A History of The Dry

Prior to the establishment of the Dry, African Americans moved from the South seeking better lives in the Midwest.  Racial discrimination was rampant in the South post-Emancipation, and despite African Americans’ new status as free citizens, for a region entrenched in an economy and mindset based on slavery and the oppression of people of color, accepting Black people as equals was not something that happened quickly or easily.  The “exodusters” who fled the South, moved to places like Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas.  It was during this time (1877) that the all African-American town of Nicomdemus was established in Graham County, in western Kansas. The town’s folks initially struggled to get by, and were aided by local Native Americans who shared food with them (Broussard 2013).  By 1880 the town had a population of over 400 people, and during the next half-dozen years established churches, a school, two newspapers, and a number of businesses (Pennington 2000:101). High hopes for Nicodemus dwindled, though, when the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads bypassed the town, quashing the chance for significant growth and prosperity. It was during this era that residents started considering other options elsewhere, casting their eyes to different areas where opportunities might be greater. People like the Sadler and Craig families heard of homesteading options in eastern Colorado, and specifically at a proposed all Black community south of Manzanola, which would come to be known as the Dry.

George W. Swink came to Rocky Ford in 1871 and settled near what was known as the Rocky Ford Crossing on the Arkansas River.  He helped lay out the town of Rocky Ford and was its first mayor.  Swink introduced watermelon and cantaloupe farming to the Rocky Ford area, and was key in the development of irrigated farming, having started an agricultural canal system with the construction of the Rocky Ford Ditch, among others.  He ran a mercantile business, received the first Timber Patent in the area, and acquired a significant amount of farmland. In addition to his local accomplishments, he also served in the Colorado Senate for several terms, beginning in 1893. Two African-American women, Josephine and Lenora Rucker (also referred to in some accounts as Kitty and Jose Rucker [Keck 1999:350]), are said to have worked for Swink, and became key players in the history of The Dry.

Accounts vary: some say Mr. Swink convinced the Rucker sisters to travel back east and persuade family and friends to move to Otero County where they could homestead their own land, instead of share cropping (Alice McDonald, personal communication 2011).  Others say the Ruckers asked the prosperous Swink to help them realize their homesteading community dreams (Pennington 2000:104). Swink promised to extend irrigation ditches from the Apishipa River to the Dry, which would allow farming in an otherwise agriculturally inhospitable environment. Regardless of the specific circumstances, it is believed that the sisters left Otero County in 1910, and the first settlers started arriving at the Dry around 1916 from Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas, including some from Nicodemus. A Manzanola Sun newspaper article dated October 29, 1915, stated that the search for “dry claims” was on the rise and that at least  a dozen people  visited Manzanola the previous week and proceeded south of town to search out desirable land (seemingly in the region of the Dry) (Manzanola Sun 1915b:1).  A week prior, the Pueblo land office reported a record breaking number of homestead land entries (46!) in one day (Manzanola Sun 1915a:1).  An optimistic newspaper reporter stated that these were “the people who will win out over dry years and short corps and who will eventually build an empire from the arid but not unfertile sections of our great state” and another writer explained that new residents from the eastern U.S. abandoned their existing farms for the “superior quality” land that comprises the Colorado plains (Manzanola Sun 1915b:1; Manzanola Sun 1915a:1).

The Dry, while established slightly later, was contemporaneous with better-known African American settlement, Dearfield, located east of Greely on Colorado’s northeastern plains.  Dearfield was inhabited from roughly 1910 to the 1940s and the Dry from 1917 to the 1930s, but the motivation for the creation of the two communities was similar though: the desire for all Black settlements and opportunities for African Americans to own land. Oliver Toussaint Jackson was the founding father of Dearfield, as the Rucker sisters were for the Dry.  Toussaint Jackson, inspired by Booker T. Washington’s book, Up From Slavery, established Dearfield as what he hoped would be a successful agricultural community and haven for the descendants of freed slaves.  Supposedly, at its peak Deerfield had 700 residents (although that figure remains debated. See Noisat 2003:6 and 40) as well as a “lunchroom, a blacksmith shop/garage, a barn pavilion, a water well, a filling station, a grocery store, and a granary (Noisat 2003:6). The two contrasting differences between Dearfield and the Dry are residents of Dearfield had to purchase their land while Dry residents acquired their land through various homestead acts; and Dearfield was an actual town with businesses in addition to homes, while the Dry was comprised strictly of homesteads and a school. There was never an associated town site at the Dry.  Unfortunately the 80 different 2003 test excavation units at Dearfield yielded too little material culture to be able to truly compare and contrast the cultural assemblage at Dearfield with that of the Dry.

