Weld County

Bar Association​

The Early Years

Although the Colorado Bar Association is celebrating its centennial, the legal profession in Weld County pre-dates the Bar Association's founding by thirty years. Since the 15th Century, the region in which Weld County is now a part, has been claimed by ten different governments. In 1803, what was to become Weld County was purchased by the United States from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Jurisdiction under U.S. ownership transferred from Louisiana, to Missouri, to Indiana, to Nebraska, to the Jefferson Territory, to the Colorado Territory, and finally rested with the State of Colorado in 1876. Explorer Stephen Long in 1820 reported that the region would "never be fit for human habitation..." Many prospectors headed to California passed through the area on their way to the gold fields, but few stayed in the area. That changed in 1859 with rumors of gold in the sands of Cherry Creek.

Early empire builders along the St. Vrain River saw their opportunity when the Jefferson Territory was created. A claim club was created to protect members' lands. This club had many of the same features essential to that of a vigilante committee. The club evolved into the county, taking the name St. Vrain in 1861. When the Colorado Territory was created, St. Vrain County was rechristened Weld County in honor of the first secretary of the Territory, Lewis Ledyard Weld. In the late 1850's and the early 1860's, cattle made a major appearance on the buffalo ranges. The cattle empire reigned until the early 1870's when large scale agriculture began. As agriculture grew, cattle began to drop off as the dominant industry.

By 1870, Horace Greeley, the editor and owner of the New York Tribune, had made two trips to the west. Nathan Meeker, a staff writer on the Tribune, had also visited the region. Meeker founded the Union Colony, a temperance, agricultural community, with the help and promotion of Greeley. Union Colony later came to be known as Greeley. Greeley was not the only colony in Colorado. Other early settlements included the St. Louis-Western Colony, what is now known as Evans; the Platte River Land Company, which went on to become Platteville; the Colorado-Chicago Colony, now known as Longmont; and the Fountain Colony, now known as Colorado Springs.

The Union Colony began with 442 investors. Less than 200 of these investors actually came to Greeley. In examining a roster of original Union Colony investors, three listed their occupation as legal professionals. Jesse Rapp of Illinois, aged 59, is listed as a grocer/justice of the peace. In his membership application, Rapp stated his proposed occupation in the west as unknown. A.E. Searles from Illinois listed his occupation as attorney. Searles was also uncertain as to his occupation in the west. Searles invested heavily, compared to most other colony investors, paying $17,400.00. The third investor with legal ties listed was John Clark from New York. At age 52, Mr. Clark worked as a farmer, teacher, and justice. His western plans included farming and whatever else was necessary.

From the humble beginning of three pioneers, the Weld County Bar Association has grown to presently include 131 attorneys on its membership rolls.

The Court Houses of Weld County

The first Weld County Court House was built around 1861 by Andrew Lumrey. The Lumrey homestead was one of several ranches and homesteads along the South Platte River between St. Vrain and Platteville. This cabin was fourteen feet by sixteen feet long. It was made from hand- hewed, squared cottonwood logs, with dovetail joints at the corners. It was weather-proofed with a mixture of lime and sand chinking between the logs. Early County Court and other County business were occasionally conducted in this cabin. The original, restored Court House now rests at Greeley's historical Centennial Village.

"Time was when Weld County's Court House was a plaything of ambitious towns. Evans and Greeley fought for the honor of designation of the county seat and, for a time, the probate court. Frequent peregrinations between the two towns caused the Court to be known as the ‘Court on Wheels.'"

There have been three official county seats in Weld County. The first, Latham, named in 1861, served Evans and Greeley. The first recorded county meeting was on April 6, 1863, at the home of John Paul. Thereafter, until the early 1870's, meetings at frequent intervals were held, according to the records, at Latham. Latham was located about three miles east of Evans, but meetings or court was often held near Platteville at the home of A. Lumrey, who was a county clerk.

In 1867, the County Commissioners were authorized to temporarily locate the county seat until it should be fixed by election. In 1869, by election, Latham was designated, but at a commissioner's meeting held January 4, 1870, a proposal of the Denver Land Association, setting aside Block 36 in Evans for county purposes, was accepted. On July 30, 1873, the Weld County Building and Improvement Association offered a building in Evans for county offices, which was accepted.

From 1872 to 1877, there was an active rivalry between Evans and Greeley over the county seat. A county seat election was held in September of 1872 with a the total vote of about 1,000 people. Greeley failed to win the seat by 132 votes. However, on July 22, 1874, a petition by 509 electors was filed for a new county seat election. At that election in September of 1874, Greeley obtained a majority by 14 votes, so the Commissioners ordered the county seat changed and the county offices moved to Greeley.

