Basques of Western ColoradoOct 03, 2022 03:04PM ● By Joaquin Garcia
The epic clash of two dynamic rivers on the western slope of the majestic Rocky Mountains is the epicenter of historic Colorado Basque culture. Names like Etchart, Arrayet, Azcarraga, Celayeta and Gorrino are original immigrants or descendants of the Basques who settled in Grand Junction. Basques also established themselves nearby in Montrose, Rifle, Meeker and Craig.
These proud and hard-working Vasco settlers were mostly sheepherders, but a few non-claustrophobic souls were miners as well. Basque settlers were drawn to the fertile land where the Colorado and Gunnison rivers meet. Local Basques would winter their flocks in Utah’s southern stretches, then drive the bleating wooly creatures to the high mountains of western Colorado each summer.
Locally, two of the most well-known sheepmen were Jean Urruty and Emmett Elizondo, who were originally from Iparralde (northern Basque country in France) and Hegoalde (southern Basque country in Spain).
Urruty was the most culturally influential of the two and became affluent when oil was discovered on his ranch property.
In the 1960s and 1970s, he was the driving force in promoting Basque ethos in Colorado. He even starred as himself in an independent movie titled, “The Basque Sheepherder.”
An expert blacksmith, Urruty decorated his home with artwork fashioned from wrought iron. He and his wife, Benny, represented Colorado in NABO’s (North American Basque Organizations) early stages. Further, he donated several acres of land on his farm near 24 and G Roads for a Basque Club.
Another notable Colorado Basque is Emmett Elizondo, who at one time was probably the wealthiest rancher in the state. At the peak of his empire, he ran 30,000 head and later added cattle to the mix.
He helped develop the Fruita State Bank and served as its president for many years. Unfortunately, when Elizondo died in 1992, the livestock and holdings were sold to non-Basque, out-of-state ranchers.
Boarding houses played an important role in early Basque-American history. Known to Basques as “ostatuak” or “hotelak,” these establishments provided a home away from home for Basques just arriving and a room for the traveling sheepherder when he wasn’t tending the flock.
Grand Junction had two boarding houses that catered to Basques. One was the Cantebarria, which was located downtown and opened in 1919. It had a player piano which was purchased in 1920 for $2,000—a small fortune. The other boardinghouse opened in 1936 and was located at 234 Ute Ave.
Both establishments closed in 1946, creating a state of affairs where the sense of the Basque community was gone.
Bare-handed handball known as “pelota” is an integral part of the Basque culture. The sport originated from the medieval game jeu de paume ,and was developed by the Basques into the modern game which has a dozen or so variations.
Pelota frontons (handball courts) were erected in many Basque communities, including Grand Junction.
Urruty constructed a fronton on the land he donated to the Basque club, which is now part of Canyon View Park. The club was instrumental in organizing parties and pelota matches at the site for years. After Urruty died in 1983, the handball court was sold to the City.
In the 1990s, the City placed a “no trespassing” sign and the court was neglected. In 1999, City officials announced they were going to demolish the court and construct a parking lot in its place.
Basque residents rose up to protect a symbol of their history and tradition. They raised a considerable amount of money to finance their cause and the City finally relented.
The court was subsequently restored with reinforced walls and a new floor. Trees and shrubs were planted, a picnic area was added and the renovated Plaza Urrutia was presented to the community with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in October 2003.
Today, the Colorado Basque community is made up of children and grandchildren of local sheepherders, along with those who were born and raised in Euskal
Herria, the Basque country that straddles the border between France and Spain.
Many local Basques, along with those who can trace their ancestry back hundreds of years to Euskal Herria, are active members of Colorado Euskal Etxea, a Denver-based nonprofit Basque club. This small but active club hosts several annual celebrations and various cultural events across the state.
In September, hundreds of club members and Basque supporters gathered at the Plaza Urrutia at Canyon View Park for a pelota demonstration by professional players from San Francisco.
“The city hasn’t experienced a formal pelota event of this historical significance since 1979 when a contingent from the Basque country visited Grand Junction,” according to a Colorado Euskal Etxea press release.
For more information about Colorado Euskal Etxea and local Basque culture, visit www.coloetxea.wixsite.com/coloradoeuskaletxea or call 303-868-0906.