Some say up to 50 African American families migrated west to make their homes at the Dry. In 1974, John Doll, of Rocky Ford stated that there were around 20 families at the Dry (Worker 1974:2).  Mr. Doll lived in the vicinity of the Dry during its peak.  Regardless of what the specific initial population numbers were at the Dry, the thought of 160 acres of almost free land offered by the initial Homestead Act of 1862 was enticing, and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 opened up homesteading to areas not readily irrigated and offered 320 acres. The Stock-Raising Act of 1916 allowed homesteaders to claim even more acreage for ranching (640 acres), thus making southeast Colorado attractive for land ownership.  At least a few of the Dry settlers like William W. Roberts Sr. and Lenora Rucker, took advantage of the latter options, and both owned quite a bit of land.  The various homestead acts made available public land and only required that the future owner (any head of household over the age of 21 who had never taken up arms against the U.S.) live on the land for five years, demonstrate that improvements had been made at that time, and file a bit of paperwork and pay a modest filing fee to “prove up” and take full ownership of the land. During this time, the population of African Americans in Colorado almost doubled from 6,215 in 1890 to 11,518 by the time of the 1920 census (Writers Program 1940:n.p.).

Today, Alice (Craig) McDonald of Manzanola and Bobby Craig and Darlene (Craig) Derbigny of La Junta, are the last local descendants of the original settlers of The Dry, which consisted primarily of Black settlers but also included limited numbers of white homesteaders who were already there.  Mrs. McDonald’s mother, Rolan (Dixon) Craig, came to The Dry in 1916 at the age of 18, while her father (Harvey J. Craig) settled in the area after WWI. According to Mrs. McDonald, each family started with the standard 160-acre homestead, indicating that the initial total acreage homesteaded by the Dry residents may have been approximately 8,000 acres, an estimation that is quite close to Frances B. Worker’s statement that the Dry was located on about 12 square miles (Worker 1974:3). Mrs. McDonald stated that newly arrived settlers were astonished by the bleakness of the landscape, particularly its lack of trees.  Nonetheless, the people at The Dry worked hard to make it a successful community and some homesteaders added acreage over time, as allowed by the Enlarged Homestead Act.  Dugouts were common housing types (it is thought that initially Lenora and Josephine both had dugouts), and wood frame houses, modified adobe houses, and cinder block houses and outbuildings also dotted the landscape.

During the good years, there were up to 100 people at the Dry and enough children to necessitate the establishment of a school. Dry residents took the matter to Clinton DeLong, a local businessman who employed some of the men from the Dry (Worker 1974).  DeLong suggested they consult with the local school board; they did and the board agreed to support the founding of a school at the Dry.  The one-room school house was built on Lenora Rucker’s land and started with just eight students but eventually had an enrollment of 31 (Alice McDonald, personal communication 2011; Worker 1974). The school, called the Prairie Valley School, was built in 1915 or 1916 (sources vary), and eight grades were taught initially by a Mr. Pugh (Keck 1999:351; Pennington 2000:103).  James L. Pugh was one of the Dry’s original homesteaders and proved up on his land in January 1922 and November 1926 (Boyd 2010). Pugh only taught for several months and after that Lulu (Sadler) Craig, one of the original settlers at the Dry, taught at the school until it closed in 1933.  Many of those students eventually when on to college and became quite successful.  Once the school closed, young people from the Dry attended school in Manzanola. Rolan Craig would drive her children and the Jackson children to and from school every day, and received a $30 stipend from the school district for this service (Pennington 2000:105).

The little school also served as a community center at the Dry, Lulu (Sadler) Craig started a literary society that met there, and the school also became the Dry church (Keck 1999:351).  The Mount Zion Baptist Church in La Junta donated six bibles to the Dry “church” and helped the residents start a Sunday school (Pennington 2000:102). A church in Manzanola generously donated an organ, making it seem like a true place of worship. The Hubbard Chapel, established in 1921 in La Junta, was another all Black congregation that was closely linked with the Dry, and Lulu Craig was a founding member and first deaconess of the Hubbard Chapel. Her daughter, Mae Crowell, was an ordained minister and acted as assistant pastor at the Hubbard Chapel between 1960 and 1977 (Keck 1999:174).

