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The Men Behind the Courthouse

The Men Behind the Courthouse

by Rachel Ehnert, Communications Specialist for Weld County

Today, it’s hard to imagine Weld County without its stunning limestone and marble courthouse—it’s the most prominent and well-known building in the county. However, of course, it wasn’t always there. Before that impressive structure was built, a smaller red-brick structure existed, which was quickly becoming too small to accommodate court and county operations.

Despite this increasingly problematic issue, the new courthouse almost wasn’t built. Because of a neighboring county’s disastrous attempt at building a new courthouse in the decade before, residents were understandably cautious. See, this county had let the interest of the construction costs get out of hand, resulting in a doubling of the overall cost of their structure. And, as this had happened only ten or so years before Weld County began plans for its own new courthouse, the debacle was still fresh in the minds of taxpayers.

Thanks to the insight and responsible choices of the three sitting commissioners, however, the structure was complete with beautiful detailing and absolutely no long-term debt. Today, the structure still stands proud with no foundational cracks—a true testament to the quality of the design and construction of the building.

But, who were these champions of our courthouse? Who can we thank for this “jewel of the county,” which still draws admiration and is still in use a century later? George A. Hodgson, W.C. Levis, and T.E. Rowe were the sitting county commissioners at the time of the courthouse’s design and construction (with Hodgson having retired from his position just a few months before the opening ceremony). But their most recognizable accomplishment, the Weld County Courthouse, is far from their only. These men lived rich lives shaped not only by their positions as county commissioners but also by their Frontier lifestyles.

George A. Hodgson

George was born with vibrant red hair on March 2nd, 1854, in Iowa County, Wisconsin. When he was a young man (around twenty), he traveled to Colorado with his mother, father, brother, and sister by a thirty-wagon-long ox team. The family hoped to take advantage of the cheap land prices in the West and begin a family farming operation. It took 85 days to reach St. Vrain County (the precursor to today’s Weld County), and at the time, all that existed in the area was a post office and the county seat (a small log cabin on the Lumry property was the acting courthouse at the time). The family settled with five or six other families near the town of Platteville.

While his father, David, worked on improving his farmland (and was one of — if not the — first homesteader to put an irrigation ditch on his property) and served as the first official county clerk for St. Vrain (Weld) County, George took to educational pursuits. He studied at home in Platteville and later spent two years at college in Boulder, making him perhaps the most educated man in the area. Because of this, he quickly found work with the county as a surveyor, a position he stayed in for two years, and by all accounts loved, as he was able to travel and move about as he pleased. 

George, commonly described as energetic and restless, was not content forever as a surveyor. He changed to agricultural pursuits, and purchased the family farm from his father, along with adjacent farmland. By the end of his life, George acquired upwards of 400 acres of land for himself. Thanks largely to this large accrual of land, George became a prominent face in the cattle industry of the area and even grew the first beets to be loaded onto an automobile for transport in Platteville.

However, like his surveying career before, George grew tired of agriculture and decided to run for local office. He ran an ad in the 1902 local Greeley Tribune to encourage residents to give him their votes, which read: “No haphazard person can make a good commissioner, and to the credit of Weld none have ever been elected. Let the voters keep to the fixed standard of excellence established and vote for Mr. Hodgson.” George, something like a celebrity in the area (thanks to his exuberant personality and impressive professional pursuits) was easily elected.

During his time as commissioner, George had some of the greatest adventures of his life. On one occasion, in 1914, he and his fellow commissioners were traveling by automobile to inspect roads in the northern part of the county. As they passed through a gate and onto private property, a man emerged from the tall grass with a gun pointed at the commissioners. The man order the commissioners off his property and said he was tired of people sneaking onto his land. George explained that they were the county commissioners and were passing through on county business. The man did not lower his gun but instead pointed it directly at George’s head. George explained again the nature of their trip and why they required passage through the man’s land. After George’s second explanation, the man, S.T. Horn, was charmed. He lowered his weapon and even invited the men back to his cabin for supper. 

