Snowshoes, Saloons, and Salvation: The Life And Times Of a 19th Century Colorado Pioneer Preacher

In September of 2004, my wife Liz and I hitched up our travel trailer and headed for the mountains of Colorado to hike, trout fish, leaf peep, and bum around like retired folks are prone to do. An attractive RV park in Buena Vista became home for the whole month. Located in the Arkansas River Valley, Buena Vista is aptly named. The views of the Sawatch Range to the west are truly spectacular.

In addition to the summer/fall activities we enjoyed, this area provided some excellent snowshoeing treks for the last two winters. The central location of Buena Vista makes it a good place to serve as a base of operations.

About midway through September, we took a day off from fishing and hiking to drive to Fairplay, a small town located in the expansive South Park Valley, about 40 miles northeast of Buena Vista. Some fellow campers had recommended that we visit a place on the northern edge of Fairplay called South Park City. It is a reconstructed nineteenth century mining town, which consists of 35 original structures. Some of the buildings were already there and others were moved in – many from the South Park region and a few from other locations in Colorado. South Park City was opened to the public in 1959 in an effort to preserve the history of mining towns in Colorado.

We enjoyed a self-guided tour and came away most impressed. Unlike many “historical” restorations, South Park City is not your typical tourist trap that has an endless string of trendy restaurants and souvenir shops. Authenticity has been accomplished, both in the structures and with donated artifacts. Our visit was well worth the modest cost of admission.

The first stop on the tour was a small log building called “Father Dyer’s Chapel.” It originally served as a small hotel in Montgomery, Colo., and was dismantled, moved to Fairplay, and reconstructed as a Methodist Church in 1868. Rev. John L. Dyer was the driving force behind the move. While visiting the chapel, two things caught my attention: First, “Father” Dyer was a circuit-riding Methodist minister in the 19th century, and second, he was known as “The Snowshoe Itinerant.” As a snowshoer whose great-great grandfather was also a Methodist circuit rider, I was greatly interested in those two things.

In an effort to increase my research, we made a second visit to South Park City, where we talked with Carol Davis and Linda Bjorklund of the South Park Historical Foundation. They were quite helpful in providing additional information about Father Dyer. They suggested that we also visit the Father Dyer United Methodist Church in Breckenridge, Colo., to the north of Fairplay, over Hoosier Pass. We not only found this beautiful church but also found the minister, Rev. Sandra Stephens, at work. We toured the church with her and she found a copy of “Look For Me In Heaven”, a biography of Father Dyer written by a former minister of the church, Mark Fiester. I read this biography along with Dyer’s autobiography, and discovered more about this fascinating Colorado pioneer.

John Lewis Dyer was born in Ohio on March 16, 1812 to Samuel and Cassandra Dyer. Being of an adventurous nature, Samuel Dyer moved his wife and eight children to the sparsely populated prairies of Illinois. While in Illinois, the young John Dyer met and married Harriet Foster on Dec. 4, 1833. In 1844, the Dyers and their five children moved north to Potosi, Wis., where John Dyer found work in the lead mines. Sadly, Harriet died in 1847 and their 13-month-old daughter died two months later. John Dyer was overcome with grief and faced the daunting task of raising his four remaining children alone.

In his compromised emotional state, Dyer married a local widow within a few months. Soon he was to find out that while she was widowed, she had also been previously married and never divorced from her first husband. Dyer decided that the only reasonable course of action was to obtain a divorce, admitting that the marriage was done in haste and never should have taken place. He remained single until marrying his third wife in 1870.

John Dyer had resisted the call to the ministry for some time, but in 1851 at the age of 39 decided to give it a try. With little formal education, he began preaching as a Methodist circuit rider. Following the example set by John Wesley in England a century earlier, hundreds of dedicated circuit riders like John Dyer spread Methodism throughout the frontier areas of the United States. It was a difficult life and financial compensation was minimal. The Methodist practice was to take the message to where the people were instead of waiting for the people to come to them. Preaching often took place in very informal settings.

By the mid 1850s, Dyer moved to Minnesota and filled circuits in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. By this time, he received full ordination. The winters on these circuits were especially hard and it was in Minnesota that John Dyer learned to make Norwegian skis to aid in traversing the deep snows. He learned this skill from a fellow minister who had been taught by Norwegian immigrants. While these long skis were technically not snowshoes, they served the same purpose and Dyer always referred to them as snowshoes.

By the early 1860s, Rev. Dyer was stricken with a condition that greatly diminished his eyesight. He had a lingering desire to travel to the Colorado Territory to see Pikes Peak and, thinking that he was going blind, he decided to pack up and head for Colorado on horseback. He got as far as Nebraska when his horse foundered. He then traveled the remaining distance on foot, arriving in Denver in June of 1861 at the not so young age of 49. Dyer’s son, Elias, had preceded him in Colorado and greeted him upon his arrival in Denver.

In short order, John Dyer ventured to the wide-open expanses of the South Park Valley. His eye condition had improved so he decided to stay longer than he had originally planned. He began an itinerant ministry in the small towns and mining camps in the mountains that surrounded South Park. At first, this was done unofficially, but later Dyer received official appointments as the Colorado Conference of the Methodist Church was formed and expanded. His itinerant ministry would end up covering almost four decades. It included much of present-day Colorado and New Mexico.

