A Beginner’s History of the Early North Fork
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Additional History By Thomas Wills, Editor of the North Fork Merchant Herald, the monthly newspaper dedicated to the North Fork Valley.
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Find the North Fork Merchant Herald at free blue newstands in Crawford, Hotchkiss, and Paonia.
The North Fork area, for a few hundred years prior to 1880, was occupied seasonally by bands of the Ute Indians. Nomadic predecessors to the Utes also visited the Valley for extended periods as far back as 12,000 years ago as higher elevations and extensive areas to the north were emerging from the latest glaciation within the Ice Age cycle that began some 3 million years ago. The excavation of the Eagle Rock Shelter near Hotchkiss has produced extensive archeological evidence of this.
Federal troops forcibly relocated the local Utes to a barren reservation in northern Utah during the years 1880 and 1881 following the 1879 Meeker Massacre.
The first prospective non-Indian settlers in the North Fork were a small group of men from the Lake City area led by Enos Throop Hotchkiss in 1880. Hotchkiss had made his money from working as a road engineer for Otto Mears, by discovering the Golden Fleece mine at Lake City, and subsequently becoming a rancher in the Powderhorn area near Blue Mesa. His party surreptitiously scouted the valley and picked out likely homesteads while the Utes were still in possession.
The next year, in September of 1881, when it was legal, Hotchkiss returned with two young brothers, George and William Duke, a herd of 200 horses, and David Platt, Samuel Wade, Samuel Angevine, and William Clark. They were the first successful settlers in the valley. Henry Roberts, later a prominent Paonia and Hotchkiss area pioneer, was probably the first one to try to stake a homestead in the Valley that year, but had to retreat when some of the few remaining Utes “ran him out”.
Be that as it may, Enos Hotchkiss, Platt, and the Dukes, were the first successful legal immigrants in the Hotchkiss area, and staked out their homesteads in this area. Except for Platt, who apparently went insane and had to be sent home, or was shot for claim jumping, depending upon which anecdotal story you want to believe.
Wade, Angevine and Clark homesteaded further up valley in Paonia area.
Hotchkiss. In the beginning in Hotchkiss, Enos tried his hand at cattle, and then sheep ranching as the years passed. His young protégés, the Duke brothers, became the driving force behind the development of the Town. They platted and sold most of the central early lots, established the first bank and major store. They brought in a third brother, Ed Duke, and a sister and brother in law, (the Simonds family) and had a hand in nearly everything of importance in early Hotchkiss. George became the first mayor in 1900 when the town was finally and officially incorporated. He was also the one who had named the town “Hotchkiss” back when he was still an employee and was acting as the first postmaster of the Town with the office located in his boss’s home.
Other important pioneers of early Hotchkiss included Joseph H. Reich, who began the first store in the town. He sold the business, located on the site of the present (2019) Church of Art, to Ed Duke and Charles Roberts, and began at least two other businesses, a hotel, a stage delivery company, and a livery stable. His wife Elizabeth later became instrumental in the development of the town as well.
Reich’s close friend, John Edward Hanson, for whom Hanson Mesa north, east of town is named, was another important pioneer. A risk-taking gambler, he built the gigantic 7-X ranch including the impressive sandstone mansion, the Hanson Castle, on Leroux Creek above Rogers Mesa that still exists. Hanson’s 7-X empire lasted only about a decade, but is still a North Fork legend and the ranch itself is still in business if presently (2019) for sale. Besides the Hanson Castle, the other monument left by Hanson is the old Duke-Hanson Mercantile building which is now the Hotchkiss Elks Club on the corner of 2nd and Bridge Street.
Enos Hotchkiss himself finally became a developer in 1897 when he supervised the building of the Hotchkiss Hotel Block. The actual construction was done by his nephews the Sherman brothers, and others. The Shermans had the first brickyard in town which, before the arrival of the railroad, supplied all of the finished brick to the town and immediate area. They were also the stone masons on the aforementioned Hanson Castle. Hotchkiss also developed and sold town lots on the land south of Bridge Street.
Enos Hotchkiss died on January 29, 1900 just a few months before the Town of Hotchkiss was officially incorporated with his name on it.
In 1902, the Denver and Rio Grande rails were laid into the North Fork and on to the mines. This meant a boom in the local coal and commercial fruit industries as well, which had grown up around Hotchkiss and Paonia. A thousand car loads of fruit were shipped in 1904 alone. Although the Valley is still well known for its fruit, in those early days the fruit from the area won multiple ribbons at one World’s Fair.
Interlaced with all of the fruit, cattle (and sheep) and coal mines (in mainly the upper valley) was the constant buying and selling of land in the valley. This is a thread that continues to this day. The local real estate business is probably as vital today as it was when George and Bill Duke sold their first lots or Ed Hanson sold “fruit ranches” by advertising in Eastern newspapers.
To learn more, make sure you visit the Hotchkiss-Crawford Historical Museum located at 2nd and Hotchkiss Avenue. The museum is open 10am to 2pm on Tuesday and Thursday and on Saturday from 11am to 4pm.