Apparently there was initially tension between the Dry homesteaders and some of the white ranchers who were already there, and the homesteader’s irrigation ditches were repeatedly vandalized and ultimately abandoned (Pennington 2000:104).  This animosity was short lived and limited, and according to descendants and a 1993 interview with former Dry settler Rolan Craig, the Dry homesteaders developed strong personal and business relationships with the local people and were accepted into the Manzanola community with kindness, at a time when the KKK was active throughout Colorado, including in southeast Colorado.  The only Klan activity that Rolan Craig could recall were two incidences that had nothing to do with the African American people from the Dry (Craig 1993).  She recalled an instance when the Klan burned a cross on the lawn of a white boy who had been misbehaving at school, and the second Klan related story she remembered was when the Manzanola Klan chapter donated money to a local preacher so he could afford to attend a religious retreat.  At a time when the Klan had a real presence in Front Range cities, in the Manzanola area community bonds seemed to have extended to everyone regardless of their color or ethnic background, and Alice McDonald recalls that known Klansmen hired men from the Dry, including her own father, Harvey Craig Sr. (Alice McDonald, personal communication, 2011).  She said that the man her father worked for even fired other (white) men who balked when he allowed Mr. Craig to wash up in his home and eat lunch indoors with him.

Men from the Dry were welcomed into the local cattleman’s association, while others joined the Turkey Growers Association, and Lester Swink, the son of George Swink, was known to share his tools with the Dry residents and generously allowed them to haul water from his well (Keck 1999:351; Worker 1974). Local merchants offered the Dry residents credit when needed, as well as jobs (Craig 1993). For a time the little community thrived in its own way.  The settlers started life at the Dry as farmers, and collectively built George Swink’s promised irrigation system linked to the Apishipa River, to the west.  Times were not necessarily easy, but many families successfully grew peas, beans, and corn, kept cattle, pigs, and chickens for meat, milk, butter, and eggs, and locally grown berries, peaches, and apples were available sometimes free for the picking or in exchange for work (Pennington 2000:104; Worker 1974).

For entertainment people held house parties (going from home to home), dances, which often included neighboring white ranchers and farmers, and they listened to music, had picnics and took outings to nearby lakes and other bodies of water (Alice McDonald, personal communication, 2011; Pennington 2000:104).

While enjoyment of alcoholic beverages may not have been the norm at social events, its presence was not necessarily altogether absent, and during prohibition Dry landowner Henry Bruce and his brother O.M. (Ola) and a third man, John Green, were arrested for making bootleg whiskey at the Dry (Manzanola Sun 1920a & b). The three were only caught because the large quantities of raisins and prunes that they purchased in town made authorities suspicious. The still and two gallons of the dried fruit home brew were discovered in a 4:00 a.m. raid at Henry’s dugout. It was determined that none of the moonshine had been sold, and that Mr. Green was the mastermind, rather than the Bruce brothers.

There is no doubt that water was a crucial and limited resource for the residents of the Dry. In a 1916 document from Henry Dixon’s homestead claim paperwork, Mr. Dixon stated, “…at one time the Swink Ditch and Reservoir Company did propose to irrigate this land from one of its laterals, and had sold some water rights in the neighborhood, but . . . since the system has been abandoned and water rights canceled for the reasons that said company realized they were undertaking to supply too much land; that this high, dry open prairie land fit only for grazing and dry farming, [is] not susceptible of irrigation…” (H. Dixon homestead patent records from the Library of Congress, 1916).

In 1923, the primary irrigation dam on the Apishipa River collapsed (Keck 1999: 351; Alice McDonald, personal communication, 2011).  Some say the collapse was caused by foul play by white ranchers; a more likely explanation is that it was destroyed by the massive 1923 flood. The loss of the dam made farming at the Dry all but impossible, and any irrigation ditches that may have still been in use were abandoned.

Realizing the futility of attempting to continue farming, the majority of the homesteaders left during the mid-1920s and early 1930s.  Some may have returned to the states they came from, but others remained in Colorado and moved to areas such as Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Denver, including the Five Points neighborhood. Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) in Pueblo, was well known for hiring men of all ethnicities and hired a number of African American men during this time, and in fact, Pueblo had a thriving Black community by the 1930s-40s with eight churches, and a number of social and fraternal organizations  (Writers Program 1940:n.p.).  In 1930, Denver had an African American population of 7,204, Colorado Springs 965, and Pueblo 1,305.  Lulu Craig stated that during the depression, all of the young men from the Dry moved away, seeking work elsewhere, and many got jobs with the W.P.A., and Alice McDonald indicated than many men got jobs with the railroad (Alice McDonald, personal communication, 2011; Pennington 2000:103, 105).  After this period of hardship and abandonment, the community never recovered (Pennington 2000:103, 105).  The dustbowl was an equally difficult time at the Dry, and Rolan Craig recalled having to haul water daily from the No. 1 Swink Reservoir or the Highline Canal (located several miles southeast of the Dry, east of County Road 11), just to keep their home gardens and livestock watered (McDonald n.d.:5; Scott 2001:6).  The dust storms ravaged the Dry with endless winds, blowing dirt and debris into blinding sand blizzards, and generating hail storms that tore shingles off of roofs and broke windows. Few stayed beyond these especially brutal years (approximately six families), and those who did switched to ranching; farming was limited to household gardens (Keck 1999: 351; Alice McDonald, personal communication, 2011). As an interesting aside, southeastern Colorado experienced the longest sustained wet period on record between 1905 and 1921 and another wet period lasted from 1940-46 (Gilmore and Slaughter 2013). Former Dry resident Alice McDonald, who still lives in the area and was only a toddler during the Dust Bowl, recalls that it was much wetter at the Dry when she was growing up, and included snowy winters. She said that some years they “wouldn’t see the ground until May” (Alice McDonald, personal communication, 2011).

