History of Otis, Washington County, Colorado

Otis in the Olden Days

The following article appeared in the Otis Independent Thursday July 29, 1976. It was composed by Joan Gartin, a teacher in the Otis schools for a number of years. It will prove of interest to our readers:

With Colorado celebrating its centennial this year, many people have no doubt done some reminiscing about our little town of Otis. The following article may refresh your memory concerning similar bits of history that has made Otis what it is.

Many local people have contributed valuable information to various Colorado History classes which I have taught concerning the growth and development of Otis. This information is not necessarily complete in every detail, but it does give us an opportunity to see that Otis, too, has played an important part in Colorado's history.

The information related here brings us up to the middle of this century. Future interviews will hopefully give us interesting data concerning Otis' last two decades.

Until the railroad pushed west, it was difficult for most people to move out here in the plains to establish homes. In May of 1882, however, the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad track was laid through Otis and connected the plains areas with Denver. After that time new families were able to come West and take advantage of the Homestead Act which was passed in 1862.

By the Homestead Act public lands became easier to obtain. Any head of a family could become the owner of a farm or homestead of 160 acres if he lived on it and worked the land for five years. Mrs. Rollie Williams stated, "In 1880 [misremembered-Ed], when my mother turned twenty-one, she and my dad came to Otis and took adjoining claims. They filed for their claims in the morning and were married that same afternoon." In this manner the Charles Shedds, as well as others possibly, put a half section of land together, which gave them a more workable unit. The Homestead Act was a real opportunity for the early pioneers to get land of their own, thus, becoming the real backbone of our community.

The town of Otis was founded in 1886. It has often been said that the town was named after Dr. Otis. Little has been discovered about him. Some people say there never was a Dr. Otis. Others say if he did live here, it must have been for a short period of time. William H. Fisch, one of the people we interviewed, recalled that there were only five buildings here in Otis when he came in 1906, the depot, the Whitehurst Store and home, the church and parsonage.

Mrs. Minnie Lisle said that in 1891-1892 conditions were ideal for farming and farmers had oats that made 50-60 bushels to the acre and the corn was taller than the horses' heads. But in 1893 a drought started and some farmers had to look elsewhere for jobs. Then in 1894 swarms of grasshoppers plagued the area. Mrs. Lisle said, "The grasshoppers were about two inches long and so thick you could hardly walk outside without stepping on them. They were so thick they would crawl right up the fence posts, then fly down the other side. You couldn't leave your rakes or shovels out side because the grasshoppers would nibble holes in the handles."

About this time some people by the name of Stewart lived three- quarters of a mile south of town. They had a little boy that died so they donated a part of their land for the Otis cemetery. The second person buried in the cemetery was Minnie Lisle's little three year old brother, Ray Middlecoff.

Mrs. Lisle did an excellent job of tracing the educational system that existed here in Otis down through the years. Every mother was responsible to teach the family members how to cook, sew, and clean house. The father of the household taught his sons how to farm, repair machinery and care for livestock. This was basic to the educational system; but then a formal education was desired by some and soon schools were started.

Here in this community the early schools had no desks or chairs. Therefore, the families had to bring chairs from home for their children. In those early days in the West, books were a premium. Therefore, each family had to bring to school any books they might have at home. For instance, one family might have a geography book, another reader, or a history book, which was shared with the school. The teacher would read aloud to the students from these books and would also teach the students simple arithmetic as well as reading. Families often took turns bringing the drinking water to school. The early schools often had to have a fence around them to keep the cattle from rubbing on the walls of the building. At first a school term was only about three months long. Soon a four and five month school term came into being. And of course, since those days a longer school term has gradually come into existence.

The country schools were scattered throughout the community. Most students walked or rode horseback to school. The teacher would often room and board with various families of the school district. The first school built here in Otis was a two-story building built in the northwest corner of town. The top story of the building was never finished; however, the children used it for a play area or a place to have parties, etc.

The town of Otis was growing and new businesses were being started. From Merlini Steel's fine memory we learned that Otis grew immensely from 1915 to 1920. In fact Otis had 23 houses in 1915 and 75 houses in 1920. The business area of the town had a hotel run by Lasy, a barbershop by Ramsey. Markham's Grocery Store, the Wilson Brothers and Fred Huston controlled the bank. Lisle and Lester operated the repair shop. There was a pool hail over the repair shop. The Whitehursts still had their grocery store and Hoch and Haverland had a lumberyard. Hatch had a feed store and Rehders had a hardware store. The Otis Independent was established in 1911 by Mr. and Mrs. R. B. Cooley. Crawfords had a drug store. The Akron-Otis Lumber Yard was located about where it is now. There were two feed barns, a blacksmith shop, a rooming house, and a grain elevator. The present elementary school building was built at the north end of Main Street in 1916. The old two-story frame building in the northwest part of town had served the school needs up until this time.

