The Bent County Courthouse, located on Courthouse Square in the county seat of Las Animas, opened in 1889 to serve as the county’s administrative and legal center. The county jail opened next to the courthouse in 1912 and was used for nearly a century to house sheriffs and process inmates. The jail closed in 2000, when the county built a new justice center, but the courthouse is now the oldest functioning courthouse in Colorado.
Bringing Justice to Bent County
Bent County was first organized in February 1870. It was 84 miles wide and 108 miles long, encompassing a vast area about six times as large as the county is today. In 1889 the Colorado Legislature carved up the original Bent County into several smaller counties, leaving Bent County in its present size and shape.
The first county seat was the small settlement of Boggsville, an agricultural center and stagecoach station just south of the confluence of the Arkansas and Purgatoire Rivers. In 1873 West Las Animas (present-day Las Animas) was established where the railroad line crossed the Arkansas River. Bent County residents voted to move the county seat a few miles northwest to the new town.
For more than a decade, Bent County had no courthouse. The county housed its courts and kept its records in a series of rented buildings in Las Animas. By about 1886, Bent County decided to build a courthouse. In 1887 James Jones, a rancher who had moved to Las Animas in 1875, sold the county a plot of land for one dollar on the condition that the land be used for the courthouse. The Holmberg Brothers architectural firm designed the courthouse, and the cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1887.
The building Bent County was using as its courthouse burned down on January 10, 1888, in a suspected arson. After the fire, work proceeded more quickly on the new courthouse, which was finished in early 1889. The new courthouse was a redbrick building in a Victorian Institutional style, with Romanesque arches and beige stone trim. The total cost of construction, including antique oak furniture, was a little more than $58,000. After an inspection by the county commissioners on March 12, the courthouse opened for business. The Bent County Courthouse has been in continuous use since then.
In 1912 Bent County added a jail next to the courthouse. A two-story brick building in the Classical Revival style, the jail included living quarters for the county sheriff on the first floor and jail cells on the second floor. The basement of the building was used to process inmates.
The jail was home to many sheriffs and families during the twentieth century. Its most famous residents were probably the family members of Sheriff Dan Gates, who was elected in 1927. Gates’s wife often cooked for the jail’s inmates and gained a reputation for her good meals. Gates’s son started the Las Animas Santa Fe Trail Parade in 1934. Under the name Ken Curtis, he later became a country-western singer and actor best known for playing Festus on the television series Gunsmoke.
Closing the Jail and Restoring the Courthouse
The Bent County Jail housed sheriffs and inmates for almost the entire twentieth century. Sheriffs stopped living in the building in 1995. By the late 1990s, the jail proved unable to meet new federal standards for prisoner housing. The county built a new justice center and closed the jail in 2000, after eighty-eight years of use. The jail building still stands on Courthouse Square.
The Bent County Courthouse remains in use and is now the oldest functioning courthouse in Colorado. It houses the county’s courts, its day-to-day functions, and its records dating back to 1888. The building has benefited from several restoration efforts since the 1990s, including a major $3.6 million renovation that won the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation in 2010.