The Snow-Shoe Itinerant Preacher of Lake County
Mind. Body. Spirit. These three words are often touted as the three-legged stool to health and happiness. To that end, Leadville Today (LT) continues its Lenten Series, dedicated specifically to that third leg: Spirit.
This week, LT provides the less told tales of Colorado’s well known circuit preacher, Father John Lewis Dyer, and the spiritual trials he faced during his time in Lake County, Leadville, and its surrounding areas.
Publisher’s Note: Every Wednesday through the Lenten Season, leading up to Easter Sunday, April 16, Leadville Today will post church news, about services, events and programs happening during this holiest time of year for Christians. To read Week One, Week Two, Week Three or Week Four of the LT Lenten Series, simply click on the respective link. Thank You. And, as always, your feedback and contributions may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Snow-Shoe Itinerant Preacher in Lake County
by Brennan Ruegg, Leadville Today Contributor
Often overshadowed by old west drama, gunpowder, and a fascination with snow shoes, is the tested perseverance of a sober man watching a state being born often through violence. It certainly wan’t easy. In fact, Dyer’s life was punctuated by escalating challenges. At each turn he rested on the foundation of his faith, and pushed through even stronger. Dyer never lost that faith even as he outlived all three of his sons, losing one of which in a bloody conflict known as the Lake County War.
Dyer Swears off Drinking and Mining
John Lewis Dyer was born in 1812 in Franklin County, Ohio, where working on the family flax field he met a figure in his life that helped shape the conviction of sobriety he would hold throughout his life.
Franklin County houses the state capital of Ohio. Ohio is the birthplace of many eminent figures in Colorado history, including Samuel Elbert, namesake of the tallest Rocky Mountain, Mount Elbert.
At four years old he refused to shake the hand of a drunk who frequented his father’s company. Upon the refusal, the man mysteriously remembered as Mr. T. gave an omen that little John Dyer would become an alcoholic, on the basis that he had “never seen a child that hated a drunken man but would surely be a drunkard.”
This haunted Dyer through the early years of his childhood. He battled the “mouth-watering smell of whisky” that passed as pay to hired hands until at age nine, temptation finally won over, and drinking until he could no longer taste it, the young Dyer quelled his curiosity. It was his first and last drunk, and affirmed his practice of temperance throughout his life, though he still would claim he was “born a lover of whisky.”
After fighting in the Black Hawk War, converting to Methodism, and witnessing the ends of two marriages, Dyer swore off mining too. Dyer divorced his second wife after discovering that she was still legally married to another man. Weighed down by guilt and depression, he went underground in the lead mines of Wisconsin. Alone in a mineshaft, he heard the voice of God give answer to his doubts against the circuit preaching he felt so compelled to undertake, but had never acted on. Hearing what he needed to hear, Dyer hoisted himself out of the mine forever and began to proselytize for God.
For a man who had sworn off booze and mining, Colorado would seem an unlikely destination however. But in middle age, Dyer wasn’t slowing down. Leaving Minnesota he set out west to the Rocky Mountains hoping to meet up with his son who had relocated there the previous year. He walked the last third of the journey, 750 miles from Omaha to Buckskin Joe, a mining camp east of the Mosquito Mountains, where he began a new life and the golden age of his profession.
As many migrants to the Rocky Mountains find, Father Dyer had renewed energy and a sense of purpose. In his forties, Dyer preached to mining camps in Alma, Fairplay and South Park, setting up services in gambling halls and defunct schoolhouses. Eventually, he took on a second job that became his most impressive physical feat and the source of his local renown, the 35-mile Postal Route over Mosquito Pass from Buckskin Joe to Leadville.
An illustration by Helen H. Chain from Dyer’s autobiography, depicting his near-death experience caught in a snowstorm.
Dyer delivered the mail and the word of God together on this trek several times a week, in all manners of weather. Dyer came close to death on this route, forged a spiritual base in the miners along it, and innovated his own brand of snow-shoes and skis to traverse the 13,185 foot mountain pass. Dyer carried around 30 pounds of mail per shipment, often shepherding passengers unfit for the journey. He even escorted the man who would play a part in the assassination of his son.
In his autobiography Dyer charts out his routes between Evan’s Gulch, Tarryall and the Arkansas River as if they were on the back of his hand, notes Indian trails and cabins, remembers friendships with moguls like H.A.W. Tabor and vagrants alike. He also relates an anecdote that would be of interest to locals, the naming of the Mosquitos:
“Mosquito got its name from this circumstance: the miners met to organize. Several names were suggested, but they disagreed, and a notion was made to adjourn and meet again, the place for the name to be left blank. When they came together on appointment, the secretary opened the book, and a large mosquito was mashed right in the blank, [she] showed it, and all agreed to call the district Mosquito.”
A view west on Father Dyer’s postal route in the Mosquito Mountains, from the saddle between Mounts Sheridan and Sherman. Photo: Brennan Ruegg
Judge Dyer in the Lake County War
Lake County was once much bigger than it is today. Now one of Colorado’s smallest counties, Lake at one time included everything in the Upper Arkansas Valley including Buena Vista, and then county seat, Granite, where Father Dyer’s son Elias served as a probate judge. Dyer once said of Lake County “I had reason to respect many of the citizens. Few professed anything but to take the world as it came, and that generally proved to be a very rough way.” The minister would find today, though the county has changed in size, it has lost nothing in the way of its style.
