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Cheap Land | Farmland out of sage brush

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JAROSO, Colo. Imagine the San Luis Valley as once an inland sea, complete with erupting volcanics at fault with the Earth, and fossils considered to be 50,000 to 70,000 years old. 

Today, the same lands emblazoned with lava are a sweeping, sage-thick landscape of ready soils – and limited water. At the heart of the San Luis Valley is an agricultural center of pivot sprinklers drawing from underground supplies, with many wells dried or retired. Water users and experts have united for decades in efforts to curtail water use in a plan that can work for everyone. 

This Google Earth satellite image shows the agricultural topography of the San Luis Valley.

In the southeastern fringes of the Valley, beside the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a handful of agriculture operations utilize remaining wells and surface water from the Sanchez Reservoir, farming mainly with pivot sprinklers. The surface water that does make it to this high desert is unpredictable, sourced from a now-private mountain range dozens of miles away. 

[Related: Western water availability is a settlement-era myth we’re having a tough time divorcing from] 

Native American artifacts from Ute and other tribes have been unearthed throughout these well-worked fields, following a pattern of thousands upon thousands of years of migration. Hundreds of years of Spanish conquest eventually brought Spanish and Mexican land grants toward their northernmost settlements in the San Luis Valley in the early to mid-1800s. Meanwhile, young generals traveled from the east to determine the Louisiana Purchase beginning in the early 1800s, with 25-year-old Zebulon Pike famously being escorted to Chihuahua to face questioning from Spanish colonials. 

We know of the oldest towns in Colorado: the original Spanish and Mexican land grant settlements across Conejos and Costilla counties. Places like Los Rincones, La Florida, Conejos, San Luis, San Acacio Viejo, San Pedro, Chama, and countless more have gone on past their time, dotting the landscape along the original watersheds shaped from mountain streams.  

Then the land grants were dissolved or privatized, this became the United States of America, and the estate companies rightly battled for hard-won eastern or European settlers who would come on trains or wagons from the east to meet the settlers from the south. 

[Related: Rooted in 175-year-old clashes between Mexican and United States of American land and water systems, an ongoing Hydra of natural resource battles continue in Costilla County.] 

Jaroso, from a distance

In southern Costilla County, center-state and just shy of the New Mexico State line, towns like Mesita, Jaroso, and New San Acacio were created as second-wave agricultural settlements by the Freehold Land and Emigration Company, an imperial Dutch-backed firm who purchased the Sangre de Cristo land grant in 1864. Following establishment by former Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin, the company’s Costilla Estate planned to draw waters from the ripe riparian foothills of the original settlements into their reservoir, with dozens of miles of canals traveling southeast through the sagebrush toward the Rio Grande. 

[Related: In Colorado’s south-central San Luis Valley, the ghost of an abandoned water system reflects the promises of western development]

These small towns were set up to be bolstered by a company railroad to move goods. But new settlers didn’t come — not enough of them, over a long enough time, to meet the cost benefit analysis of the Estate.

Harold Anderson in front of his family’s grain elevator in Jaroso, Colorado.

As water rights faltered and European settlers failed to take hold, the Costilla Estate turned their marketing instead to religious groups. Mormons had settled the town of Eastdale. Costilla Estates brought mostly unrelated Presbyterian families to settle to New San Acacio. Methodist families moved to Mesita — formerly called Hamburg, to attract German families — and Seventh Day Adventist farmers and ranchers, like the Andersons, came to Jaroso. 

In 1910, in Minnesota, a friend of Harold Anderson’s grandfather mentioned the Costilla Estates — irrigation included. He wrote the Estate letters, and they wrote back.

An early Costilla Estate map. Courtesy Colorado College Special Collections.

“One of the questions Grandpa said they asked was about religion,” said Anderson, third generation farmer and rancher of Jaroso. “The investment company stated that you'd be a whole lot happier if you were around people of your own religion.” 

By the time people got to Jaroso in 1910, there was almost nothing there; the settlers had beat the railroad, which was delayed in build due to the magnitude of the Estates’ other enterprise, the Sanchez Reservoir, a monster dam that was one of the top five largest in the world when constructed. Bob Griswold writes in Colorado's Loneliest Railroad: The San Luis Southern, that the plows, construction vehicles, and workers were all tied up at the reservoir. 

