Why Residents Were Hesitant

by Rachel Ehnert, Communications Specialist for Weld County

When looking at the magnificent Weld County Courthouse today, it can be hard to imagine that there was a time in which the construction of the building was hotly contested. How could anyone be opposed to building such a beautiful structure so aptly nicknamed “The Jewel of the Plains?” Why would anyone opt to keep the small, red-brick courthouse that existed before, which was too small to accommodate county and court operations?

To answer these questions, one must look to two sources of concern: Weld County Commissioners of days past, and Weld County’s neighbor to the west, Larimer County.

While no local government is entirely free of scandal, the Weld County Board of Commissioners in the years prior to 1914 (when the courthouse’s construction kicked off) were particularly scandalous. True pioneers and Frontiersmen, they were not politicians but rather regular residents of the Wild West who took on the responsibility of overseeing a county within a territory that was just a few years into its statehood.

So, of course, these men made understandable mistakes, but mistakes that nonetheless remained in the minds of Weld County residents for decades. Perhaps the first instance of mistakes made by commissioners, and of growing distrust amongst residents, came in the autumn of 1901. According to the Halloween edition of the Greeley Tribune, the Hon. H.E. Churchill, chairman of the Weld County Republican Committee, had much to say about the sitting board of commissioners—he claimed that not only was this board corrupt and dishonest, but they were also guilty of looting the county treasury.

This accusations became so widely believed that Commissioner C.H. Rea felt compelled to write a note defending himself and his fellow commissioners, and published it in the Tribune. In this note, Rea wrote: “I desire to say that [we] have always been perfectly fair and just in the distribution of patronage…to the best of my knowledge and belief, [we have] discharged the duties of the office of county commissioner with impartiality to all.”

So began the county resident’s questioning of the ethics of their board of county commissioners and their hesitancy to hand over tax funds. Then, a mere ten years later, the crimes of Commissioner R.W. Devinney come to light in 1912. Devinney, along with several other county officials, was charged with crimes of a “grave nature”—malfeasance in office. Or, in other words, Devinney had been charged with mishandling county funds. At the announcement of his resignation, he confessed his guilt and likely due to this admission, his case was later dismissed.

Despite the fact that this case would go on to be dismissed, it nevertheless left a bad taste in the mouths of Weld County taxpayers, especially when paired with the accusations of commissioners looting the treasury in the years prior. Then, that same year (1912), another massive scandal broke—Commissioner E.J. Estes was charged with bribery and perjury. Yet another county official, it seemed, was up to no good.

When Commissioner Estes’ trial came about, details of the case were released, and local media learned that Estes had, in fact, attempted to bribe a Fort Collins policeman who had questioned the commissioner’s use of funds. Apparently, the commissioner was approached by said police officer regarding some apparent forged names on checks issued by the county amounting to over $3,000. Estes then attempted to bribe the policeman with $500 to keep quiet (resulting in the charge of bribery) then lied about it under oath (resulting in the charge of perjury). It was later learned that he had also bribed a Greeley resident to provide testimony of Estes’ good character in court—for which the resident would also be charged with perjury.

Then, in a strange twist, Estes was sued by the company that provided his bond because he “misappropriated” his repayment to them. And, if that wasn’t strange enough, upon his conviction of six to nine years in the penitentiary, Estes’ wife was given the funds that Estes had previously attempted to use to bribe the Fort Collins Police officer. So, upon his guilty verdict on the charge of bribery, the $500 worth of bribery funds were given to this convict’s wife. This, as can be imagined, was not well-received by the public.

As Weld County dealt with a whirlwind of crimes involving county funds and several county officials, their neighbors to the west, Larimer County, were dealing with financial troubles of their own. In the late 1800’s, Larimer set out to build their new courthouse (some twenty years before Weld County would build their own new courthouse). Larimer, like Weld, was quickly growing and needed a courthouse to match their rapidly expanding population. However, it seemed as though Larimer County was a bit overambitious—they underestimated the cost of interest, and by the time the structure was complete, the county owed double the original cost of the building in interest.

Residents of Larimer County were understandably frustrated—they had entrusted their tax dollars to their local government and expected that said funds would be used responsibility. Then, to their chagrin, they learn that due to an underestimate of interest costs by these officials, residents were expected to provide those tax funds a second time, doubling their burden.

So, early in 1911 when Weld County began plans for their own new courthouse, each of these scandals—from the criminal Weld Commissioners to Larimer’s courthouse blunder—came flooding back into the minds of Weld County residents. How could they trust officials to handle their tax dollars responsibly when so many of them have been caught handling county funds illegally? Even with a local government free from financial scandal, Larimer County’s courthouse disaster proved that projects of this scale were tricky and could land a government deep in debt.

So, in an effort to halt the building of the new courthouse, several members of the Weld County community spoke out against it. Most notably, perhaps, was the Eaton Farmer’s Union, a group of twenty or so Eaton-area farmers. This group felt so strongly that the courthouse was a bad idea (more specifically, that the tax increase to $5.25 per every $1,000 of taxable land for this new courthouse was a bad idea) that they created a petition was signed by early every member. This petition was then sent to the Board of County Commissioners, who likely reviewed it and placed it away with other courthouse-related documents.