Rev. Dyer was a bit rough around the edges, was somewhat eccentric, and had little formal education. These qualities probably worked to his advantage in the rough and tumble mining camps of frontier Colorado. He would frequently enter a saloon or gambling hall and ask the patrons if they would put their cards and whiskey aside for an hour to listen to preaching. They usually obliged, and came to have a deep and lasting respect for the circuit rider. He was providing the only spiritual guidance that many of the men had ever known. Dyer not only preached in saloons and gambling halls but also in barns, stores, and even in the outdoors.

At the time, activities such as drinking, dancing, gambling, and playing cards were frowned upon by the Methodist Church. They often took place in very seedy places and sometimes led to violence and neglect of families. Occasionally, a few rowdies would try to disrupt the services but John Dyer, being rather tough physically, was usually able to handle such situations either through his words or his physical strength.

In time, John L. Dyer became known as “Father” Dyer. While not an official title conferred by the Methodist Church, rather it came from the people as a sign of respect and endearment. A minister acted in a fatherly role in providing spiritual sustenance and hope to those who had little. The title “Father” was often bestowed on older ministers of different denominations.

The mode of transportation for an itinerant preacher varied and to some extent, was dictated by the terrain. Father Dyer’s preferred method was usually on foot over some of the most difficult terrain in Colorado. Many of his travels took him over the rugged and treacherous trails of the Mosquito Range. He would frequently traverse Mosquito Pass at more than 13,000 feet. It was and still is one of the highest and most daunting in Colorado.

His travels also took him over the Continental Divide at Hoosier Pass to Breckenridge, where he established the church that now bears his name. Dyer was so adept at walking that on more than one occasion he walked from Alma to Denver in order to save the $10 stage fare. He could cover the one hundred mile distance in two and a half days.

In the wintertime, walking in the mountains became more problematic, so Father Dyer went back to making the long Norwegian skis that he called snowshoes. They were normally made of pine or spruce and were nine to 11 feet in length. These “snowshoes” provided flotation in deep snow and faster movement on downhill stretches, once he learned how to ski. Unfortunately, the skis were quite heavy and usually had to be carried on steep, uphill pitches. On his trips in the mountains, Dyer would often travel at night when the harder snow would support his weight. He would leave at 2 a.m. and found the best time could be made between then about 9 a.m. As an aid in his travels, Dyer carried a long wooden pole to use for propulsion, balance, braking, and testing snow depth. One of his skis and a pole hangs on a wall of the Father Dyer United Methodist Church in Breckenridge.

Since itinerant preaching did not pay much, Rev. Dyer began contracting to carry mail over Mosquito Pass. He would travel the 37 miles from Buckskin Joe (near Alma) to Cache Creek (near Leadville) each week for $18. He would also carry gold dust for the miners to exchange it for cash. These supplements to his income amounted to more than the church paid. Even with hauling a pack full of mail and gold dust that added up to 30 pounds to his weight, Dyer still found time to preach three or four times a week.

Mining in Colorado in the Nineteenth Century is often glamorized and stories are told of the immense wealth that was made. It must also be remembered that most of the wealth was made by comparatively few people. For the miners it was hard, backbreaking, and dangerous work, with little attention paid to safety and health. Father Dyer directed his ministry to these men and offered them a message of hope.

John Lewis Dyer continued his ministry in other parts of Colorado in the 1870s and 1880s. He married his third wife, Lucinda Rankin in 1870. He was 70 years old when they founded the Breckenridge Methodist Church. Dyer donated land for the church and helped build it. It still stands in an expanded form today. It serves both the local community and many who visit the Breckenridge area each year.

John and Lucinda Dyer moved to Denver in 1885 where she died almost immediately. He continued to live in Denver with his daughter and son-in-law until his death in 1901 at the age of 89. He is buried in a family plot in Castle Rock, Colo.

A stained glass portrait of John Lewis Dyer is in the dome of the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver in recognition of his efforts in the spiritual development of frontier Colorado. It’s rightly in a place of honor along with 15 other Colorado pioneers.

Memory of my great-great-grandfather was an additional motivation for my writing this article. Rev. Stephen Damascus Fagan, (1817-1867), was a Methodist circuit rider in Florida who was a contemporary of Father Dyer. While Rev. Fagan made his rounds on horseback instead of snowshoes, they were both noble men and dedicated servants under the most difficult of circumstances. On Rev. Stephen Fagan’s tombstone is the following epitaph: “A just man full of faith and good works.” Those same words could be said of Rev. John Lewis Dyer. May they both rest in peace.

Author’s note: This article could not have been written without the assistance of the following:
Carol Davis and Linda Bjorklund of the South Park Historical Foundation in Fairplay, Colorado for providing access to exhibits and articles about Father Dyer.

Rev. Sandra Stephens, minister of Father Dyer United Methodist Church in Breckenridge, Colo., for giving us a tour of the church and providing valuable insight into the life of Father Dyer.

Books used in preparing this article:
Dyer, John L.- The Snow-Shoe Itinerant
Fiester, Mark – Look For Me In Heaven: The Life of John Lewis Dyer
Morton, Jane – Dyer, Dynamite, & Dredges: The Story of a Breckenridge church and a Colorado Pioneer.

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