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Long Time Gone and "Bye, Bye, Bent County"

By Karlene McKean

January 12, 2024

This is a story about the original Bent County that was established in 1874 and encompassed the areas of present-day Bent, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Prowers, Otero, and Lincoln counties. It’s also a story about the corruption that controlled the county seat of Bent County located in Las Animas. And it’s the story of how a local newspaper in Cheyenne Wells made enough noise and wrote enough finger-pointing articles to force change and eliminate the “ring” that controlled the county in those days. Finally, it’s the story of how the counties were divided and Kiowa, Cheyenne, Prowers, Otero, and Lincoln counties were established.

The following history seems to have many parallels to the situation we endure today that the people who live on the eastern plains have with Denver and the big-city politicians—all Democrats in Colorado—who control the legislature, courts, executive leadership—but have no interest in legislating fairly towards the taxpayers NOT on the front range. Just as the outliers in old Bent County did prior to the division in 1889, the people on the eastern plains today continue to talk about dividing from Colorado and creating their own state. One that is more conducive to the needs of agrarian rural Colorado. The “ring” that existed in the big county seat of Las Animas in 1888, hundreds of miles away from the towns outlying through the county, can be closely compared to the cabal of Democrats on the front range and their methodology in maintaining power in 2024. Finally, the people in the less populated areas of Bent County in 1888 had had enough and utilized an election, and the power of the press, to make significant changes to the old Bent County. Do the rural citizens living on the eastern plains of Colorado possess that same gumption in 2024? You are the judge.

(This article was originally published in the Range Ledger newspaper (Cheyenne Wells), Sept. 1, 1989.) “Las Animas is the biggest calf we have known. She has long sucked the government, always fattened on the county, and her citizens have lived dependent solely on the outside for assistance,” so stated the Cheyenne Wells Gazette of May 5, 1888. This was only one of many political accusations made by the Gazette between September 17, 1887, and March 16, 1889 against the county seat of Bent County and the ring who ran it.

In order to be fair about the matter, it must be remembered that soon after Cheyenne Wells’ founding on May 17, 1887, the town fathers were proclaiming in the upcoming county seat of Cheyenne County. However, they had a good reason for wanting the county divided besides making their own town prosperous in the words of the Gazette:

The railroad fare alone from Cheyenne Wells to Las Animas and return is $30.20. If we have business at the county seat, we can take our choice—go by rail or across the country 100 miles. And yet there are people who contend that we have no just claims for a division. It would please us to see such a people go to hades and the northeast wind blow ashes in their eyes through all eternity.

 

Not only was going to Las Animas to conduct county business an inconvenience, but, according to the Gazette, the men running Bent County were a bunch of corrupt politicians.

Before the 1887 election, the Gazette began exposing some of the shenanigans of the Las Animas Democratic ring. (Cheyenne Wells was a Republican town.) According to the newspaper, the Democrats had been in control for many years and were run by a boss named T. J. Hickman, who was county treasurer and wouldn’t let the records be examined. The Gazette reported that the ring had assessed the new farmers to pay for the stockmen’s taxes, that they had mortgaged Bent County for $15,000 more than the taxpayers had voted for bonds, and that “Jame$ C. Jone$, the La$ Anima$ banker,” had sold the county an old sheep corral for $2500 on which to build a new courthouse when the county already owned land it could have used. This last item was reprinted from the Granada Exponet, which newspaper also reported that Jones had a large number of lots in the area of the sheep corral and thought their being next to the courthouse would help them sell. The Exponent also said that Jones had a large amount of influence in keeping the ring in power.

In “A Timely Political Letter to the Voters of Bent County,” the Cheyenne Wells Gazette gave the following advice before the November election:

The system on which this government was founded aimed at the curse of hereditary officeholding, and when a man or a set of men has held county offices so long that they imagine they own them and openly boast that they carry the keys to the county in their vest pockets, is it policy to continue them longer in positions of trust?