The citizens of Evans filed mandamus proceedings to compel removal back to Evans. Nothing ever came of the court action, but in the fall election of 1875, Evans obtained a majority vote to win the seat, so on October 5 of that year, the Commissioners again ordered the removal of the county seat to Evans, where it remained until the latter part of 1877.

At the regular election in October of 1877, another county seat election was held. Greeley received 621 votes, Evans 556 votes and South Platte 1 vote. Notwithstanding the protest from Evans citizens, the Commissioners on October 25 ordered removal back to Greeley. The next day, a temporary injunction against further change was ordered by Judge Elliott.

In 1876, the statute requiring a majority vote to change a county seat was amended so as to require a two-thirds vote; but the statute had a proviso that amending the act should not apply to the counties of Weld, Grand, and five other counties. Evans contented that the proviso was void because the State Constitution, adopted in the fall of 1876, prohibited the General Assembly from passing local or special laws locating or changing county seats. Greeley maintained that the provisions of the Constitution only prohibited future legislation, but did not repeal existing laws. The case was argued before Judge Elliott in Denver in November of 1877, by S.B.A. Haynes on behalf of defendant county officials favoring Greeley as the county seat. Judge Elliott ruled in favor of Greeley.

Several years later the same issue arose again in Grand County. Greeley's citizens, alarmed at the prospects of losing the seat, employed counsel to appear as friends of the court at the Colorado Supreme Court. In its 1882 ruling (6 Colo. 202), the Court found that the Constitution only applied to future legislation, so Greeley's position was protected.

During the territorial days, Weld and Arapahoe Counties were in the First Judicial District. Until 1867, Weld, for judicial purposes, was attached to Arapahoe County so that its district court cases were tried in Denver.

However, In 1867, Weld was detached from Arapahoe County and Larimer was attached to Weld for judicial purposes, with the provision that trial of the district should be held at Latham. The first case tried in Weld County was David Hodgson v. George Seis. The jury found for the plaintiff in the sum of $10.00 and that the defendant had tendered said sum in advance of the suit. The Honorable Christian Eyster, an Associate Justice of the Colorado Territorial Supreme Court, presided.

The second Weld County Court House was built at the corner of 9th Avenue and 9th Street in Greeley. This red brick structure was razed in 1915 to build the existing Weld County Court House.

Weld County's current County Court House was built between 1915 and 1917 at the same location as the second Court House. This court house was built without the necessity of a bond issue, being completely paid for by the time it opened. The current Court House was placed on the National Historic Register in 1978. Many of the court room scenes in the television mini-series "Centennial" based on James Michener's novel were filmed at the current Court House.

History Repeats Itself

The old adage that "history repeats itself" certainly applies to our efforts to look back at the Weld County Bar over the past century. An early program flyer announced that the Weld County Bar Association's Second Annual Banquet would be held in 1914. At that banquet, pioneer law and pioneer lawyers were the topic of discussion by the Honorable Wilbur F. Stone. Even 70 years ago, Weld County attorneys already recognized the historical importance of law to this region. While Greeley experienced most of the same legal issues as most towns do, agriculture, and in particular water, has played the dominant role in the legal profession throughout Greeley's history. Water is, was and will be a recurring legal issue in Weld County.

With Greeley's founding in 1870, Meeker constructed two diversions from the Cache la Poudre River. About the same time, General R.A. Cameron, vice president of the Union Colony, established another colony at Fort Collins and excavated a Poudre fed ditch during 1873 and 1874 to serve it.

Unfortunately, soon after Cameron's canal was completed, the area experience severe drought. By the first week in July, there was not enough water in the Poudre to supply the Greeley ditches. With little water flowing, the crops, gardens and fruit trees were dying. Meeker and other colonists investigated and went to Fort Collins. There they found that the Cameron canals were full of water.

Since the water was coming to Cameron first, those ditches were taking their fill, even though the Cameron ditches were constructed after those of the Union Colony. Believing they had prior rights to the stream, the Union colonists sought a court-ordered injunction to close the upstream headgates.

In an attempt to settle the matter, a conference was scheduled at a school house located midway between the two communities. At the settlement conference, a proposal developed to appoint a commission to divide the waters of the stream in accordance with the amount of land under cultivation. Greeley representatives refused to consent to the proposal unless the upstream appropriators recognized their prior rights. The ensuing deadlock was broken when the Fort Collins irrigators agreed to let more water flow down the river, in return for Greeley colonists dropping their request for the injunction.