Almost all of the homesteads were patented in 1921-23 (see Boyd 2010), five years after the first settlers are said to have arrived at The Dry.  The working assumption is that most of the settlers had abandoned the area by the 1930s with the effects of the Dustbowl being felt all along southeastern Colorado.  Nonetheless, there were three settlers who had patent dates from the 1930s: Grant Stark proved up on 360 acres adjacent to and on both sides of State Highway 10 in 1931, Harvey J. Craig proved up on approximately 120 acres on April 11, 1934 (in addition to the homestead that they had lived on since 1917), and one of the Dry’s founding mothers, Lenora Rucker, originally patented land in 1923, but then added 320 more acres south of Highway 10 in May of 1936.  Her 1936 patent is thought to be the last of the Dry settler land patents. Although the Dry was mostly abandoned by the mid-twentieth century, a few original settlers stayed until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some of the last original settlers at the Dry were Viola (Craig) Mitchell, her sister Hattie (Craig) Burney, their mother Lulu (Sadler) Craig, Henry Bruce, and Rolan Craig. Descendants of some of the families still retain ownership of the family land today (according to Alice McDonald these are relatives of Narcissa Smith, the Garland family, Noah Smith’s niece, and Craig family descendants).  As of autumn 1974, when Frances B. Worker interviewed Lulu (Sadler) Craig, Lulu’s house was still standing, but two other houses at the Dry had recently burned to the ground that past  September; vandalism was suspected, and Lulu’s house eventually met the same fate in 1998 (Pennington 2000: 103).

By Michelle A. Slaughter, RPA,  Alpine Archaeological Consultants

With contributions from Dores Cruz, PhD., Rebecca Goodwin, Jennifer Moon and Jessica Unger.

Works Cited

Boyd, Gregory A.

2010   Family Maps of Otero County, Colorado: With Homesteads, Roads, Waterways, Towns, Cemeteries, Railroads, and More. Arphax Publishing Company, Norman, OK.

Broussard, Antoinette
2013    Antoinette Broussard website. Lulu Craig article. http://antoinettebroussard.com/pdfs/LuluSadlerCraig.pdf. Accessed March 5.

Craig, Rolan

1993   Interview by Frances Taylor Underwood.  October 18. Audio tape, on file at the Fowler Historical Society, Fowler, CO and CD, on file at the Colorado State Historical Fund, Denver, CO.

Gilmore, Kevin and Michelle Slaughter

2013   Push and Pull on the Plains: Measuring Human Response to Environmental and Economic Factors in Eastern Colorado Using U.S. Post Offices as an Annually Resolved Population Proxy. Paper presented at the Colorado Council of Professional Archaeologists 35th Annual Meeting, Denver, CO.

Keck, Frances Bollacker

1999   A History of Otero and Crowley Counties, Colorado. Otero Press, La Junta, CO.

Manzanola Sun

1915a  More Dry Farmers Coming. Manzanola Sun 22 Ocotber:1. Manzanola, CO.

1915b  Many Homesteaders Coming. Manzanola Sun 29 Ocotber:1. Manzanola, CO.

Noisat, Brad

2003   An Archaeological Assessment of the Dearfield Site, Weld County, Colorado.  Prepared by Niwot Archaeological Consultants, Inc. for the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center, Colorado Preservation, Inc., and the Colorado State Historical Fund. On file at History Colorado’s State Historical Fund.

Pennington, Betty L.

2000   Manzanola Colorado: The Biggest Little Town in the Arkansas Valley.  Privately published, Las Animas, CO.

Worker, Frances B.

1974   Original site form for The Dry (5OT.121). On file at the Colorado Office of

Archaeology and Historic Preservation, History Colorado Center, Denver.

Writers Project

1940   Negro Pioneers: Interviews. Books 1 and 2.  On file at the Stephen H. Hart Library, History Colorado, Denver.


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