couple of lookouts,” he declared. “We’ve got to look out for the sheriff, and the lookouts have to tell us if they see him coming so we can run for cover.” Well, this added new excitement to the proceedings. Local men had to be selected who would recognize the sheriff and his deputies.

As an afterthought, “Buffalo Bill” wanted two men armed with rifles who could shoot the dog or badger if they got out of the pit, and before they could attack the spectators. Two ranchers volunteered and went out to their trucks and brought back rifles. Now everything seemed ready for the fight.

But no sooner had the look-outs started on their way to the entrances, when suddenly the sheriff and his deputies jumped into the building with guns pulled and placed everyone under arrest! It is against the law to hold or to participate in fights between animals, we were told.

To our consternation we were all lined up and marched to the courthouse where we were packed into cells and locked up. Many of the men protested that they were prominent citizens at home and should be given special consideration. Asked when they would be released, the sheriff answered “When the judge says so.”

IT TURNED OUT the judge did not have a court appearance scheduled for two days. One of the men in the bullpen handed a large bill to one of the deputies and begged him to reach the judge and ask him to hold court now.

The cells and bullpen were so crowded that even sitting on the floor was difficult. But finally the sheriff returned with the news that the judge had consented to come and hold court, and we were all marched up from the basement cells to the courtroom. As the proceedings started, things looked very grim. The man who had handed the deputy a large bill was summoned before the judge.

The man testified that he was a leading citizen and held public office in a Nebraska town. But the judge ordered the man to be seated and announced that he would consider the matter of sentencing for bribery later — after he’d looked up the statute.

EVERYONE WHO HAD taken some position in connection with the fight was individually called before the judge and examined by the prosecutor. Most were prominent in their home towns or held responsible office in their Fraternal Order, but even so they were the subject of scathing comment by both prosecutor and judge. One who testified to his excellent community standing said that he was the head of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; how he was orally whipped by that judge!

No one was sentenced immediately, however, because the judge said that he would do all of the sentencing after everyone was tried.

What a night this was. My brother and I could picture ourselves doing work on the road for a week because of our inability to pay a large fine.

The principals had all been heard and the judge was about to start calling up those of us who had paid admission, when the old man who had been directing the Badger Fight fell down on the floor in a fit, foaming at the mouth, screaming and thrashing around. It took a half dozen men to hold him down so the court could resume.

After order was somewhat restored, the judge suddenly said: “I have never seen a badger, I want to see this one. Bring him in so I can see him.” Whether anyone else had ever seen a badger, I do not know, but I had certainly not seen one; so like everyone there, I peered over as four deputies brought in a large metal barrel containing the badger. All of us could hear him thrashing around as the men attempted to hold the jiggling barrel. Then they dumped the badger out onto the floor, but all that came out was a chain with nothing on the end. It was the noise of the chain we had heard as the deputies jiggled the barrel.

The old man who had the fit jumped to his feet, laughing and slapping his knees, and the men in the courtroom joined in an uproar of laughter as it was realized that this was a monumental practical joke put on to entertain the visiting lodge brothers.

My brother Frank and I came out ahead because those who were responsible bought us lodging for the night and breakfast the next morning. The men playing the part of judge and sheriff turned out to be most kindly.

But never again will I go to a “Badger Fight.”

Roger Henn lives in Ouray, talks to fourth-grade Colorado history classes in Norwood, and is the author of Lies, Legends and Lore.