Bent County Clerk Patti Nickell and her crew braved an 18-month renovation of the courthouse, which meant no heat and at times no water.
“We got to be good friends with the Loaf ‘n Jug across the street,” she said, with a laugh.
The other courthouse operations were moved to different locations in Las Animas, but Nickell and her staff stayed put so it’s understandable how proud she is of Colorado’s oldest functioning courthouse and one so stunning it looks “Old Main” on some college campuses.
The $3.6 million renovation project that Nickell lived through won Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation in 2010.
Each corner of the courthouse features a vault, which she showed to Secretary of State Wayne Williams when he visited Wednesday to check out the new ballot drop box installed on the edge of the parking lot. Her office also features a popcorn machine.
County Commissioner Bill Long, county administrator Calvin Feik and two county commissioner candidates joined the secretary and Nickell on a tour of the building. The entourage climbed various wooden steps to the roof of the courthouse, which offered views of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the town’s original water tower and mostly flat land for miles.
The courthouse also includes some of the original oak furniture bought from Chicago when the courthouse opened in 1889. The jury box and a railing and a desk in the courtroom are all original. The commissioners’ office in the basement features a table from that purchase. Long sits in what used to be the judge’s chair.
Long was a fixture at the state Capitol in Denver for several years as he tried to save the economy of Las Animas after the state announced in 2011 it was closing the prison at Fort Lyon, a move that ripped apart the community. Long’s tenure ends next January as Bent County limits its commissioners to three, four-year terms. Next year, a woman could be serving on the commission for the first time ever.
“Three terms is enough,” Long likes to say when those who know how much he has contributed to Bent County lament his departure.
The other county offices are not term limited. Nickell has held the clerk’s job for nearly 30 years and her three staffers also have put in their time. Tobe Wright is the newcomer at 16 years while Lynda Moss is a 28-year-veteran. Virgie Robb, who is part time, is in her 20th year.
“I have a great staff,” Nickell said. “I couldn’t do my job without them.”
Nickell was born in Las Animas County and moved to Bent County 40 years ago so she’s familiar with the geographical confusion in this area. Bent County used to be much larger but in the late 1800s was divided into other counties. As result, the county seat of Las Animas County is Trinidad and Las Animas is the county seat of Bent County. But Bent’s Old Fort, which was a stopping point on the Santa Fe trail, is in Otero County.
“I’m so proud,” Nickell said, “to be from southern Colorado.”