The flu epidemic of 1918 took several lives even though Dr. J. A. Wood went day and night treating the flu patients. The schools were closed for six weeks or more and there was a ban on all public gatherings.

Farm machinery was being improved about this time, too. Up until this time the machinery was pulled by horses and the farmer walked behind driving the horses. Finally, riding machinery came into being and this was a tremendous improvement for the farmer. Later of course, the tractor replaced the draft horses.

More and more people were deciding Otis might make a good place to make a living and to raise a family. Getting a good water well was always one of the first objectives of the newcomer. The Cawthra brothers were responsible for digging many of the wells in the Otis and Platner communities.

Since more were arriving, progress was quite inevitable. The Era Holsclaws said, "Almost every day you could see a new building looming up on the horizon It was really exciting."

More people called for more business places. In 1920 there were two banks. Bert McKenzie was an executive officer of the First National Bank and maintained an executive position for 37 years. There was now two drug stores, three barber shops, one bakery, two pool halls, two blacksmith shops, one clothing store, three cream stations, and a couple grocery stores. There was also an ice plant and a creamery combined. Silent movies were quite the thing in the picture show building. The hotel was under construction at this time. Two garages sold new cars. There were also two companies that sold machinery. There were three cafes in Otis at this time. As you can see, the Otis business area was flourishing in the twenties. Otis even had their own undertaker, T. J. Rehder.

Most of the farmers of the area were quite self-sustaining. They had cows, pigs, chickens and a large garden to insure their family plenty to eat. They used to make their own butter and sell cream. After the invention of the cream separator, it made easier for the farmer to bring the cream in five gallon cream cans to the depot to be shipped to Denver.

Mrs. Lisle recalled the first cars as being a funny contraption which resembled a carriage without a tongue or team to pull it. There was a lever that came up from the floorboard to steer it with. The first person to own one around these parts was a man by the name of Dr. Bilsborrow of Yuma. Model T's soon came into existence and naturally was a need to improve the roads.

The community was demanding a better education for their young people about this time and it seemed feasible to build a high school. In the meantime some families sent their sons or daughters to live with relatives in Akron or Yuma so that they could go to high school. Otis provided high school courses to those desiring this type of an education by utilizing various buildings around town such as the upper floor of Crawford's Drug Store, the basement of the Methodist Church etc. Otis presented its first candidate, Daisy Wells, for graduation in 1921.

Soon after this the present high school building was built and occupied in 1923. Since there was no gymnasium, high school athletics were held in the grade school gym until the 1930's when the gymnasium- auditorium was built with WPA funds.

Country schools were a very big part of our school system. It's almost unbelievable how one teacher could teach all eight grades. Of course, the older students often helped with the younger ones. Many things can be said about the one-room school house. Children learned how to utilize time and how to be creative. They learned to respect one another. Self-discipline didn't take long to learn since the parents were right behind the teacher with the switch if need be. Not to he overlooked was the amount of work it took to get the children off to school. Suzie Kuntz said "Many a day I had to pack nine lunch buckets and finding something to put in each was quite an item."

Mr. Bert McKenzie told of an incident that prompted the organization of the Otis Fire Department in 1921. He said he had criticized A F. Hutchinson, the mayor, for having such an unorganized group of men fighting the fires. One time when they were called to a fire, they discovered that the hose had been wound up wrong and the fire was well under way before the firemen got the hose unwound to get to the nozzle end. So, Mr. Hutchinson said to Mr. McKenzie, "Well, if you think it's so bad, why don't you start your own fire department?" And so the McKenzies put lots of effort into building a good fire department He was the first fire chief and it was Mrs. McKenzie's idea to deliver sacks of candy to the children at Christmas time.

The people of the era learned to provide their own entertainment. Dancing was an enjoyable pastime. Mr. William Fisch said he played his violin for dances about once a week. Many of these dances were held in the homestead one-half mile west of the cemetery. Harry Huston said many people used to dance in Yuma at the Scheede Hall. Other entertainment was centered around the church and school. People attended literaries, spelldowns, and box suppers. Big celebrations were customary for the Fourth of July and Christmas. Friends and neighbors spent Sundays visiting, pitching horse shoes, playing baseball, or playing cards.

The nation suffered a depression in 1929. The drought was severe and dust storms ensued. At one time the dust got so thick that it became dark, and the street lights had to be turned on. The chickens even went to roost in the middle of the day. Many of the fences were completely covered by dirt. Again many farmers could not make a living and had to abandon their farms. Mr. Otto Rutz said that his 300 acres of wheat yielded six bushels to the acre. Once he sold forty shoats for $18 and sold shelled corn for 10c a bushel.

The depression was hard on the various businesses of Otis, too. Of the eight banks in the county, only two survived these hard times. These were the First National Bank of Otis and the bank at Akron.