Sanchez Reservoir

But the track was built to Jaroso by the time Anderson’s grandfather arrived in 1914. The railroad went to the state line and served Jaroso, Mesita, and New San Acacio, all under the development of the Costilla Estates. 

His grandfather had worked his way up to 160 acres in Minnesota, but “it was dry,” Anderson said. “He didn't raise much of a crop. So, he climbed on a train. The railroad was already built to here. Here's a place, a dollar twenty-five an acre, we’ll guarantee you water. But the water wasn’t here,” Anderson added. 

His Grandfather broke their farm ground out of sagebrush in 1914. In 1916, he left. In 1921, he came back and stayed. 

Harold Anderson points out features on the original plan for Jaroso, complete with a park and dozens of residential streets.

When Anderson’s grandfather arrived, Costilla Estates hadn’t laid much out. Early maps of Jaroso indicate there would be a school, park, gardens, and blocks upon blocks of residential streets. “They were planning on a full-scale town,” Anderson said, “but Freehold started a little early. And the main mistake Freehold made was to try to sell ground without water.” 

Anderson acknowledges marketing played no small part in history. “They had to figure out a way to market the land. They didn't have the fancy pictures that we've got today, but they probably had pretty brochures of some guy out there raising his crops, herding his hogs or whatever,” he said. Irrigation was made to sound easier than it is, and water was marketed as reliable and sound. 

By 1920, there were more than 300 people in Jaroso. Over 30,000 acres of land had been sold by Costilla Estates in these western prairie towns, with livestock and field peas booming. With the completion of the Costilla reservoir in 1920, a new area of land went under cultivation. 

Harold Anderson inside his family’s grain elevator in Jaroso.

In the early days of this second wave of settlement, “granted, we had a railroad, but you were still responsible for your survival,” said Anderson. “If they didn't raise it or make it, they didn't have it. And that's kind of a beautiful part of history because everybody worked together to survive.” 

In the 1920s, his family “tried to farm,” Anderson said, and his family wound up running the town drug store and the grocery store. His grandfather, a farmer, ran the pharmacy in town, dispensing laudanum and cocaine as per the times.  

The family eventually took over the post office, too. The mailboxes inside the post office are adorned with eagle heads, “and were built before the 1890s,” Anderson said. When a regulator came through and told the post office they had to remove the dial locks and replace the antique boxes, “the customers told the post office where to go,” Anderson laughed. The post office remains open with its own zip code, and Anderson’s wife runs the local mail. 

Main Street of Jaroso today, with the post office to the right.

Once, garden plots east of town were planned to supply vegetables for the railroad. The Valley’s famous potatoes and lettuce, along with cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage, grew heartily with less wilting humidity in the “land with the cool sunshine.”  

But the plots never filled. “People came out here and thought, ‘I ain’t living there,’” chuckles Anderson. 

A Seventh Day Adventist school that went to the tenth grade once stood on the east edge of Jaroso. Today, Anderson’s porch and grain elevator are both made in part from its disassembled lumber. 

When the Academy closed, Anderson went to school in San Acacio. He was in charge of stocking the soda coolers of his family’s store before getting on the bus. After school, he helped load field peas in a warehouse that still stands near the family’s grain elevator. Anderson remembers carrying 200-pound sacks the length of the warehouse on a bet from a friend. 

Signs inside a shed at the Anderson farm.

“Prior to the 1930s, we had three grocery stores in town,” Anderson said. “We had a Ford dealership in town. We had one hotel and three motels. And two doctors!” A mechanic, a Minneapolis Moline dealership, blacksmith shop, and more livened the brief railroad town.  

Thirty-one miles long and “built mostly on even ground,” Griswold writes, the San Luis Southern went bankrupt in 1924 when the Costilla Estates faltered. 

The Andersons ran a trucking company beginning in the 1930s.

In the 30’s and 40’s, Anderson’s family ran a trucking company to pay the bills, locking the grocery store at 5 p.m., “loading on the bobtail truck, and going over the top of Old La Veta Pass,” Anderson said. “Grandpa would come home, open the store up, and sleep for an hour in the middle of the day. And that's how we have managed to survive.”  

Anderson said his family’s philosophy of hard work and mind over matter dedication “carried through from 1800s to probably the 1950s or 60s.”  

A passenger rail continued through the 1940s, with various financial hurdles and ownerships. All but the two northernmost miles of track near Blanca were abandoned in 1958. The Andersons closed their general store in the mid 1970s. 

