Ma Cade performs surgery

Many stories link Pagosa Springs with Summitville, at one time the highest mining camp in Colorado.

One of the stories involves Mrs. M.O. Brown who, as Kittie Sallee Brown, is said to have spent the summer of 1876 at Pagosa Springs partaking of the curative powers of the hot spring with her elderly grandfather and young son Thomas Reavis.

She traveled down the East Fork of the San Juan River from Summitville when the road down the East Fork was no more than a trail. If the date of that visit is accurate, she was in Pagosa Springs the same year Welch Nossaman built his cabin, said to be the first in Pagosa Springs. That cabin was burned by the Ute Indians. In his memoirs, Welch describes the cabin and his encounter with the Utes. He doesn’t mention Kittie Brown.

In her obituary, it says Kittie Sallee Brown was born Jan. 11, 1854 at Clinton, Mo. With her husband James Reavis and son Thomas, she moved to Del Norte in 1874. She was later united in marriage with V.B. Vincent. She moved to Pagosa Springs in 1879 when Fort Lewis was still on Pagosa Street. In 1892 in Pagosa, she married M.O. Brown. She passed away May 25, 1928. Her immediate survivors were son Thos. S. Reavis, daughter Muriel Vincent Bowling, and sister Mrs. Richard Wooderson.

Another Summitville Pagosa Springs story involves former Sheriff Billy Kern. One of Kern’s early jobs was carrying the mail from Summitville to Pagosa Springs. That was a daunting task during summer when the principal conveyance was a horse. It was far beyond daunting during the winter when the conveyance was home made skis.

As the story goes, Kern arrived at Ma Cade’s hotel on San Juan Street after completing his run down the snow-encrusted mountain trail aspiring to be a road that connected Summitville with Pagosa Springs.

I picture Billy entering Ma Cades, throwing down the mail pouch, pulling off his gloves, blowing on his hands, reaching for the coffee pot, and carrying his fresh cup of black java to the fireplace to complete the warming process. As his numb hands and fingers began to adjust to the heat from the fireplace, Ma Cade looked up from crocheting, sniffed the air, wrinkled her nose, and said, “Billy come over here. I smell something. I hope it is not what I think it is. Show me your hands.”

Billy obediently spread out both hands, now aching terribly, for Ma Cade’s inspection. Ma looked at the right hand, wrinkled her nose again, examined the fingers, then without a word walked over to a cabinet behind the red and white covered table and pulled out a bottle of whiskey.

“You’re going to need this,” she said, handing the bottle to Billy before leaving the room. She returned with a straight razor in her right hand, sat Billy down at the table, and waited while he took another long draft from the bottle.

”We might as well get on with it. We both know it’s going to hurt, but that finger has to come off or you know what,” Ma said. The smell got stronger as the finger continued to thaw. Billy couldn’t stifle the gasps as she removed the finger, doused the wound with a liberal dose of whiskey. Then handed what was left back to Billy.

While my version of the story is made up, the truth is Billy Kern did freeze his hand on that mail run and Ma Cade did cut off an offending finger with a straight razor. Since he no longer had a trigger finger on his right hand, Billy had the useless trigger of his revolver removed and learned to shoot by fanning the hammer. He encountered many an adventure as Archuleta County sheriff without the trigger finger or a trigger on his gun. A lot more stories can be told about Billy Kern.

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The San Juan Hotel, where Ma Cade cut off Billy Kern’s frozen trigger finger. Kern survived the operation and later served as Archuleta County sheriff.