The conference did not provide a permanent solution to the problem, so Greeley continued its search for one. Benjamin Eaton, who would later become Colorado's governor, dreamed of a much larger canal than any of those yet constructed. The new canal would be 53 miles long and irrigate nearly 50,000 acres. Both Greeley, as well as the Fort Collins irrigators, became alarmed.

Because of the proposal, there was an immediate need to establish water rights on the Cache la Poudre and to establish a procedure to protect them. Greeley assumed the initiative. After the state elections that fall, Judge Silas B.A. Haynes, newly elected to the Senate, issued a call for a meeting in Greeley on October 19, 1878 to consider legislation regarding irrigation. Although not well attended, those who did were "earnest and intelligent". Those in attendance agreed that legislation was needed to address three issues: (1) clarifying the priority provisions of the State Constitution, (2) measurement of streams to determine the amount of water flowing in them, and (3) appointment of a state official to supervise the distribution of water in the various valleys. Because of the limited turnout, another meeting was scheduled to be held in Denver early in December.

The irrigation convention met in Denver in 1878. The result of that meeting was a proposed system of public officials to divide the streams according to the users' prior rights. These officials, named water commissioners, were to be appointed by the county commissioners, serve for one year, and be on duty during the irrigating season. One water commissioner was to be appointed for each irrigation district. The water commissioners were to determine the priority of rights and streams. These rights were to be attached to the lands, rather than to the ditches.

Each commissioner was to obtain a record of the lands irrigated within the district, together with initial dates of irrigation. Water users were required to supply such information, under oath, and failure to comply would result in loss of priority. To resolve disputes, the commissioners had the right to enter the premises of the contestants, to call for persons and papers, administer oaths, take evidence and render decisions in regard to the rights of claimants to use the water. Appeals were to be made to the district courts.

These water proposals were rejected by the irrigation committee of the House. Lawyers for the irrigation committee felt that the determination of property rights was a province of the courts, rather than an administrative officer. The section was rewritten and the water right determination placed in the domain of the court.

The judge of the district court within each irrigation district was authorized to appoint a referee, who would take testimony to substantiate the water claims. Each claimant was to present proof showing construction and enlargement dates of ditches, together with their capacity and the amount of water carried. Using the evidence gathered by the referee, the judge was to issue a decree establishing the priorities of each ditch within the district. The customary lawsuit was not involved since the judge was to act as administrative officer.

Also approved was the creation of irrigation districts and the appointment of a water commissioner in each one, selected not by county commissioners, but by the governor. This official was to divide the waters of a stream among the ditches according to prior rights. When water was short, the water commissioner was authorized to "shut and fasten...the headgates of any ditch...which...shall not be entitled to water by reason of the priority of the rights of the others below them on the same stream."

There was no delay in implementing this new Colorado system of water right enforcement. Since the crop season of 1879 was another dry one, the Second Judicial District appointed Harry N. Haynes, son of the state senator, as referee for the Irrigation District No. 3. Haynes began taking testimony in September of 1879, first in Fort Collins and later in Greeley. The ditch owners appeared, presented their claims and, in turn, were questioned by the rival ditch owners. Haynes submitted his report to the court, but Judge Elliott refused to issue the decree. Judge Elliott was convinced the adjudication procedure was illegal.

Farmers were disappointed and angry. Farmers filed suit in the Colorado Supreme Court by a Writ of Mandamus to compel cooperation, but the Supreme Court upheld the trial judge.

During the elections in the fall of 1880, Weld County voters elected James M. Freeman to the State Senate. Freeman was a New York native and had studied law. He had migrated to Greeley in 1873 and began a distinguished legal career. Freeman was named the chair of the Senate Irrigation Committee. He introduced three senate bills in Colorado's Third General Assembly which when, adopted, finally provided Coloradans with a method of acquiring, determining and administering the appropriation right.

A Thirsty Dust Bowl

Water issues remained important, both politically and legally, in Weld County's second half century. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (NCWCD) was formed in 1937. The agency serves northeastern Colorado citizens by conserving, storing and managing a scarce resource, water. NCWCD is celebrating its 60th Anniversary as the CBA celebrates its centennial.

Water conflicts are a historical fact. Let's return back to the 1930's. A depression, drought and poor farm markets had hurt Colorado farmers. Fragile croplands began to blow. By 1933, erosion was visible to everyone, as topsoil lifted into huge, billowing clouds, some reaching up to the jet streams before returning to earth in the form of muddy rain over the eastern city and Atlantic ocean. By 1935 an Associated Press correspondent coined the name "Dust Bowl" to describe the land area of high plains that included Weld County.

