SLV Museum is a hidden gem in Alamosa

Photos by Diane Drekmann The San Luis Valley Museum features an exhibit of Tom Tobin’s gift from Kit Carson, an exhibit of the town of Wayside, and artwork made from butterfly wings is displayed at the San Luis Valley Museum.

ALAMOSA — The brilliantly painted history wall on an unassuming adobe building in Alamosa holds the key to what is inside. The San Luis Valley Museum houses the rich history of the San Luis Valley and has unique artifacts from beyond the Valley.

The San Luis Valley Museum was originally a block north of its present location, the site of the first jail in Alamosa. In 2005, Ralph Outcalt, who built the new Stampede building and owned the gas station across the street, donated that building on 401 Hunt Ave., where the San Luis Valley Museum has been ever since.

Ian Wilkerson painted the history wall in 2010, using so many layers of epoxy glue that the paintings are ingrained into the wall. By the front door, Joyce Henrie of Tango Forest Studios in Blanca painted a tree of life with roots of all the peoples that have inhabited and been part of the San Luis Valley. 

The San Luis Valley Museum traces the history of the San Luis Valley, from the paleo-Indians of over 10,000 years ago to the Native American tribes that passed through the Valley, showing the strong Spanish influence of the Dutch, Japanese, German, Mormon, and Amish settlers. The Museum has an exhibit of lithostones, which are stones that have a musical quality — a 10,000-year-old version of the xylophone. There are also examples of Native American artifacts.

Zebulon Pike led an expedition through the San Luis Valley in 1807. After acquiring the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent Pike to report on Spanish activity. The San Luis Valley Museum has an original journal of Capt. Pike, written from memory after he and his party were caught trespassing on the fort near Sanford, sent to Mexico, and then back to Louisiana.

In 1851, San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado, was established. Jeff Myers, the director of the San Luis Valley Museum, shared some interesting historical facts.

"All of towns in the Valley were involved with railroads and mining. Antonito, Hooper, Alamosa were all booming railroad towns," Myers said.

"Before 1870, north of the golf course and Splashland used to be a town called Wayside. The railroad was built on the south side of Alamosa. Businesses moved and the town of Wayside dried up."

Myers added that the invention of refrigerated trucks and trains led to a change in the industry and the demise of many towns. There is an exhibit with Wayside and its post office.

Myers shared facts about Hooper, a town near Alamosa.

"Hooper was originally called Garrison," he said. "But the name was too close to Gunnison and confusing for the post office. They changed their name to Hooper because Gunnison had their name first."

There is a story that supposedly Del Norte missed being the state capitol by one vote.

The San Luis Valley Museum also showcases Alamosa's history with exhibits of Billy Adams, which Adams State University is named after. He was also governor of Colorado three times, because of his dedication to fighting corruption. He also worked on the Moffat Tunnel. Tom Tobin's outfit from Kit Carson is also displayed. Tobin received his outfit for causing the demise of the Espinoza brothers. He wore it proudly in his later years. 

The world wars saw new populations of Dutch, German, and Japanese come into San Luis Valley.

Myers explained," There were German POW camps in Center and Monte Vista. They worked in the potato fields and many remained in the Valley after the war. There was a Japanese-American church in La Jara. Waverly, between La Jara and Alamosa, was a Dutch settlement. Villa Grove, near Saguache, was a German settlement in 1870. Mormons and Amish people also settled in the San Luis Valley."

With grant money from Colorado Humanities in Denver, Myers shared that filmmaker James Nelson, from the National Heritage Areas, came to San Luis Valley Museum and produced a documentary about Mormons and the Amish, and later filmed a number of documentaries about the many cultures in San Luis Valley.

Myers created a complementary series of cards on topics like the various cultures as well as art, farming, and railroads. People just need to scan the QR code on the card and they'll see a brief history of the topic. 

Farming and ranching are a large part of the history of the San Luis Valley. There are displays of the main grains grown in the Valley: barley, wheat, oats, and alfalfa.

Myers explained, "San Luis Valley is the second largest producer of potatoes in the United States with one and half billion pounds. Coors grows almost all of the barley used in its beer in Center and Monte Vista." 

There is a large area devoted to veterans at the museum. Dorothy and John Brandt are the main benefactors of the San Luis Valley Museum.

They were a military family from the San Luis Valley who donated much of their collection of artifacts from travels around the world to their military uniforms.

Dorothy Brandt was still on the Board of Directors for the San Luis Valley Museum in February 2022 when she was 95 years old.

Myers shares the ways items or "accessions" are acquired. Some come from private collections. Sometimes a person will find something in their garage or attic, as in the case of the Hooper State Bank sign. Descendants of Carson, Pike, and others have donated items.

There are unusual items not from the Valley, like a picture made of butterfly wings from Africa, mounted birds and insects from around the world, and prints by Disney animator Ed French. 

Myers began his career at the San Luis Valley Museum as a volunteer and personal friend of the Brandts. Myer's specialty is plants.

The outside of the San Luis Valley Museum has a typical courtyard found in this region. Myers pointed out that the Colorado Garden Foundation donated planters filled with native plants. 

The San Luis Valley Museum connects with the community by showcasing local artists once a month. Evelyn and George Rowe represented December with a quirky creation made from VW fenders and shot-glass eyes. Ed French will be honored posthumously in January.

The San Luis Valley Museum also honors veterans by providing snacks for veterans and their families every Thursday from 9-11 a.m. Veterans also get free admission. The Museum is also part of Alamosa's First Fridays. 

Myers was excited to announce that a major traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institute will be coming to the San Luis Valley Museum in the middle of October — "Crossroads: The Change in Rural Communities in Time." The exhibit will be at the Museum for six weeks.

The San Luis Valley Museum is not state or federally funded and relies on donations, admission fees, or hosting events, like the recent conference of the National Heritage Areas. Admission is $8 for adults. Veterans, members of the military, teachers, and children get free admission.

Photos by Diane Drekmann The San Luis Valley Museum features an exhibit of Tom Tobin’s gift from Kit Carson, an exhibit of the town of Wayside, and artwork made from butterfly wings is displayed at the San Luis Valley Museum.

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