Joseph Messier did not have death on his mind when he halted on a piece of ground downstream from the military's Camp Collins in 1862. What he did have was an alias, perhaps a little gold in his pockets, and an eye for opportunity.
The hulk fainted
He was fresh from Colorado’s gold rush, which if you knew where to look, could be a very good thing. Joseph had learned another lesson: One should beware of a certain beautiful Native American maiden, especially when there was another man involved. That other man, a hulking mule shoer, had objected. It ended in a duel in Denver, but not in death. The hulk fainted as the combatants faced off, one newspaper reported.
True love it seemed, was not in the cards for this darkly-handsome young bachelor. At least not yet.
Joseph surveyed his surroundings. He had first passed through the area in 1860 while traveling with the Captain Reynolds expedition to Yellowstone. Here, along the Poudre River, this place beckoned: land high enough to stay safe from floods, easy well digging, grass everywhere, and a shallow river crossing for horses.
It would make superb farm land, and sitting along the Overland Stage route, the property’s exposure would draw business. If things got really rough, he already had a neighbor: Laroque Bousque, left, another French-Canadian, had settled directly across the river.
The only snag in the plan
The only snag in this plan was the Native American woman who owned the land Joseph wanted. Her husband was dead however, and it could be she was ready to sell out. Joseph's good looks probably helped seal that deal.
"He was six feet in stature, straight and lithe in form. His complexion was tawny, but clear, his eyes were large, full and flashing, and his hair and beard black as jet."
- The (Fort Collins) Express newspaper,
February 11, 1881
At age 22, he became the proud owner of 160 acres of paradise. Joseph busied himself with the life of a hero, not to mention farming and empire building.
'Torrents of water' plunging like waves
In 1864, the weather got ugly. Winter snows fell deep, and spring melts flooded the lowlands. On June 9th, a rain storm sent torrents of water “plunging like the waves of the sea under the impulse of a gale”, according to Ansel Watrous, the area’s premier historian, left, from whom much of this tale emerged. Camp Collins, the military outpost a few miles up the river from Joseph’s claim, was instantly flooded to the tent rooftops, and soldiers barely escaped with their lives.
Joseph told the bedraggled crew they should move what was left of their camp to a spot south of the river, on his east border. It was high enough to protect from floods, and provide early warning in case any Native Americans, angry over being pushed out by the United States government, attacked. In a letter endorsed by Abraham Lincoln, the acting interior secretary ordered the move, specifically noting Joseph's claim. Perhaps as a thank you, Camp Collins named Joseph and his partner as sutlers (suppliers) to the new outpost. It could also be that Joseph spied an opportunity to attract new customers when he became the first postmaster a year later.
Into the horse business
Camp Collins did not last long, and was abandoned by soldiers in 1866. Ripples of the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered free land to settlers, had finally reached the Colorado Territory and Fort Collins. With Colorado’s 1876 statehood looming, the government threw open the camp property to pre-existing squatters and local entrepreneurs. Joseph, well into breeding and selling horses, in fact, well into any kind of horse-propelled business he could think of, had sold his farm to Henry Forbes, and moved on to acquiring more land, as well as putting Fort Collins on the map.
Love at last
In all the excitement, Joseph finally made room in his life for love. It could have been a fried chicken dinner or a breakfast of pork chops and eggs. We don’t know, but in 1867, while on a freight trip, Joseph discovered the superb cooking and companionship of young Luella, 10 years his junior. Luella worked for her father at his hotel on the Overland Trail in Longmont. The two were married in 1870, the second marriage in Fort Collins' history. In due course, Luella bore Joseph four children.
Sheriff on the hunt
The years saw Joseph’s star on the rise, especially his sheriff's star. Not limiting his politics to launching the Colorado Central Railroad Company, or convincing the populace to make Fort Collins the county seat, Joseph agreed to be the first county sheriff. He distinguished himself with bravery, especially in the matter of chasing down the woman-molester, Happy Jack, who after jail time, escape, and lengthy pursuit, mysteriously “disappeared”.
'Busted and disgusted'
Newspapers followed the pursuits of Joseph’s trotting horses, and a particular horse “Sam” turned heads, sending one writer "busted and disgusted" out of Boulder, Colorado. In other horse pursuits, Joseph’s stage line to Cheyenne wooed customers with advertisements for convenient pick up at local hotels, and the newspaper and family documents duly noted his new livery sign and hay sales.
At one point Joseph paid the highest taxes of anybody in the county. Perhaps he needed a feed store for all of his livestock when he bought what is today Ranch-Way Feeds from Auntie Stone.
50 acres to start a university
Besides helping others get a start in the bustling metropolis of Fort Collins, with an 1878 population of 1,200, Joseph performed an immense act of generosity and donated 50 acres to help build what is today Colorado State University.
If Joseph had planned a career as a pioneer hero, he couldn't have asked for more. But Joseph never expected what happened February 9, 1881.
The horse balked
Coming home from a visit with an ill Mr. Sherwood, who owned land east of Fort Collins, a young horse brought Joseph and Luella's carriage to a halt, refusing to cross the Dry Creek stream. Luella jumped out and urged the team across the stream. Still the young horse balked. Luella returned to the carriage, took over the reins, and Joseph jumped down. He pulled on the problem animal's headstall. The team began to move. As the horses picked up speed, Joseph ran along.