A bad situation was made worse with a 1933 Supreme Court case denying Colorado reserved water rights out of the North Platte River Drainage. So another option to bring Colorado River water to the parched plains was explored. Born from these desperate times came an engineering, political and legal miracle that changed not only the face of Weld County, but Colorado as well.

The Colorado Big Thompson Project serves as a world-wide model to this day. The TransMountain Water Project brings Colorado River water to the parched agriculture plains of northeast Colorado, and is still considered an engineering marvel today. William Kelly, a noted Greeley attorney and former Colorado Bar President described the Colorado River option as the "Last Water Hole in the West".

Federal legislation made the project possible, if, and only if, state legislation was created to provide creation of an entity to contract with the federal government to build the Colorado Big Thompson Project, guarantee construction cost repayment and operate the completed system.

Greeley attorneys Thomas Nixon and William Kelly, both former Greeley City Attorneys, devised a plan for state legislation that would create a quasi-municipality capable of meeting these difficult requirements. Curious as it may seem, the new act was based in part on the "Golden Gate District Act" which financed the famed California bridge.

A conservancy district was authorized to obtain rights-of-way, tax, contract, to raise revenues, assume bonded indebtedness and contract with the federal government for construction. The Conservatory Act did not create the district itself. The Act required at least 1,500 owners of irrigated property and 1,000 municipal property owners to petition to create the district. Double the required number of signatures were gathered, and the District was officially created by the District Court.

At the time of its creation, the District served about 170,000. That number has tripled over the past sixty years. The District is served by over 130 ditch systems and by over 60 principal storage reservoirs. This reliable water system has enabled Weld County to become one of the leading agricultural counties in the country.

With the approach of the year 2000, the Weld County Bar still faces major water issues. A thirsty Denver Metropolitan area has begun to acquire water rights in the area, with plans to divert the northern water to the Denver suburbs. State and municipal officials wrestle with water issues of reserved Federal rights, Forest Service permitting of reservoirs and federal fish and wildlife issues raised by the operations of decades old water projects. As long as water remains a scare Colorado commodity, legal issues over its use will continue.

Professional Requirements

We often think of practice in the old days as being much simpler than the present. In some ways it was, but many of our current legal professional requirements existed decades ago. Just as a license to practice is required today to practice law, licenses were required even in territorial days. Research for this article turned up Silas B.A. Haynes' Territorial Law license which was issued July 10, 1872. Haynes took his oath in Arapahoe County. The Colorado Supreme Court was located in Arapahoe County at that time.

Additionally, Greeley has a connection to Continuing Legal Education's history in Colorado. In 1938, based on a model that had been used in the State of Iowa, William Kelly, a prominent Greeley attorney, proposed the beginning of Legal Institutes, the forerunner of our current Continuing Legal Education in Colorado. Those early education classes were divided according to river districts, the first one being held in Greeley in February, 1939. Those early legal education courses were held once a year and were well attended. The first institute held in Greeley was made up of attorneys from the South Platte watershed. Dinner and cocktails were served at a "sparkle hour". Greeley was a dry community at the time.

While the world and law has certainly changed over the last hundred years, many of the same legal issues addressed at early Bar Associations remain with us today. Yet, others are unique to an earlier era. In 1898, the annual bar address covered "The Lawyer-What of His Future?" In 1899, Adlai E. Stevenson spoke on "The Lawyer in Politics." In 1900, the topic was "Has the United States Outgrown the Constitution?" Wilbur Stone spoke of "Pioneer Bench" and "Bar of Colorado" in 1908. In 1923, the current topic was "America and the World Court." "The Lawyer and the Government" was the keynote topic in 1930.

Hangings were a popular legal topic in years gone by. "What Can Be Done to Stop Lynching?" was presented in 1904 and again in 1909. By 1911, the issue of the growth of federal power was the annual topic. The first annual banquet of the Weld County Bar Association was held on Washington's birthday in 1913. Five topics were covered, including "The Law, the Lawyer, Law Student, Lawyer's Association, and Law Reform."

By the late 1930's, the Weld County Bar had grown to 45 attorneys with 39 listed as Bar Association Members. Colorado Governor Carr met with the Weld County Bar Association as illustrated by a 1936 photograph. Weld County Bar Association annual dues were $2.00 at the time.

Of historical note is the 1964 Recommended Minimum Fee Schedule adopted by a Bar Ethics Opinion which stated, "A lawyer who habitually and deliberately performs legal services for less than the customary Bar charges for similar services or less than the locally adopted minimum fee schedule is engaged in improper and unethical solicitation." How times have changed!