But while Father Dyer continued to spread the gospel in Monument, a war was about to begin in Lake County, fueled by the very alcohol Dyer began his life denouncing, and that would eventually result in the death of his son in 1875.
Known as “the foulest blot upon the early history of the county,” the Lake County War claimed the lives of at least ten, if not one hundred men between 1874 and 1881. It began with the death of a farmsteader named George Harrington. Harrington, attempting to extinguish a fire at his home set by a gang of arsonists, was shot and killed by one of the mob members before the eyes of his own wife, infant daughter, and visiting younger sister. Harrington’s death would be the first of many, as justice would be sought for the murder and never found.
Elijah Gibbs, who was known to have a dispute with Harrington over land and water rights, was the first suspect. But after Gibbs was tried and acquitted in a court of law, some were still determined to see him hang. A drunken mob formed to demand Gibbs’ surrender and hanging at his home, resulting in the death of three men, and Gibbs’ escape. The surviving members of the mob formed what they called a “Committee of Safety,” who in the subsequent years successfully corrupted the highest levels of county authority, and in an early display of McCarthyism, persecuted, tortured, killed, and harassed all those who believed Gibbs to be innocent of Harrington’s murder.
Father Dyer enshrined in stained glass at the capital building in Denver.
Father Dyer learned just how far the committee’s influence reached when he tried to levy a bill with his friends in government and saw them each fail weakly. After his son, the Probate Judge Elias Dyer, made it publicly known that he believed in Gibbs’ innocence, he stayed with his father in Monument, until the spring of 1875 when he returned to Granite to preside over the trials of Committee members accused in the latest crimes. And it was here that Judge Elias Dyer was assassinated, after issuing a warrant for 28 men suspect in the non-fatal hanging of one of the Committee’s enemies.
The deaths didn’t stop with Judge Dyer, and it would be six more years until the conflict saw its end. For a more detailed account of the Lake County War and its unanswered questions, click here to read a comprehensive article from Colorado Central Magazine’s Charles F. Price.
John Dyer sold his son’s half of the failing Dyer mine to friend H.A.W. Tabor for $3,000, who sold it two years later for $60,000. The news of his son’s death came late in Dyer’s life, and not altogether by surprise. He has already buried two of his children. No man was ever charged with the murder, and though it clearly pained him, it would be his faith once again that would keep him preaching, building, and fighting in the name of God. Incidentally the Lake County war would lead to the inception of Chaffee County, as Dyer relates:
“It may seem strange that I have never taken active steps to bring my son’s murderers to justice”…”To have successfully combated it would have required more money than I could command. Besides, the county was comparatively poor, and the trials would have entailed large costs, so that the tax-payers dreaded and discouraged the prosecution. But after the Leadville boom, when the county had grown rich and strong, encouraged by Mr. —- Hayden, one of my son’s best friends, and who was the last with him before the murder, I fully purposed to make the attempt. The mob, however, never ceased to fear; and so influenced the division of the county, and had Chaffee set off, in which once more they were in the majority.”
Father Dyer continued to preach on circuits to Alma and Fairplay, to attend conferences on the Western Slope and in Leadville, and to build a church in Breckenridge and a Christian base in Denver. He set foot in nearly every town and corner of Colorado in the name of God, never slowing down until his death in 1901. He died with his heart in the Rocky Mountains, as in the final words of his autobiography written days before his death, he reaffirms what so many holy men have found at the base of their faith: evidence of awesome creation in the landscape of the world.
“…what would Denver be with her many railroads, if it were not for the towering mountains close in her front, stored with the richest treasures that the great Creator ever bestowed on any part of our nation? And all that the towns and cities, from Greeley to Trinidad, have to do, when they get hard up, is to look to the mountains, for there the treasures are abundant and unfailing. Colorado, from north to south, from east to west, has seen her darkest days, and the Barren Plains are beginning to rejoice and blossom as the rose.”
Brennan Ruegg is also an Ohioan, staking claims in the state of Colorado. He is a regular Contributor to Leadville Today.
Father Dyer Postal Route Race Held on April 8
Today, Father Dyer is remembered by North America’s highest ski race which roughly follows his weekly postal route from Leadville to what was Buckskin Joe. The 2017 Father Dyer Postal Route race will begin April 8 at 5 a.m., but various events are planned all weekend.
The present-day Father Dyer Postal Route takes racers up 3 peaks over 12,000′ including Centennial 13er Dyer Mountain (13,855’) and involves three demanding backcountry ski lines. And if spring snow storms continue to roll through, the same snow-laden high altitude basins once traveled by the one-and-only Father Dyer could present similar conditions for modern-day challengers.
This race is a non-profit event partnered with the Lake County High Riders Snow Trails Association, a 501c3 and supported by local businesses and volunteers. Proceeds from the race will go towards the development of Leadville’s winter trails network. Read More about Leadville’s Winter Trails, including a trail map: STORY.
The Father Dyer Postal Route includes a weekend of activities, however the 5 a.m. start time on Saturday, Apr. 8 will have mountaineering fanatics up and at it before the sunrise! Race organizers are also looking for volunteers to assist with course marshaling, check stations, timing and “morale” stations. Check their site for all the details.
Remember, this is an unsupported team race. There is a mandatory gear list. Registration is already closed, but spectators may feel free to show up the day of the race and cheer on the competitors!