If you know horses, you know that running over rough ground with a horse in tow is difficult. Joseph stumbled and fell.
Luella and her mother halted the team and turned back to Joseph. He lay still. The women went to his side and found him unconscious. With the help of bystanders, they loaded him into the carriage and bore Joseph home.
62 shards of skull
When they laid him down that they discovered the worst: Joseph had been kicked in the head.
“... the fracture was nearly the shape of a horse shoe, one heel calk cutting through the skull just back of the right eyebrow, and the other in a direct line back of the ear: the arc of the shoe extended from those points to a point a little above the turn of the head, or above the temporal bone.”
-- Fort Collins Courier, February 17, 1881
Joseph swung in and out of consciousness. Local doctors pulled 62 shards of skull out of the wound. Joseph’s partner frantically summoned Denver specialists by train, but could not get permission for a special train run because the railroad owner was on vacation. Those who loved Joseph gathered round. At one point he rose and recognized friends and family. He was able to sign his will, but could last no longer. Joseph died February 11, 1881 at age 41. He left behind Luella and their small children.
Lost: The Father of Fort Collins
At Joseph’s funeral, citizens packed the church and poured out into the street. The population of Fort Collins, now 1,356 people give or take a few, produced a procession of mourners a half mile long. We had lost the Father of Fort Collins.
"Joe … was entirely devoted to the interests of Fort Collins and Larimer County. He was always ready to help newcomers get a start here - he would lend them money, fit them out with teams to till the soil, and assist them in a hundred ways,” reported the Fort Collins Express. “’He never thought of Joe,’ said an old friend of his … 'but always of somebody else.’”
If you ask most people today about the French-Canadian named Joseph Messier, they will probably shake their heads. You see, Joseph changed his name when he came to this country. We knew him as Joseph Mason.
Joseph Mason’s grave was relocated in the great 1887 local cemetery move to Grand View Cemetery. The people I've run into in Fort Collins look blank when you mention Joseph Mason. I guess we've pretty much forgotten him, but Wikipedia remembers the Father of Fort Collins. At least we named a street after him. When you ride Fort Collin's new MAX rapid-transit system, look out the window. You are on Mason Street.
Found: The original farm
Joseph’s original farm, the heart of that river parcel he bought more than 150 years ago, exists today at our place, 930 N. Shields St.
A little Googling of Shields Street history will give you your first historic clue with a mention of Joseph Mason and Shields Street. Alvina Desjardins, the granddaughter of Joseph's neighbor, Rock Bush, remembered the property, which "bordered Bush's to the south" in an article she wrote for the April 13, 1987 Fence Post. Rock Bush's farm location is backed up by the 1915 map of the Irrigated Farms of Colorado. (Note: The specific map link, Northwest Quarter -- Townships 6-9 North, Ranges 66W - 69W;, will not load on computers low in RAM.) Joseph Mason and Rock Bush lived in Section 2 of Township 7, Range 69W. When the map was made, a Mr. Kenedy owned our place. To get your bearings, look for T.7N. on the left margin of the map, head right a little bit and stop at the intersection of the Poudre River and Shields Street.
Ansel Watrous references Joseph's farm location in his book, "The History of Larimer County" (p. 320), as well as Joseph's sale of the land to Henry Forbes (p. 216). Ansel would have first-hand knowledge of the property, as his uncle, William Watrous, owned the property for many years, as well. If you use government land ordinance records to look up Henry Forbes, you can see the property on yet another digital map, and you can find Rock Bush's parcel across the river. Joseph's property location is also noted in the Fort Collins History Connection.
In the crosshairs
Fort Collins has spread, and Joseph's farm has shrunk to 19-and-a-half acres. The City of Fort Collins owns much of the former acreage in the form of Martinez Park, city offices and the city yard, which houses its big-truck, big-construction resources.
Joseph's farm is in the crosshairs of a major Shields Street widening by Larimer County (delayed until 2015 due to the undisclosed "historical nature" of several properties in the project), a city sewer connection heading north under the river, city bike trail improvements on its north border, and a housing development on its east border.
If you are walking or driving by, look for the farm at the southeast corner of the Poudre River and North Shields Street. Up the bluff above the river, many of the old buildings peek out. Once the Twin Willows Tea Room, with an old tale all its own, the farm is today Poudre River Stables, where people live daily the fabric of history that Joseph Mason first wove – a love of horses, haying, the harvest, and the land.
John F. Hoffecker, PhD, University of Colorado, Boulder; specialist in archaeology and human paleoecology, for alerting me to the connection between Joseph Mason and this property.
Mark Emery for solving the first clue in the property's history puzzle when he found the Twin Willows Tea Room menu.
Carolyn Blackburn, archivist, City of Greeley Museums, for her help locating the 1915 map of the Irrigated Farms of Colorado.
The archivist on duty at the Discovery Museum who helped me Saturday morning, August 24, 2013, with the Mason Family and Rock Bush vertical files.
ColoradoHistoricNewspapers.org for its wonderful resources.