Prominent Attorneys and Legal Families

A book could be written on the many prominent Weld County attorneys over the past century. Thomas Nixon, George H. Bradfield, Delph Carpenter, William Kelly, Silas B.A. and Harry N. Haynes are among the most notable.

The two Judges Haynes, father and son, are best known for their efforts in drafting and enforcing early water law. Delph Carpenter was also a pioneer in the area of water law.

George H. Bradfield came to Weld County in 1900. He served as the Ault Town Attorney, the Greeley City Attorney, Weld County Attorney, a Weld County and District Judge, and then as a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court from 1952-1957. He founded the Weld County law library, served as President of the Colorado Municipal League, and in 1910 founded the first Boy Scout Troop in the County.

William Kelly was recognized by the Colorado Bar Association in 1983 as one of the Greatest Attorneys in Colorado's History. Dubbed "Mr. Water Law" by Colorado Senator Ed Johnson, Kelly, along with Thomas Nixon, drafted the unique legislation creating the Water Conservancy Act of 1937. He also helped found the forerunner of the Continuing Legal Education system and served as the Colorado Bar Association President from 1939 to 1940.

Today the Weld County legal community is represented by many long-time Weld County families with multi-generational attorneys. A non-exhaustive list includes the family names: Haynes, Southard, Carpenter, Houtchens, Waldo, Miller, West, Karowsky and Telep. Some of these prominent legal families date back to the County's earliest settlers.

Past, Present and Future

The Weld County Bar's distinguished first century is likely to be followed by a notable second hundred years. Current Weld County legal notables include Federal District Judge Walker Miller, Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Roy, Colorado Bar Association President-Elect Rebecca Koppes-Conway and Tambor Williams, Colorado House Representative, District 50.

Compilation of this brief legal history has sparked local interest in creating a more comprehensive history of the Weld County Bar. Biographies and pictures of all the local judges are being acquired. Lists of all city, county and district attorneys are being compiled. The original Court House has been preserved, refurbished and will soon be refurnished. Hopefully, celebrants of the 200th anniversary of the Bar will have the benefit of these historic preservation efforts.

Weld County Bar Centennial

For the history of the Weld County Courts, please click here.


About the Author
Richard P. Brady has served as the Greeley City Attorney since 1989. A fifth generation native to northeastern Colorado, Brady is a Board member of the Weld County Bar Association and Past President of the Metro City Attorney's Association.

1. Colorado's Who's Who, Colo. 1938, Colorado Press Association, Mary L. Jeffs. Courtesy of Greeley Municipal Archives
2. Colorado's Who's Who, Colo. 1938, Colorado Press Association, Mary L. Jeffs, Pg. 1069, Courtesy Greeley Municipal Archives.
3. The New Empire of the Rockies, A History of Northeast Colorado, Steven F. Mehls, Bureau of Land Management, Cultural Resources Series No. 16.
4. The Reduction Section "The History of Greeley and Union Colony of Colorado," David Boyd, 1890. Courtesy of Greeley Municipal Archives.
5. Pictorial Description. Greeley Municipal Archives. On The Lumrey Homestead Cabin.
6. County Seats of Weld County, H.N. Haynes, Greeley Municipal Museums.
7. History of Greeley and Union Colony, David Boyd, 1890, Chapter XIII.
8. County Seats of Weld County, H.N. Haynes, Greeley Municipal Archives.
9. The Greeley Tribune, October 30, 1930.
10. Conversations with Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Roy, 1997.
11. Colorado Sun, published Greeley, CO on October 12, 1878.
12. Colorado Sun, published Greeley, CO on October 12, 1878.
13. Forging New Rights in Western Waters, by Robert G. Dunbar.
14. Waternews, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, 50th Anniversary Edition, 1987.
15. Waternews, Northern Colorado Conservancy District, 50th Anniversary Edition, 1987.
16. A Conversation with Bill Kelly, Esquire, Lee G. Norris, 1982, ¶. 282-290. Courtesy of Greeley Municipal Archives.
17. Colorado Bar Association Annual Report, 1936.
18. Weld County Bar Minimum Fee Schedule, 1964. Courtesy of William Bohlender, Esq.
19. Colorado Bar Association Annual Report, 1936.
20. Picture of the 1936 Weld County Bar Association. Courtesy of William Southard, Esq.
21. 1936 Picture of Weld County Bar Association. Courtesy of William Southard, Esq.
22. Colorado's Who's Who, Colo. 1938, Colorado Press Association, Mary L. Jeffs. Courtesy of Greeley Municipal Archives.
23. Colorado Lawyer, July 1983 issue, Denver, CO.

(The Colorado Lawyer, June 1997, Vol. 26, No. 6, p. 35)