The oldest town in Colorado is celebrating its 165th birthday this year.
San Luis, a farming town in the scenic San Luis Valley, was established by Spanish settlers from New Mexico in 1851. It predates Colorado becoming a territory or state.
Residents who grew up in San Luis, and those who still live there, say it is a very special place.
Humberto Maestas, one of the town’s more famous residents, told Denver7 that San Luis is still home for many people who moved away in search of jobs.
“They’re still connected here,” he said.
Maestas, a sculptor by trade, says he runs into people all the time who say they’re “from San Luis.”
“I looked at this one particular person and said, ‘Well who’s your family?’ and he said, ‘Well my great grandparents. I’ve never been there, but I’m still from San Luis.’ So a lot of people still hold a connection to this small town.”
When asked what makes San Luis so special, Maestas replied, “We have found our unique identity. Being descendants of the Spanish Conquest. It’s not a pretty story actually, but people came here to find a way to make a living.”
He said they were farmers and ranchers who came to settle the land.
“Most of the families that came here were given, or purchased land from Charles Beaubien, a.k.a. Carlos Bobian, who held title to the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant.
A mural on the side of Maestas’ Gallery depicts the culture. It shows the row crops that were grown, farmers irrigating those crops using the same methods they learned in Europe and branding cattle.
Maestas designed and built the famous Stations of the Cross, which were placed on the hill just west of town.
They are perhaps, San Luis’ best known tourist attraction.
“They were actually a commission by the church,” he said. “Originally, they were going to be small bas relief (where sculpture is carved so it’s only slightly higher than the flat background) that were going to be placed around the church yard.”
He said the church purchased some land next to the town and the priest thought the sculptures should be placed up on the hill.
Instead of bas relief, the sculptures ended up being life-size bronze castings.
“Each sculpture is site specific,” he said, “specifically made to fit the location they’re in.”
The project made a name for Maestas, who now keeps very busy sculpting religious figures for other churches in other states.
Oldest Business in Colorado
San Luis boasts the oldest continuously operating business in Colorado, R&R Market.
The owner, Felix Romero, still runs the store that his great, great grandfather started in 1857.
“We’re proud of that,” he said. “We’re a proud people. Hopefully we can maintain that, but you know how things are (with younger people moving away for job opportunites,) it’s getting harder and harder to keep things alive anymore.”
Romero says the store was rebuilt after a fire in 1947.
“We added the second floor for some apartments,” he said. “But we still have part of the original structure.”
He pointed to an adobe wall in the back room.
Like that wall, Romero is old school. He frowns on attempts to change the community.
“I tell people, ‘You come to a place because you like it. You want to move in because you like it.’ But most of them come and want to change it and we say ‘No. Hell no, it’s not going to happen as long as we can help it.”
Romero said people are surprised when he tells them, “We don’t want Taco Bell's or McDonald's here. We want to keep what we have.”
The proprietor told Denver7 that doesn’t mean they don’t want tourists.
“We love tourists,” he said. “We love people coming in, but… (he then motioned with his hand for them to move on.)
Long Time Resident
Emilio Lobato, Jr. is one of five generations of his family that call the San Luis Valley, home.
“Everywhere we go, we ask, ‘Where are you from? We’re from San Luis,’” he said, indicating the pride many people feel hailing from this part of Colorado.
“There’s a special attachment to this place.
Lobato said it’s a great place to grow up.
“We have great weather,” he said. “No tornadoes, no hurricanes, no great floods or whatever.”
Lobato said his grandfather was among the first dozen people to register livestock brands.
“They also decided to register ditches for water rights,” he said. “A German attorney told them their effort wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. He told them they had to petition the courts, so they did.”
Water was on the minds of many early settlers.
A state marker along the People’s Ditch, on the south side of town, states that it is the oldest continuously used irrigation ditch in Colorado, with Priority Decree No. 1 dating from April 10, 1852.
The 80-year-old Lobato said his grandfather came from France.
“I asked my dad once, ‘How come my grandfather went all over the United States looking for a place to live and he chose this place?’ He said, ‘Look around. Look at the people. They’re nice, they’re gentle. They’re hard working. And the land is good. It’s very fertile land with good water.’”
Lobato said San Luis’ heyday was likely in the 20s.
“They called it the Roaring Twenties. There was prosperity everywhere,” he said. “Now, there are few jobs.”
About 630 people call the small town home. That’s down from about 1,205 in the 1940 census.
Lobato believes things have stabilized.
He said some people are buying up land in the valley to cultivate hemp.
He said there are mixed feelings about that.
He recalled working as a director for the War on Poverty.
“They told me, ‘in 5 years, San Luis is going to be a ghost town.’ I told them, ‘You don’t know San Luis.’
He said the people will struggle, but they will persevere, because it is their home.
Editor's Note: La Voz, Colorado's #1 Hispanic-owned bilingual publication is a partner of Denver7. You can read more about the town of San Luis here.