Emmet Wirt: cowboy, business owner, agent, shooter

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The Emmet Wirt Trading Post as shown in this 1936 picture was a fixture in Dulce for many years. In addition to gasoline and household goods, a large variety of Native American artistry was available.

In last week’s column, we described how three cowboys from New Mexico hurrahed an open house celebration conducted by Archuleta County Sheriff Billy Kern in Pagosa Springs. Later, after Emmet Wirt became Indian agent for the Jicarilla Apaches, he became one of the best known men in the Four Corners area, including Pagosa Springs.

As a young man, Wirt moved to Chama, N.M., from Tennessee. He worked a short time at the Biggs mill in Monero, then he started cowboying for the Carlisle Cattle Company. In those days, several English cattle companies operated in the Four Corners area. Carlisle Cattle Company headquartered near Monticello in San Juan County, Utah. Barbed wire hadn’t taken over the West in those days, and cattle roamed on the open range. The cattle company with the most cowboys, translated most guns, ran their cattle wherever they wanted, just as we’ve seen in western movies.

Wirt was working for Carlisle’s outfit in Dulce in 1891 when he and two other Carlisle cowboys pulled their shenanigan in Pagosa Springs. A story is told that Carlisle neglected to pay Wirt his wages which irritated the young cowboy. Wirt compensated by rounding up enough cows to cover what he felt was due him, then singlehandedly drove his wage-herd across Cumbres Pass, across the San Luis Valley, across the Front Range mountains, and sold them to a cattle buyer in Pueblo.

Shortly after that, Wirt opened a trading post at Amargo. Amargo was located along the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad about 1 mile east of today’s Lumberton. The stagecoach ran daily from Amargo to Pagosa Springs. Pagosa ranchers drove their cattle to Amargo to load them on the train for Denver, where they were sold. While living in Amargo, Wirt shot a man, but was not tried because the other man “drew first.”

In the mid-1890s, a man named Ed Vorhang was given a homestead title to the 160 acres where Amargo was located. Then he told the other occupants, including business owners, that they owed him rent. They refused and he insisted. Someone took a shot at him as a warning, another threatened to blacken both eyes, and another set off a load of dynamite under Vorhang’s bedroom. Fortunately for Vorhang, the dynamite exploded on the wrong side of the room from where he was sleeping. Finally, tired of Vorhang, the business owners picked up their businesses as best they could, moved a mile west, and founded Lumberton, which remains to this day. Amargo died a slow death.

Wirt moved his trading post to Lumberton. Sometime later, he, moved his trading post to Dulce where he had been appointed agent for the Jicarilla Apaches.

Many stories are told about Wirt. I heard the one I’m about to tell from Pagosa barber Earl Mullins. It seems that Wirt had gone to Denver, where he was conducting business. He stayed at the Brown Palace, the finest hotel in town. President Dwight Eisenhower stayed at the Brown Palace and it remains to this day, in all of its Victorian grandeur.

When it came time for dinner, Wirt did what you’d expect from a cattleman. He ordered a steak. When the waiter brought the steak, Wirt squinted at the pink chunk of meat, threw it on the floor, pulled his six-shooter and blasted away.

“Waiter,” he called.

When the waiter came hurrying to the table, Wirt pointed at the bullet punctured mass of meat and said, “I’ve killed it, now take it in the kitchen and cook it!”