The Snow-Shoe Itinerant Preacher in Lake County, Part One
by Brennan Ruegg, Leadville Today Contributor
Often overshadowed by old west drama, gunpowder, and a fascination with snowshoes, is the tested perseverance of a sober man watching a state being born often through violence. It certainly wasn’t easy. In fact, Dyer’s life was punctuated by escalating challenges. At each turn, he rested on the foundation of his faith and pushed through even stronger. Dyer never lost that faith even as he outlived all three of his sons, losing one of which in a bloody conflict known as the Lake County War.
Dyer Swears off Drinking and Mining
John Lewis Dyer was born in 1812 in Franklin County, Ohio, were working on the family flax field he met a figure in his life that helped shape the conviction of sobriety he would hold throughout his life.
At four years old he refused to shake the hand of a drunk who frequented his father’s company. Upon the refusal, the man mysteriously remembered as Mr. T. gave an omen that little John Dyer would become an alcoholic, on the basis that he had “never seen a child that hated a drunken man but would surely be a drunkard.”
This haunted Dyer through the early years of his childhood. He battled the “mouth-watering smell of whiskey” that passed as pay to hired hands until at age nine, temptation finally won over, and drinking until he could no longer taste it, the young Dyer quelled his curiosity. It was his first and last drunk, and affirmed his practice of temperance throughout his life, though he still would claim he was “born a lover of whiskey.”
After fighting in the Black Hawk War, converting to Methodism, and witnessing the ends of two marriages, Dyer swore off mining too. Dyer divorced his second wife after discovering that she was still legally married to another man. Weighed down by guilt and depression, he went underground in the lead mines of Wisconsin. Alone in a mineshaft, he heard the voice of God give an answer to his doubts against the circuit preaching he felt so compelled to undertake but had never acted on. Hearing what he needed to hear, Dyer hoisted himself out of the mine forever and began to proselytize for God.
For a man who had sworn off booze and mining, Colorado would seem an unlikely destination, however. But in middle age, Dyer wasn’t slowing down. Leaving Minnesota he set out west to the Rocky Mountains hoping to meet up with his son who had relocated there the previous year. He walked the last third of the journey, 750 miles from Omaha to Buckskin Joe, a mining camp east of the Mosquito Mountains, where he began a new life and the golden age of his profession.
As many migrants to the Rocky Mountains find, Father Dyer had renewed energy and a sense of purpose. In his forties, Dyer preached to mining camps in Alma, Fairplay and South Park, setting up services in gambling halls and defunct schoolhouses. Eventually, he took on a second job that became his most impressive physical feat and the source of his local renown, the 35-mile Postal Route over Mosquito Pass from Buckskin Joe to Leadville.
Dyer delivered the mail and the word of God together on this trek several times a week, in all manners of weather. Dyer came close to death on this route, forged a spiritual base in the miners along with it, and innovated his own brand of snow-shoes and skis to traverse the 13,185-foot mountain pass. Dyer carried around 30 pounds of mail per shipment, often shepherding passengers unfit for the journey. He even escorted the man who would play a part in the assassination of his son.
In his autobiography, Dyer charts out his routes between Evan’s Gulch, Tarryall and the Arkansas River as if they were on the back of his hand, notes Indian trails and cabins, remembers friendships with moguls like H.A.W. Tabor and vagrants alike. He also relates an anecdote that would be of interest to locals, the naming of the Mosquitos:
“Mosquito got its name from this circumstance: the miners met to organize. Several names were suggested, but they disagreed, and a notion was made to adjourn and meet again, the place for the name to be left blank. When they came together on an appointment, the secretary opened the book, and a large mosquito was mashed right in the blank, [she] showed it, and all agreed to call the district Mosquito.”
Readers can stay tuned for tomorrow’s Part Two of The Snow-Shoe Itinerant Preacher in Lake County.
Brennan Ruegg is also an Ohioan, staking claims in the state of Colorado. He is a regular Contributor to Leadville Today.
Father Dyer Postal Route Race Held on April 7
Today, Father Dyer is remembered by North America’s highest ski race which roughly follows his weekly postal route from Leadville to what was Buckskin Joe. The 2018 Father Dyer Postal Route race will begin April 7 at 5 a.m., but various events are planned all weekend.
The present-day Father Dyer Postal Route takes racers up 3 peaks over 12,000′ including Centennial 13er Dyer Mountain (13,855’) and involves three demanding backcountry ski lines. And if spring snow storms continue to roll through, the same snow-laden high altitude basins once traveled by the one-and-only Father Dyer could present similar conditions for modern-day challengers.
This event is a fundraiser for the Leadville High Riders Snow Trails Association (501c3) in conjunction with the Lake County Winter Trails Committee. Profits from the race go to supporting winter trails maintenance and development in the Leadville area.
The Father Dyer Postal Route includes a weekend of activities, however the 5 a.m. start time on Saturday, Apr. 7 will have mountaineering fanatics up and at it before the sunrise! Race organizers are also looking for volunteers to assist with course marshaling, check stations, timing and “morale” stations. Check their site for all the details.
Remember, this is an unsupported team race. There is a mandatory gear list. Registration is already closed, but spectators may feel free to show up the day of the race and cheer on the competitors!