The Republican party answers, No! The level-headed Democrats of the county answer, NO!

As it turned out, the Republicans did win the county vote. However, T.J. Hickman, the county treasurer, was not one to give up his control so easily. He contested the vote of the Republican County treasurer, Henry Kellogg, and took the matter to court. By January 7, 1888, the case was in progress before the county court at Las Animas and 65 witnesses had been called from all parts of the county.

In a May 26, 1888, issue of the Gazette, the Denver Republican newspaper was quoted and gave further insight into Hickman’s tactics:

In speaking of this matter yesterday, State Senator Woodworth of Bent County said that there was no question that Henry Kellogg….was fairly elected treasurer of Bent County. “T. J. Hickman, his opponent, contested his seat,” said Senator Woodworth, “and the Democratic county judge threw out the votes of two precincts.”

In Wilde precinct Kellogg had the entire vote cast (thirty-eight). There are only two Democrats in that precinct, and they swore in court that they had voted for Kellogg, yet the entire vote was thrown out. In Sheridan Lake the tickets did not arrive. We had no telegraph, no railroad and no white paper. We got some paper from the drug store, which was not pure white, but white enough, and wrote our ballots on it. The precinct was thrown out on account of the color of the paper. We have taken the matter to the Supreme Court. I tell you this to show Democratic tactics in Bent County.

On January 9, 1888, just six hours before the old politicians were to turn over their books to the new Republican County officials, the old Las Animas courthouse burned. “Not a record was saved. Not a scratch of the pen was turned over to the new officials on Tuesday, and the real estate, court and other accumulated records of all past years are reduced to ashes.”

The editor of the Gazette clearly felt that the fire was intended to cover up something, and later a man named Fred Haas was arrested in Ohio and charged with the arson. Luckily, A. E. Bent of Lamar had an abstract of the tax list, which he loaned the county for a reasonable sum, so the taxes continued to be collected without serious interruption.

If the courthouse burning wasn’t cause enough for suspicion, even though all the county officials claimed they knew nothing of the fire until the next morning and T.J. Hickman was absent from town at Lamar, John W. Jay, the ring’s old county clerk, died on the same day as the fire “after a suspicious short illness, and irregularities of his demise are rumored as self-destruction.”

The ring may have been involved in misusing county funds, for the Gazette reported in the January 21, 1888, edition that the “banking house of Jas. C. Jones at Las Animas was closed on January 12, the proprietor going out of business. This is the bank in which has been deposited county funds for years past. On losing the county deposits, the bank ceases to exist.”

In February and March of 1888, it was being reported that things were changing under the new Republican rule. The fees for recording a deed in the county clerk’s office were slashed from $2.25 to $1.35. The fee for recording a notary commission had been reduced from $1.50 to $1.00. However, the honeymoon was soon over, and in May the Gazette began complaining about the new Board of County Commissioners because they had ordered that $12,000 be spent on a county hospital in Las Animas. This building was to be built of native brick and gray sandstone and was planned so that an addition could be constructed later on. The original building was to be two stories high and have a basement.

This new expenditure prompted a rehearsal by the Gazette of the old ring’s sins, including their “taxing of the farmers to pay for the new courthouse, which was a building worth more than the entire business section of Las Animas, which…closed-pressed farmers battling with a new soil [are] bonded to pay for.” The Gazette told how the farmers had battled at the polls to get the old ring out of office and elect a Republican majority to run the county, not realizing that one of the new commissioners was “a Las Animas man body and soul” and the other commissioner had a father who was a surveyor and needed work.

Bridges for Las Animas, public parks for Las Animas, and then to cap the climax and in a Christian spirit of love for fellow men, a public hospital and a poor house for Las Animas to provide for the broken-up-by-taxation people in the elegance and grandeur they were accustomed to before the Las Animas ring began to operate for Las Animas.

