Fourth Time's the Charm

Held on the Julesburg Airport runway first in 1958, the Julesburg Drag Strip is the oldest continuously run drag strip in the United States. Nearly 200 hotrods and historic vehicles will be in Julesburg the weekend of Aug. 16, 2019 for the Tri-State Hot Rod Revival.

Joshua Hardin

Longtime residents of Julesburg in Colorado’s northeast corner remember Union Pacific coal trains chugging into the old depot.

On wash day, the women would keep a careful watch on the wind direction as the trains stopped for passengers traveling to and from Denver 180 miles away. With wind from the north, no problem. But from the south, they’d have blackened clothes on the line.

“Most of the women in town knew their native swear words,” said Donna Reigenborn, who grew up in Julesburg, moved away and returned 20 years ago.

With her children out of the house and husband, Raymond, comfortably retired from the airlines, Reigenborn volunteers Thursdays at the Fort Sedgwick Museum, which is one of three museums in the town of 1,500 residents.

It takes three museums to begin to tell Julesburg’s rich and overlayered history, beginning with Julesburg No. 1 and culminating in the modern-day incarnation locals affectionately call No. 4.

Julesburg has been pillaged, burned, evacuated and loaded on rail cars, yet the town perseveres. As community members look to the future, they hope to harness their history and build a prosperous community that navigates the challenging landscape of agriculture in a rural economy.

On Thursday afternoon, Reigenborn gives a tour of the Fort Sedgwick Museum and admits she didn’t learn about Julesburg’s history while growing up here. She’s learned since then and gracefully walks visitors through displays dedicated to transcontinental migration, Indian wars, railroad expansion, military dominance and demise, agricultural rise and evolution, and scoundrels aplenty who underpinned old Julesburg.

The greatest scoundrel of them all was Julesburg’s namesake, Jules Beni. His can-do, feisty spirit is alive and well in Julesburg today, though without the horse rustling and gunfighting Beni came to be known for.

In 1850, this part of Colorado actually wasn’t part of Colorado. It was part of Nebraska Territory, a wide swath of land that stretched from the Missouri River, through modern-day Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana and Northeast Colorado. Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes hunted bison freely, and pioneers were beginning to travel west along the South Platte River.

Beni came down from Canada and started a trading post, saloon and ranch near the confluence of the South Platte River and Lodgepole Creek, west of modern-day Julesburg and near the town of modern-day Ovid. He took a 13-year-old girl traveling to Denver with her family to be his wife. He named his little outpost on the prairie, Julesburg, or as locals now call it, Julesburg No. 1.

Life was good for Beni and his family, until expansion came to the area. In 1859, a stagecoach company established a station where pioneers and gold seekers on overland trails could stop for supplies and refuel their livestock with hay.

The company hired Beni as the stationmaster, but soon horses and hay began to disappear. U.S. mail went missing, too. Rumors abounded that Julesburg had become a safe haven for horse thieves and outlaws, with Beni as their chief protectorate.

Overland Stage Co. sent gunslinging superintendent Jack Slade to clean up the mess. The two men clashed; Slade replaced Beni as station keeper, and two of Overland’s horses were found in Beni’s personal corral. Later, as the story goes, with a grudge to settle, Beni found Slade unarmed. He filled him with 13 bullets and left him for dead, but Slade survived, eventually caught up with Beni and returned the favor, with Beni tied to a fence post.

Slade cut off both of Beni’s ears, nailed one to the post and kept the other in his pocket, which he would pull out when he paid for drinks at the saloon. Slade ran the station successfully, but was later found and punished for being drunk and disorderly in public, an executable offense at the time.

Slade killed Beni in 1861, the year the Colorado Territory was created and America plunged into its four-year bloody Civil War. If Beni thought he was living in the Wild West, it was about to get even wilder at Julesburg.

For the rest of the story see the May/June 2019 issue of Colorado Life.

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