Woodmen Hall community spirit lives on
When you visit the Montezuma County Courthouse at 109 W. Main St. in Cortez, you might want to stand in its west parking lot and listen for joyful echoes from days and buildings past. When you buy your fruit and veggies at the Cortez Farmers Market, you are walking the same ground as the pioneer Woodmen of the World at the turn of the 19th century.
A Cortez chapter of Woodmen of the World was established in 1895 and was already being described positively in Montezuma Valley advertising in 1897. Woodmen of the World was — and still is — a fraternal benefit society, founded in the Midwest in 1890.
W.O.W. offered life-insurance protection to its members and help to those in need. It was an active volunteer force within the young Cortez community.
Its imposing two-story wooden hall was built in 1898 and was located behind what is today’s courthouse annex, facing S. Chestnut between Main and First Streets.
This Woodmen Hall became a thriving community center 114 years ago, and not only hosted fraternal organizations and other town benevolent societies, but, shortly after opening in 1899, presented musical and theatrical performances, holiday dances and parties.
A February 3, 1899 Montezuma Journal article noted a masquerade dance would be given in the new hall, with supper being served. In April 1899 Dr. A. M. Wigglesworth, physician and surgeon, announced his office in Woodmen Hall. By July a full comedy in three acts was given under the auspices of Ramona Temple No. 20, Rathbone Sisters, the women’s auxiliary to the Mancos Knights of Pythias. Actors in the comedy were all well-known residents of Mancos. On New Year’s Night, Jan. 1, 1901, the Cortez Dramatic Company put on a variety entertainment with its own hometown cast.
The Woodmen Hall quickly became a valued meeting place for the social activities of the area and hosted solemn occasions like funerals and church services as well. In 1905 Woodmen Hall served as an exhibit hall for Cortez Fair Association’s first fair. Cortez High School students graduated in Woodmen Hall until the school’s gymnasium was built. Celebrations and events at the hall usually carried over to nearby restaurants and other establishments, further energizing the small town.
For a time, ice skating was provided for town youths on an adjacent shallow water reservoir. (Residents in 1915 were urged not to break through the ice to water their horses during skating season.) A “Girls’ Indoor Track Meet” at W.O.W. Hall was advertised in March, 1917, consisting of a boxing contest, wrestling contest, wheelbarrow race, high and broad jumps, frog race and many other events. Admission 25 and 15 cents.
At this same time a Cortez Chautauqua Association was formed to present educational and cultural programs. The first movie, said to be “a real tear-jerker,” was also presented in Woodmen Hall, and in 1939 the Catholic Church held its first Mass there.
In later years it was rumored that the hall changed hands as the result of a poker game. Official deeds have yet to be found that document the title history, but by the 1930s and 1940s the Woodmen building had a small bowling alley and its own roller skating rink, operated by Willie and George McEwen.
Many members of today’s “40’s Bunch” who graduated from Cortez High School (now Calkins building) fondly remember those days. As a teen, Thomas Johnson, later a Cortez newspaper editor, was partial to the bowling, which was supplanted by the skating rink. Students Marie Rumburg, June Head, Joanne McComb, Walt and Bobbie Jo Ertel, Chuck Haley, Vivienne Kenyon and others preferred roller skating during daytime and to return for dancing in the evening when possible.
Cortez residents often watched “that man with a black hat” — W. M. Conoley — skating from his home on Montezuma Avenue to the W.O.W. hall for more roller skating. Many beginners were coached by Mr. Conoley if they were having problems.
Changes came in the late 1940s, and by 1950 Woodmen Hall had been remodeled to serve as the first Elks Lodge.
Now demolished for part of Montezuma County’s public-service offices, Woodmen Hall still lives in the hearts and minds of many in Cortez today — and after over a century since its construction Cortez is welcoming new performing arts centers and roller derby to Main Street.
Story written by June Head, historian, Montezuma County Historical Society, 565-3880, and board member Joyce Lawrence, 882-2636. For additions or corrections, please contact the writers.