Good, kind, generous souls. How can we repay your foresight? How can we thank you for the thoughtfulness with which you have looked to our latter ends?

The Gazette came to the conclusion that, “We must labor either to get Las Animas out of Bent County or separate ourselves from the old unnatural mother.”

On November 24, 1888, there was more to be heard on this idea of a county division:

The people of Las Animas County will no doubt petition to have the county divided during the coming session of the legislature. Now don’t let Bent County be behind in this matter of county division. The people living outside the town of Las Animas and vicinity must make the move in this direction… By a united effort of those who have suffered from the unwarrantable appropriations of that Las Animas ring, a division can be accomplished this winter.

In December tempers were flaring because people in Las Animas were circulating a petition to have an iron bridge built across the Arkansas River. In addition, they were talking of a $10,000 appropriation to furnish their new courthouse. Plus, the Gazette was offended by this editorial comment from the Las Animas Leader:

The courthouse reminds us, on a moonlight night as we pass it on our way homewards, of a picture of an ancient temple in Egypt or Rome, abandoned and standing alone. The block in which it stands in the center is entirely devoid of anything to bring in contrast the beauty of the building. It is barren and desolate, and we think that the county commissioners should make some arrangements to enclose the block and place the grounds in something like an attractive appearance.

To this the Gazette’s editor sarcastically replied:

We suggest that the Las Animas town council appropriate some of the city funds for the purpose of enclosing and otherwise decorating the block on which their courthouse stands. The building is an ornament to Las Animas and is pointed to with pride only by the inhabitants of the town and vicinity, it being an eyesore to a very large majority of taxpayers of Bent County that will have to pay for it.

The new year brought even more irate statements from the Gazette. Instead of building a $10,000 bridge over the Arkansas River as they first had planned, the Bent County Commissioners let a contract for $19,350. In response to this, the Gazette had this succinct message:

The courthouse is finished, and $4,400 worth of furniture ordered for it. The hospital is nearly completed. A contract has been made for the building of a $20,000 bridge, and all for the benefit of Las Animas. What next? A motion to adjourn would please a majority of the taxpayers.

The following week, in light of serous talk of new counties being formed, the Gazette preached: “There will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth at Las Animas.”

The Las Animas boodlers were not content to let their county be divided without a fight, however, and on January 7th they sent a dispatch to the Denver Republican newspaper, informing them that a large and enthusiastic meeting of Bent County’s citizens was held in Las Animas opposing the division of the county, “as the county is not financially in a condition to support three or four or even two counties.” As usual, the Gazette had a blunt reply:

This dispatch is composed mostly of misrepresentations, or more commonly speaking, lies. The meeting referred to was composed of Las Animas people only, not one having any voice in the meeting but that is directly interested in the town. The statement that the county is not in a financial condition for any division whatever is too absurd, coming as it does from the very ring debt on the county during the last two years that have been entirely unnecessary. Now on the eve of a division of the county they seem to become suddenly apprised of the fact that the finances of the county are limited.

On February 2, 1889, the Gazette reported that the Senate and House Committees on county lines had set February 4 as the date to hear arguments for and against county divisions of Bent and Elbert Counties.

On February 23 the Gazette reported that Henry Kellogg had won his case over T.J. Hickman, the former county treasurer. This case had been pending in the supreme court for more than a year. Taking a last jab at the ring, the Gazette said that the “probability is that Hickman’s bandsmen will have to go down in their jeans’ for the costs.”

Bent County’s affairs were of minor consequence by this time, however, for it seemed certain that the county would be divided, and that Cheyenne Wells would become a county seat at last. In anticipation of this big event the editor of the Gazette flippantly wrote, “Bye-bye Bent County.”

On March 16, 1889, about a week before the new Cheyenne County bill was approved on March 25, the editor of the Gazette waved a happy farewell to Las Animas and the mother county:

“Adios Bent, Ah there, Cheyenne.”

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