Later that same year, George was traveling by horseback a few miles outside of Greeley when he came upon a seemingly dead man in his path. The man, A.J. Wilcox, was a Civil War veteran who was on his way from Palmer Lake to Laramie, Wyoming, where he planned to live at the Veteran’s Home . However, Wilcox had only enough funds to afford a train ticket to Greeley. When he arrived in Greeley, he had only 64 cents to his name; 50 cents of which he used to buy boarding for the night. When he awoke, he made up his mind to walk from Greeley to Laramie, having only 14 cents left to his name. However, the 71-year-old veteran made it only a few mile outside of Greeley before collapsing from exhaustion.

Luckily, George happened to be traveling in the area and spotted the man. He took him back to his office in Greeley, where he was given food and water. With help from his fellow commissioners, George paid for the man’s train ticket to Laramie.

Upon his death in 1946, the Greeley Tribune printed his obituary, which opened with the words: “In the death of Mr. Hodgson, Weld County lost one it’s most respected and colorful pioneers.” He was 85 years old.

W. C. Levis

William C. Levis was born in 1861 and was perhaps the most private of all the commissioners of the time—a farmer, it seems he was more content out of his commissioner’s office than in it. In fact, in a 1911 copy of the Routt County Republicans, William was recorded encouraging local farmers to help the county road crew construct a road from Greeley to Estes Park. “While he and the crew under Commissioner Levis will do the heaviest work,” the article read, “farmers will assist in improvements in their respective neighborhoods.” William did not just instruct his crews on the road construction—he was out there with them, engaging in the labor with his own two hands.

In fact, William is perhaps most well-known for his support of the “good roads movement” of the time, which encourages infrastructure development as a means of economic development. This movement was spurred by the nation’s move from train transportation to automobile transportation and gained huge support in rural areas specifically. However, the act of repairing or constructing roads throughout the county for automobile travel (rather than horse and wagon) was a massive project and by 1908 local governments were hiring convicts to do much of this work.

So, in 1912, William met with the Greeley Commercial Club president D.J. Crockett to discuss the possibility of employing Warden Thomas Tynan’s “road gang of convicts” for work in Weld County, at the rate of 30 cents per head, per day. William’s fellow commissioners approved this agreement, and on October 20th, 1912, 32 convicts arrived at a tent camp on the S.D. Marvel ranch 10 miles west of Greeley. Work started on October 25th, and by November 9th, two miles of a 30-foot wide “perfectly crowned” and graded stretch or road was completed. Crews averaged one mile per week, with one crew working west toward Loveland and the other crew working east toward Greeley starting from the Weld/Larimer County line. A proposal was made to gravel the new road, but no state funds were available. William and his fellow commissioners worked with two railroad companies, the Union Pacific and the Great Western, to get gravel free of charge from their gravel beds at Dent and Windsor.

William, by all accounts, was intimately involved in each of these projects and was invested in being a hands-on commissioner. Another example of this is William’s trip to Fort Collins around the time of his convict road construction project. A 1912 issue of the Fort Collin’s Weekly Courier cited that William had personally traveled to Fort Collins to inspect a new shipment of books they had received. If the books were up to his standard, he was recorded as saying he was interested in purchasing some for the Weld County, as well. Though he could have sent someone to review these books for him, or simply sent a letter inquiring on the quality of said books, William himself traveled to Larimer County to determine quality.

When William wasn’t building roads to Estes Park, traveling to Fort Collins to review the quality of their books, or nearly getting gunned down by an angry homesteader (see Commissioner Hodgson’s biography), he was inventing. Yes! William was an avid inventor, but it’s his invention for saving radiator water in a car that earned him an article in the 1914 Greeley Tribune. “[Levis] arrived at the commissioner meeting with the new device in place,” the article read. “He cut a watermelon in half and placed it over the top of his car radiator, allowing the watermelon juice to drip inside and supply moisture to the radiator. He also had several watermelon slices draped over his car’s windshield, to use when the first melon ran out of juice. He said this idea will soon become popular with automobile manufacturers, and they will all be using the Watermelon Method.”

