The Fort Garland merchant John M. Francisco and his trading partner, Henry Daigre, built Francisco Plaza near the Cucharas River, at the site of present-day La Veta, in 1862. The first dwelling in the Cucharas Valley, the plaza served as a defensive fort as well as a trading post, farm, and ranch. Over the years, as a community developed around it, the plaza housed a post office, a telegraph office, a railroad depot, and other businesses. The Huerfano County Historical Society now operates the plaza seasonally as the Francisco Fort Museum.
John Francisco’s Fort
In 1839 John Francisco first saw the Cucharas Valley near what is now La Veta during a prospecting trip. He decided he wanted to settle there. By the 1850s he had become a sutler, a civilian who sells provisions to the army, at Fort Garland, providing supplies to the army. There he met Henry Daigre, a French Canadian trader. The two men formed a cattle business to sell beef to the army. In 1861 they bought land in the Cucharas Valley from the Vigil–St. Vrain Land Grant to set up Cucharas Ranch (or Francisco Ranch).
In 1862 Francisco and Daigre built Francisco Plaza (also known as Fort Francisco) for protection from nearby Utes. Employing Hispano laborers, they used adobe bricks about eighteen to twenty-four inches thick to construct a U-shaped building around a central courtyard. The plaza had a fence on the east side of the building as well as a small entrance to the courtyard on the north side. Originally all the doors and windows faced the courtyard to make the building harder to attack.
Francisco Plaza served as the headquarters of Francisco and Daigre’s ranch. As with other ranch headquarters, it gradually became the center of a small community as the primarily Hispanic ranch employees settled nearby.
Migration to the Cucharas Valley quickened over the next decade, after the 1862 Homestead Act and treaties with the Utes opened much of the land to white settlement. Francisco Plaza became the social and economic center of the area. It provided supplies to nearby Hispanic and Anglo-American settlers, housed the area’s first post office (called “Spanish Peaks”) from 1871 to 1876, and served as one of Huerfano County’s first polling places.
In 1876 the Denver &Rio Grande Railroad reached Francisco Plaza, initiating a new period of growth and activity. The burgeoning town around the plaza gained a new name, La Veta, for which Denver and Rio Grande founder William Jackson Palmer and former governor Alexander Hunt filed papers of incorporation. The town temporarily served as the end of the line, so freighting companies opened up to carry men and supplies from La Veta to the mines of the San Juan Mountains.
The railroad tracks lay directly east of the plaza. As a result, its rooms were converted to house the railroad depot as well as several related operations, including a hotel, a general store, the telegraph office, and the headquarters of a freighting company. The plaza served in this capacity until the railroad rerouted its tracks and built a new depot several blocks north. The center of La Veta’s development shifted from the plaza to the depot, with Front Street (now Ryus Avenue) serving as the town’s main street.
By the 1890s the old railroad tracks next to Francisco Plaza had been removed and the property had returned to its earlier use as a residence and farm. At some point, possibly as early as 1870, Francisco and Daigre had ended their partnership, with Francisco retaining sole ownership of the plaza. In the 1890s he rented some of the plaza’s rooms to families and businesses.
After Francisco died in 1902, the plaza passed through the hands of several of his family members. The plaza’s buildings were altered somewhat over the next few decades. In 1918, the southwest corner of the plaza was torn down and replaced the next year with a one-story adobe house. The house shares a wall with the original plaza but is not connected internally. Its location preserves the plaza’s original U shape.
The town of La Veta eventually acquired the property and in 1958 opened it to the public as a museum. Other historic buildings from the area were moved to the site in the 1960s, concentrating several historic resources in one place but altering the plaza’s surroundings. In the 1980s the plaza’s adobe buildings were covered with a stucco-like coating of adobe mud in order to preserve them.
Francisco Plaza was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. In the 1990s, two State Historical Fund grants allowed the Huerfano County Historical Society to restore the plaza. Today the historical society continues to operate the Francisco Fort Museum, which houses local artifacts and is open during the summer months.