Looking south toward Ute Mountain

Following the water, these towns concentrated, consolidated, and then somewhat dried up. 

“Why did they leave? It’s pretty simple. They ran out of water,” he said. “If you can't raise your crop, you can't stay there.” 

The Costilla Estate developers “didn’t really know where the water was,” Anderson said. There may have been exceptional flows leading up to the creation of the reservoir — and not much data. The Costilla Estate’s San Luis Power and Water division built a vast series of canals and reservoirs to bring water west to Jaroso, but some of the infrastructure never worked at all

Jaroso entered hard times as banks failed in the economy of the Great Depression. The railroad and other businesses went bankrupt. With the railroad's closing, the isolated area again relied on its own ability to survive. Nearby towns met the same future, with a handful of residents committed to making a living. 

“It was a good idea with a lot of high hopes,” Anderson said. “And if the water would have been there, maybe it would have grown — but we didn't have it.” 

Anderson’s memories are seasoned with stories his grandfather and father told him growing up about the complexity of human relationship around natural resources. For every compact, there has been a fist fight; for every water right, a court case. Anderson himself can recite the exact number of feet of any well that has been drilled in the area for the last 50 years and has not missed a Costilla Creek compact meeting since he was a teenager.  

In a career devoted to ranching and agriculture, Anderson has also been a champion for regional soil and water conservation. He has won more awards for service on volunteer boards than fit on the dining room wall. To survive, he and his family learned to adapt to limited and unpredictable water resources, and to a short growing season. “We’ve learned to live under these constraints,” he said. "If you plant a hardy enough alfalfa, it stays dormant till you get water. And it's hardy enough in the fall of the year that you don't have to keep it alive.” 

Anderson recalls the slow drying of the prairie lands throughout his life — not only did his grandfather and father face the realities of irrigating the harsh desert from the beginning, but the supply has been dwindling since. At age 7 or 8, he recalls driving over a Culebra River bridge, “and the road disappeared because of the water,” he said. “But I’ve never seen a road that deep with water, since that time.”  

As a kid, Anderson remembers talking to his elders about skating the Culebra River to the Rio Grande as late as the 1950s. “1952 was the last time these people told me they ever skated the river,” Anderson said. 

Jaroso, with a backdrop of Ute Mountain to the south

Today, around 40 people remain in the Jaroso area, with a few descendants of the original Seventh Day Adventist farmers and ranchers who came to farmlands sold by the Costilla Estate. Anderson and his son, a fourth generation Jaroso farmer and rancher, are adept at configuring their own engineering of mechanics and equipment. Sprinkler systems, robust wells, and efficiency measures have mostly replaced large-scale flood methods, with a few large landholders still in operation. “Man thinks he's powerful enough to stop it,” Anderson intoned about the fluctuating water supply. “I don't think so.” 

The main drag of Jaroso feels more like a driveway than a main street, and it’s a little hard to picture the blossoming town just 100 years ago. Jaroso is no longer a stop on the San Luis Southern railroad. It no longer has a bank, or any of the glossy amenities of a railroad town. The grain elevator no longer brings in barley for Coors. But it has since attracted many artists and people who have become inspired by the attitude of self-sufficiency, innovation, and creativity embodied by the Anderson family today. Anderson himself proudly displays the work of local artists in his home and in the office behind the post office. 

After their store closed, Anderson found ledgers tallying credit to local families. Although the Andersons forgave the credit when the store shut down, distant family members of former residents have been known to surface to try to pay back their bills, Anderson said. He always waves them away, knowing his father and grandfather would have done the same. “I don’t know what to say,” Anderson said. “It’s just something you do.” 

“As the grandson of my grandfather, and the son of my father — I can’t live with anything better than this,” Anderson acknowledged, motioning over his Jaroso kitchen table with a tear in his eye. “And there's a whole lot of other people in this area that have that same legacy.” 


Kate Perdoni is a Senior Regional Producer with Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at kateperdoni@rmpbs.org. 

This article is part of a series. You can read previous stories here.

 

 “Colorado Voices: Cheap Land Part 1” airs February 12 at 5 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS or watch now on YouTube by clicking below.

 

"Colorado Voices: Cheap Land Part 2" airs February 16 at 7 p.m. and February 19 at 5 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS. You can watch a preview below.

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