While William’s dreams of seeing the “Watermelon Method” used by car manufacturers never came to fruition, one of his more unusual ideas did. In April of 1914, the Greeley Tribune reported that Commissioner Levis had a strange story to tell: his cat had given birth to kittens that week, but unfortunately another cat came by and killed them. However, as William was removing some raspberry bushes on his property, he uncovered a nest of rabbits, with no mother in sight. He brought the rabbits to his cat, still mourning the loss of her kittens. The cat immediately adopted the rabbits, and nursed them until they were grown.

William died in 1927 at the age of 66 and was buried in the Linn Grove Cemetery.

T.E. Rowe

While not much is known of Thomas Elmer Rowe’s early life, we do know he was born July 23, 1861, in Pennsylvania, and moved with his family to Erie, Colorado, when he was just ten years old. We also know that as a man, Thomas had a profound interest in local government: in 1891, he first tried his hand at local office when he ran for county assessor on the democratic ticket.

During this time (from 1886-1890, specifically), Thomas also served as a county road overseer, which required him to maintain the roads in his district and keep them passable for automobiles (see Levis’ biography and the ‘good roads movement').

Thomas wasn’t only the county assessor and a road overseer, however—he was also perhaps the most successful potato farmer in the area. In the fall of 1903, a massive storm rolled through Weld County, dumping huge amounts of hail and bringing hurricane-force winds. Thomas’ potatoes were one of the few crops in the area to survive the storm, and he made quite a profit from that harvest.

That same year, Thomas was also appointed by the sitting Board of County Commissioners to act as an election judge representing the county’s Democratic Party. In this position, he was responsible for overseeing an orderly voting process in Erie, for every election that should take place during his term of one year.

Before Thomas had a chance to continue his legacy in local government and run for commissioner in 1912, tragedy struck in the summer of 1897 in which Thomas played a central role. Thomas had married a local woman named Barbara, and together they had six children. In early July, Thomas was outside with one of those children, Frank, doing some yardwork. Frank, who was eight years old and exhausted by the work, had crawled atop a load of hay for a nap. Thomas, not knowing that his young son was laying atop the hay, had tossed a heavy monkey wrench onto the hay for safe keeping. The wrench hit Frank square in the head, immediately fracturing his skull.

Thomas and Barbara called a surgeon, and when he arrived, he told the worried parents he didn’t think they should fear that Frank had any serious injury. See, surgeons of 1897 relied on what they could see, and being as outwardly the only evidence of Frank’s fractured skull was a small wound on his head, this surgeon determined the wound would heal and Frank would be fine.

For a few days, it seemed the surgeon was right—Frank appeared to be perfectly healthy, and his wounded head appeared to be healing nicely. However, after ten or so days, the parents called for a surgeon again. This time a different surgeon responded and was able to identify that the boy not only had a fractured skull but also evidence of blood poisoning.

This surgeon, equally as limited by his era as the surgeon before, performed trephination on Frank’s skull — a method often used at the time to remove fragments of bone from a fractured skull to facilitate quicker, more even healing. The surgeon used tools to carve a smooth opening in the skull around the fracture, exposing the blood vessels and brain matter below. The idea was that a fracture with smooth edges would heal more quickly.

However, even with the trephination procedure complete, the surgeon confessed to Barbara and Thomas that the odds of Frank recovering were low. Sure enough, the following morning Frank was released from his suffering and died.

It would be 15 years before Thomas would return to public office. In 1812, he was elected to the Weld County Board of Commissioners and soon after was chosen as chair (due largely to his extensive local government background). He served in this role until 1920 (three years after the completion of the courthouse) and afterward served as the director for the Old Colony Building.

Thomas died on July 1, 1934, whilst touring a mine in Central City. Apparently, he had been laughing and conversing with his counterparts when he suddenly suffered a heart attack. Thomas died 100 feet below ground, and his official cause of death read that dramatic changes in altitude caused heart failure. Thomas was buried near his fellow commissioner W.C. Levis in Linn Grove Cemetery.