Fil Byrne: More than Pagosa’s first school teacher

    Photo courtesy John M. Motter
    Fil Byrne, on the left with the pistol in his hand, and Henry Gordon.

    Pagosa Springs’ first school teacher arrived in 1878, about the year the town started. He was only 20 years old, but must have had the experience of a man twice his age. Among the many positions he held in the community was that of deputy sheriff. A story is told that a tough guy with a heart full of mayhem was locked up in the local jail.
    The smell of freedom must have stoked the escape locomotive in tough guy’s heart. Hitting on all of the cylinders he possessed, he broke out of his cell, jumped spraddle-legged on the nearest hay burner he could find and headed east lickity-split down the street aimed for Elwood Pass.
    He didn’t notice the young dude with the star on his chest savoring coffee on the front porch of Ma Cade’s hotel. The young dude noticed him, set his cup on a stair rail without spilling a drop, pulled his rifle from the scabbard on the nearest horse tethered at the hitching post in front of the hotel, stepped into the middle of the street, squinted down the barrel and squeezed the trigger.
    Tail flying and hind legs kicking up dust, the galloping mustang squealed and rolled over on his back while sliding to a stop. His startled rider bounced head over heels to the side of the road, finally stopping in a crumpled mass of arms, legs and dust. When daylight returned to his blacked-out senses, he gladly let the young man with the star on his chest help him stand up.
    “Plannin’ on goin’ somewhere?” the young man asked, as he twisted a length of rope around the fugitive’s rock-scraped arms. Just then, Sheriff Billy Kern walked up, trying to talk and catch his breath at the same time.
    “I guess that was an OK shot, Fil,” Kern huffed. “Shot the legs out from under that old roan cleaner’n a newly licked shot glass. I guess you know that’s my horse and saddle stretched out over there in the dirt? Don’t know if I can fix that horse’s leg or not. Why didn’t you just shoot the scum offa his back?”
    “Sorry, Sheriff,” Fil apologized. “Guess I just wasn’t thinkin’.”
    The scene I just described really happened in pioneer Pagosa Springs. I might have dressed it up a wee bit, but it really happened.
    The Fil referred to was Felix A. Byrne, known locally as Fil Byrnes, who was born in Ohio on May 27, 1858, and rode over Cumbres Pass with a bunch of other adventure seekers into Pagosa Springs in 1878. His first job was teaching kids in a little log cabin located near the big hot spring. The students were the children of pioneers and the washer women handling laundry and other clean up chores for the soldiers at Fort Lewis.
    Byrne had a long and productive career in Pagosa Springs. Among other things, he carried the mail, drove the stage coach from Amargo and served as the first superintendent of the county school system. At the time of his death in December of 1932, he was serving in his eighth year as county judge. He spent 35 years of service in the county courthouse. He also helped organize and was an officer in the first San Juan Pioneer Association. On Nov. 25, 1887, Fil married Miss Annie Kern. The couple had no children.