Rabbitbrush Rambler: Who was Billy Adams?

William Herbert Adams (1861-1954) was born in Blue Mound, Wisconsin, near the city of Madison. As a country boy with only a public school education, he could easily have been the butt of jokes when he moved into the political circles, but he clearly had a likable, winnable personality among Democrats in the San Luis Valley, who reelected him again and again.

Although never much of a wheeler-dealer in political circles, he served three two-year terms as governor of the State of Colorado (1927-1933) following decades in the legislature (1886 -1926), riding the D&RG train back and forth between Alamosa and Denver and rooming in a hotel when the General Assembly was in session or in the governor’s office. During all that time, the only bill he authored in the legislature was for the authorization that created Adams State Normal School in 1921, an enormous benefit for Alamosa and the San Luis Valley where the college bears his name.   

Politics ran in the family. His father, a brother, and a cousin held local political offices in Wisconsin. All were Democrats, supporting Stephen Douglas, who lost the 1860 election to Republican Abraham Lincoln. Later on, in Colorado, Democrats like the Adams family supported William Jennings Bryan, bimetallism, railroads, and, particularly, improvement of economic conditions for farmers and ranchers while opposing powerful mining interests.

When barely 10 years old, in 1871 Billy and his family came to Colorado with the vain hope of a cure for a brother’s TB. Another brother remained in Denver and became a power in the Queen City’s political scene. Another, Alva, who started a successful chain of hardware stores in southern Colorado’s mining country and a large wholesale business in Pueblo, was elected governor twice (or three times, depending on how you count it). Alva Blanchard Adams, Alva’s son who was born in Del Norte in 1875, would later serve as a United States Senator from Colorado in the 1920s and again in 1930s. For his part, Billy stayed quietly in the shadow of his big brother Alva Adams.

Alva (1850-1922) came down to the Valley to open a hardware store in the booming town of Del Norte near Summitville when Alamosa didn’t exist yet. The young Billy had worked in Alva’s Pueblo store for a while, but he really wanted to be a cowboy. He got a couple of jobs on ranches, although with his small frame he hardly looked like a John Wayne type.

The 17-year-old Billy moved down to the Valley when the railroad arrived at Alamosa in 1878. Although not formally well educated in schools, Billy was smart enough and quickly discovered the family’s political bent with which he landed the job of town treasurer and next of mayor. Next, by 1883, at the ripe age of 22, Billy became a Conejos County commissioner. (Alamosa was in Conejos County until 1913). Three years later, in 1886, he was elected state representative, and in 1888 he won a seat in the state senate, which he held until he was elected governor in 1926. With these new responsibilities, he chose one of Alamosa’s high school teachers to fill the job of his secretary, like hiring an aide in today’s political offices. In the big city, Billy enjoyed attending boxing matches.

As the railroad town of Alamosa grew and Alamosa County was organized, the Democrats headquartered at the corner of State and Main, upstairs above Herman Emperius’s meat market, now Milagros Coffeehouse. Emperius pretty much ran the local Democratic Party and, thus, the county government too, while Billy continued to win election after election, Upstairs above Emperious’s business,, a newspaper was published and supported by Democrats, while Republicans published a paper up the street in the Masonic Building.

When not occupied with political affairs, Billy had begun early on to pick up pieces of ranchland south of Alamosa along South River Road, gradually increasing his holdings of land and water rights along the Rio Grande River until they were sizeable. He built an attractive but not ostentatious home that still stands on South River Road. Married twice, he had no children. Although he himself never learned (or chose) to drive, he bought a car for his second wife, Hattie. In the San Luis Valley he felt at home among his farming and ranching neighbors and rode horseback until his later years.

As a widower, he roomed in a hotel on the northeast corner of State and Sixth. When he died in 1954 at age 92, he was buried in Alamosa’s cemetery.