SOUTHERN SAN LUIS VALLEY — While some locations may rightfully claim to be older, small towns in unincorporated areas also can boast of their age.
Generally founded by Hispanic settlers, many of the old towns were communities that didn’t incorporate. San Luis did, fortunately, sealing its fate as the oldest town in the state.
Situated at 7,904 feet in Conejos County, the town of Conejos is a historic site of Hispano settlement. It’s also the county seat, with the unusual distinction of being the only county seat in the state that’s unincorporated. The town name comes from the county.
Nearby, Antonito is an incorporated statutory town with a population of fewer than 1,000 as of the 2010 United States Census.
It began life as a small sheep herding camp known as the San Antonio Junction because it’s close to the junction of San Antonio rivers.
When the Rio Grande Railroad was built, the small field became more popular because it became a pit stop during the trip.
Still along the highway, Mogote is an unincorporated community located on Colorado Highway 17 south of the Conejos River and about four miles west of Antonito. Next door, Fox Creek is an unincorporated community settled in 1887 by a colony of Mormons. The community takes its name from a nearby creek where foxes were abundant.
Farther into the mountains, Platoro is a tiny, remote village surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest. It’s located about two hours south of South Fork, two hours east of Pagosa Springs, and two hours southwest of Monte Vista but it’s located Conejos County at elevation 9,870 feet, an unincorporated community, it was a former mining camp. There was a Platoro Post Office, which operated from 1888 to 1919. The town got its name from the Spanish language, “plata” and “oro” which meant “silver and gold”. There is a man-made reservoir a few miles west of town, which offers outdoor recreation in the summer.
Manassa is the first Mormon settlement in the southern part of the San Luis Valley, founded in 1879 and named for one of the sons of the Israelite, Joseph. The location was chosen because the town fathers had been guaranteed that the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad would be built through town.
It never happened. In 1880 the railroad decided to run their line through the settlement of Romeo, three miles west of Manassa. While that didn’t help the business development of Manassa, it also didn’t stop the population growth and Manassa is still reportedly the largest town in Conejos County.
Romeo was incorporated in 1923 and has had its own post office since 1901. The name of the town comes from the surname Romero.
Today, Romeo is a tiny incorporated farming community tucked between La Jara and Antonito on Highway 285 at 7,736 elevation in South Central Colorado. In 2010 the statutory town had a population of 404.
It has recently enjoyed business growth as the liquor store is open for business along with the lumber yard and a Dollar General Store is putting down roots.
When the Mormon colonists first came to this area, they tried settling in several different spots but the groundwater situation in this part of the San Luis Valley is a bit different. Sometimes there was no groundwater at all, sometimes their settlements turned into swampland. Manassa was a place where everything came together well for them and they prospered.
It’s estimated that nearly half the residents are descendants of those original Mormon pioneers, while most of the other half of the residents are descendants of the Hispanic families that came to this area in the early 1850’s to settle the Sangre de Cristo and Conejos Land Grants.
Manassa is on land that is essentially perfectly flat. Just east of town is where the mesas and hills begin. In the first set of low hills is the location of the King Mine, a turquoise mine that produces a striking green turquoise in a golden, non-webbed matrix. This mine was originally mined by the Ancestral native tribes some 1,000 years ago, and it was rediscovered by I.P. King in 1890 as he was prospecting for gold in the area.
Another claim to fame is that Manassa is also the birthplace of William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey, one of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions in modern history. In 83 fights he lost 6 times and won 62 times. Among his wins were 50 by knockout, 26 of those knockouts happening in Round One. He also had 9 draws and 6 no contests.
The log cabin where he was born and grew up in is located on Main Street in Manassa and is now the location of the Jack Dempsey History Museum. Main Street is also State Highway 142, also known as the Camino de los Antiguos Scenic Byway organization, which yielded much of this information.
To the east of Manassa and established in 1867, Capulin is hidden away in South Central Colorado in Conejos County about eight miles west of Highway 285. The census designated place (CDP) had a population of 200 in 2010.
It’s located at an elevation of 7,825 feet. The Capulin Post Office has existed since 1881with a zip code of 81124 in operation since 1881, founded in the 1860s by pioneers from Ojo Caliente, N.M. The term “capulin” is a type of black cherry.
A post office called Mogote was established in 1897, and remained in operation until 1920. The community was named for Mogotes near the town site.