HerStory Plays portray pioneers who left local legacies

Midge Kirk plays pioneer woman Ann Bassett during the HerStory performance at the Cortez Cultural Center. Enlargephoto

Jim Mimiaga/Dolores Star

Midge Kirk plays pioneer woman Ann Bassett during the HerStory performance at the Cortez Cultural Center.

The theatrical performance, HerStory, packed the Cortez Cultural Center last week.

An audience of 90 enjoyed three one-act plays on pioneer women who influenced Rico and Disappointment Valley communities.

Hearing of a play about Lizzy Knight on KSJD Radio, her great-great-great granddaughter, Marsha Bankston, agreed to depict her famous relative.

Performed with unabashed bravura, three talented local actors delivered a show to remember. Here are their stories.

Terry Helms as Betty Pellet

The famous Rico woman moved there with her husband, Robert Pellet, in 1919 to maybe get rich mining.

“When the train rolled into Rico’s weather-beaten mine camp, it was nestled in the most gorgeous place on earth,” Pellet exclaimed. “We never struck it rich, but we were rich with friends.”

She lived there for the next 50 years, and led an active life.

Pellet was the first woman in Southwest Colorado to run for the House of Representatives and win. She was the first woman minority leader, and served in the legislature for 18 years.

Her accomplishments included starting the Southwest Conservation District, equal pay for equal work for women, and securing funding for Highway 145 between Dolores and Rico.

In 1940 the area produced 170 million pounds of pinto beans, but they did not sell. Pellet bombarded the state with marketing for the pinto bean, sending out little bags to politicians, and getting beans included in the daily rations of military units, an ingredient that lives on today.

Then in 1941, the Rio Grande Southern railroad was on the verge of going out of business because of a $65,000 debt. Pellet rallied, and secured financial support for railway, which included the famed Galloping Goose.

“Our trains kept chugging along for another 10 years,” she said, noting that earlier trains “helped to haul the uranium used in the nuclear bombs” that ended WWII.

Midge Kirk as Ann Bassett

Bassett was born in 1868, assisted by a Shaman from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. She commenced a life of adventure and Wild West ways that would make today’s outlaws blush.

“Queen of the Rustlers is not a name you’re born with; it is one you earn,” Bassett said. “My mom was a cattlewoman, and my dad stayed at home and raised us. He was ahead of his time.”

The family spent time at Browns Hole, a famous remote refuge for misfits and renegades along the Green River where Utah, Colorado and Wyoming meet. The name was eventually changed to Browns Park.

“Once I practiced my lassoing on a bear cub and roped him on the first try,” Bassett recalled. “I was not counting on the mama bear to be there, I climbed up a tree and so did she.”

Needless to say, Bassett did not do well in finishing school, an old-fashion tactic to try and make a lady out of a genuine tomboy.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were famous for robbing a Telluride Bank in broad daylight. They had a knack for hitting up trains with safes stuffed with money as well, and frequently escaped to regroup at Browns Park. They gang caught the eye of Bassett and her sister.

“The Sundance Kid and Butch saw that we had ‘flexible morals’ so to speak,” Bassett says. “Butch loved to read, and we fell in love.”

The desperados absconded with $20,000 from the San Miguel Bank, and were the first robbers to plan a getaway using fresh horses stashed along the escape route, which was down the Dolores River and on to Mancos Hill.

“Our boys pulled it off, and made it back to Browns Park,” she remembers.

Cattle rustling caught up with Bassett and she faced a jury trial in Craig, Colo. Her act of an innocent, sweet woman who didn’t know a thing, played like putty in the jurors’ hands.

“The courtroom was my stage, it was a hung jury and I was acquitted,” Bassett said.

Today go to Browns Park and ride through the juniper and lush green meadows.

“You will still feel the spirit of Anne Bassett, and maybe an outlaw or two.”

Lizzy Knight

Lizzy Knight was played by special guest Marsha Bankston, her great-great-great-granddaughter.

Lizzy Knight was one of the first pioneers to successfully make a home in Disappointment Valley. She was born in Darby England, and learned the blacksmithing trade. In 1869, she moved to where Hermosa Creek meets the Animas River and started a dairy farm.

“When the land surveyors came in, they were parched, and made their way to a stream bed, but found it was dry. The name Disappointment stuck, and it kept the weak and timid out,” Knight said.

She was the first woman to live in Rico, and started a business supplying milk and butter to the miners. Her cows wintered in Disappointment Valley, opening it up for settlement.

A complex web of relationships and friends was a focus of Knight’s adult life. “It is not often a woman gets married to her son-in-law,” deadpans Knight.

Disappointment comes to life with Knight’s family. Crops were grown, irrigations ditches dug, orchards flourished, and a local store was opened.

“We stocked tobacco, lard, ammo and overalls,” Knight said. “Unbeknownst to my husband, I stashed some of the gold coins from the profits in a hidden can.”

Indian attacks were a worry, she recalls.

While out on the range looking for cattle, “An old Ute woman spread her blanket to hide me from view of warriors, and I raced out of there. I owe my life to her,” Knight recalls.

Horse racing was a form of entertainment in those days. The course was to Bedrock, and lots of betting occurred. A horse named Swayback was legendary.

The cattle business flourished in Disappointment Valley. So in 1885, the government decided they wanted a share and began taxing the herds.

“When the assessor showed up, I could not remember how many cows I had,” Knight winked.

Jim Lavender, a Disappointment cattleman, became the first county commission for Dolores County. The town of Lavender boasted 150 residents, a lumber mill, and a post office. The cattle were shipped to Denver via the Rio Grande Southern railroad.

Nearby Placerville was the hub of the cattle business, and Knight’s relatives still ranch in the valley.

In 1913, Knight was on her death bed. She gathered her children around her to tell them where she hid “Lizzy’s Gold,” but died before the secret was revealed.

jmimiaga@cortezjournal.com

Marsha Bankston plays pioneer woman Lizzy Knight during the HerStory performance at the Cortez Cultural Center. Bankston is the great-great-great-grandaughter of Lizzy Knight. Enlargephoto

Jim Mimiaga/Dolores Star

Marsha Bankston plays pioneer woman Lizzy Knight during the HerStory performance at the Cortez Cultural Center. Bankston is the great-great-great-grandaughter of Lizzy Knight.

Lizzy Knight’s cabin was one of the first in Disapointment Valley. Enlargephoto

Cortez Journal file photo

Lizzy Knight’s cabin was one of the first in Disapointment Valley.