In the year 1851, the United States was on only its thirteenth president. That man, who was also the leader of the long extinct Whig Party, was Millard Filmore. History no longer spends much time discussing Filmore’s record in the White House and few outside of Colorado give much thought to the year 1851. But something happened in Colorado that year and at the end of July, the town of San Luis will be celebrating it.
“We always get together for a festival,” said San Luis Mayor Tiffany Gallegos as she chatted recently on her cell phone while driving across the eponymously named Valley and to another meeting. The Festival, she said, is formally known as the Santa Ana y Santiago Fiesta and is set for the weekend of July 23-25. It marks the official birthday of Colorado’s oldest town.
A little history for newcomers to Colorado. Intrepid Hispanic settlers wandered north from what is now New Mexico and began settling southern Colorado along the Rio Culebra. Authorized by the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, the town of San Luis was officially chartered on April 9, 1851. The settlers built a church in the middle of this new outpost, and on June 21st, officially celebrated the Feast of Saint Louis. Soon after, the town was christened San Luis de la Culebra. It remained a part of the Territory of New Mexico until 1861 when the Colorado Territory was officially established. San Luis remains the oldest continuously inhabited town in Colorado.
With few exceptions, including a couple of wars and, more recently, a worldwide pandemic, the festival has been an annual summertime rite of passage. Like small towns across America, this festival brings back friends and family, many of whom have left the town for greater opportunities but whose fondness for their old hometown brings them back.
For three days in July, there will be an influx of visitors to San Luis that may come close to equaling or even exceeding the town’s official population, estimated at around 800 full time residents. Sidewalks will be full for the parade. Some roads will be cleared of traffic for the planned and first-time 10K run. Three bands have committed to the Festival. There will also be a car show and fireworks. Gallegos said visitors can wander unobstructed through a sea of food, a farmers market, and vendors hawking everything from tee shirts to novelty items. There will also be a bounce house for children, face painters and all the trappings of a truly Spanish and American summertime celebration.
Because the town’s earliest settlers were Catholic and were responsible for bringing the church and its teachings to the Valley, the unofficial start of the Festival will include a mass in nearby Chama. There will also be a potluck the next night featuring a concert. Another mass will take place on Saturday morning at St. Ann’s Church.
Gallegos’ goal is to restore the luster to the Festival. “We’re a whole new board (of trustees). We’re all younger than the previous board. They never wanted to put much effort into it…we just don’t want to turn (the town) into a ghost town,” she said. The 10K run, set for the last day of the Festival, has already attracted interest in a number of out-of-town runners who like the idea of competing at 8,000 feet above sea level. The finish line for runners is at “the top of the Shrine,” the town’s Stations of the Cross monument.
Gallegos, like so many of the town’s residents, has deep roots in San Luis. She is a fourth generation resident but has family whose roots go even deeper. A long ago relative “was one of the founding folks,” she said. Her family also started the Romero Grocery Store, a town cornerstone and gathering place.
For residents of the town, including many who can trace family back to the first Festival, the town has a magnetic draw that keeps them there or keeps them coming back. Gallegos has both long ago and current family members, a few of whom actually built Capilla de los Santos. Other residents can say the same, only their families had a hand in building the town’s very first church in La Plaza de Medio.
While countless natives of San Luis have left the town for college, marriage or to seek opportunities that it cannot provide, holidays, anniversaries and, certainly, funerals bring them back. The Festival provides an opportunity to return on a high note and become reacquainted with old friends and old times.
Mark your calendars for the last full weekend of July, Gallegos tells San Luis residents and tourists. It may not be Colorado’s biggest or most ornate festival, but it is the oldest. San Luis is calling. “You can leave town and come back ten years later---maybe more---and there’s just something about it that doesn’t change,” said the Mayor. “It’s still home.”
For more information on San Luis or the Festival, visit http://www.townofsanluisco.org/.