LeMoyne Wolfe remembered that the dirt storms of the 30's were so bad and came up so quickly, that they couldn't get home from school many a day. He said, "Some days it would get pitch dark and we couldn't even see the kid in the next row. We would have to sit in our desk all day long. Usually towards evening the wind would start letting up, and our dads would get together and come get us." The depression and the drought certainly affected everyone in this community.

In the 1930's a new car cost about $500 and in 1940 a new Chevrolet cost $1000. Most of the tires were very poor for many of them were made out of old used tires. It was not too unusual to have six or seven boots in one tire. New tires cost about eight dollars then. Wages and prices were in accordance with each other.

During the thirties jobs were hard to get. Often times a girl would work for a family. She was called a hired girl. She would get board and room and a small wage. Boys would often work for a farmer, at a service station or for the county. The county road men didn't come in every night like they do now. They had sort of a trailer house that they bathed and slept in. They generally didn't come to town until Friday night.

About this time the state was building a better road through Otis. So even the farmers hired out. Each farmer was allowed to work on this road a certain number of days a month providing he bring a team of horses and a fresno. The government was trying to get everybody some work so there wouldn't be so many people on relief.

During the early forties there was a lot of war talk. At first it seemed like that was clear overseas, a long ways away. But after December of 1941, it became very real for local young men. The draft was started and every man between the age of 18-35 had to register for the Draft. Many local men volunteered to serve in one of the branches of the armed forces. Suzie Kuntz surely set some type of a record for having eight sons serve in the armed forces.

Many commodities were rationed during the war. Some of the things that were rationed were sugar, coffee, meat, shoes, tires and gasoline. LeMoyne Wolfe quoted, "We were allowed three gallons of gas a week. I remember how I had to give up the sugar in my coffee. Mothers had to learn to bake without sugar." Mr. Wolfe said that people those days worked awfully hard. He felt that people then tried to give the employer an honest day's work. People seemed to be quite proud of a days work well done.

During the forties most people had good crops. The prices were good too, as it was wartime. Most machinery was being improved as well as other methods of transportation. More roads were being oiled at this time, therefore, making travel easier. Thus, with better roads, people often shopped in neighboring towns. Possibly this was the beginning of fate for the small town, U.S.A.

During the late 1940's and early 1950's the farms were starting to get bigger. Bigger farmers were starting to buy out the smaller farmer. The empty houses on the farms were being moved into Otis. They've been remodeled and you can't believe how nice they look now.

Some of the business places in Otis in the late 40's and 50's were two garages that sold new cars. Wash Brothers had a grocery store on the east side of Main Street in the building closest to the railroad tracks. There was a beauty shop next to that building for a time. Edith Crouch operated a variety store on the east side of the street, too. Oliver Cawthra had a grocery store and locker plant on Highway 34. Arterburn's Store a combination grocery and dry goods store, was located just north of the hotel. Waxman-Simpson had a similar store on the east side of Main Street. Etters operated a service station and garage located at the intersection of Highway 34 and Main, which they sold later to Ison Oil company.

Otis also had a theatre, a roller skating rink, a jewelry store a hardware store owned by the Rehders, the lumberyard, several service stations, a newspaper office, and several churches. The post office was located on Highway 34 behind the newspaper office. The First National Bank was located on the corner of the main intersection. The pool hall was on the opposite corner. The VFW Hall was just south of where the post office is now. Otis had the services of a doctor at various times, namely Dr. A. T. Waski and Dr. Coleman. An influential citizen and leader of Otis at this time was Hardy Owens. He was a registered pharmacist and owned the drug store for several years. Nora Mahan was the mayor of Otis for many years. She had a dress shop just south of the drug store.

It's surprising how many business places were in Otis at this time. There were two farm equipment dealers, who sold International Harvester and Massey-Ferguson equipment. There was a dry cleaning shop where the fire hail is now and Don Hiatt had an appliance store just north of that. There was also a shoe repair shop and Schliesefsky's hardware and variety store. There were two blacksmith shops, Jess Lanning and Newton. There were at least two or three cafes here most of the time, one of which housed the tavern. There were, no doubt, other places of business too, but certainly Otis' business district was booming.

It wasn't long, however, when many of these places of business faded from the scene. Competition in prices and better methods of transportation and much improved roads beckoned many people to venture farther from home to spend that dollar.

About the middle of the fifties this area experienced a serious drought. It was very dry and the plight of the farmer and rancher was at stake. LeMoyne Wolfe stated, "When I delivered gas to Cope, I would leave here before daylight so that I would get back by nine o'clock or so because it seemed the wind would come up about nine or ten in the morning. If I didn't make it home early I would often have to come home by way of Yuma. South of Yuma is grassland and it didn't blow as much as the farmland south of Otis." Later in that decade we started receiving more moisture and the crop outlook was better.

Of course, there is much more to say about Otis and the fine people who have made this community a good place to live and be proud of. Hopefully future interviews will reveal much about our community of the last two decades.

These pages are © 2002 & 2008 Lee C. Zion