John J. Zink takes leap to Colorado

It’s said that John James Zink ventured from Central Nebraska to Southwest Colorado not for the scenery, which wasn’t quite so valuable then as it is today, but for his health.

In any case, he made this life change an opportunity, snapping up prominent chunks of San Juan Basin land with the money he’d made from previous land deals in Nebraska. He astutely understood the intrinsic worth of location, and in the end, you could say he saved the best for himself in the wide valley north of Durango.

By April 1910 he’d moved his young family – a wife and three children – from Nebraska and they’d settled briefly into a two-story house on Main Avenue in what was then Animas City.[1] John J. was quickly busy trading and selling land. He went to work selling real estate for Barney Glaser, and he roamed all over the San Juan Basin. A small ad in the Durango Evening Herald claims, “John Zink, ‘The Land Bargain Man,’ can show you the best and cheapest.”[2]

This was the beginning of the Zink clan’s century-long-plus stay in La Plata County.

So who was this guy? What prompted him and his wife, Ida Dickerson Zink, the daughter of a successful and well-known Nebraskan, to pull up their roots and branch out into the quickly developing, but still rough-and-tumble Four Corners?

Let’s take a look:

Raised on the farm

John J. Zink was born March 19, 1876, in Clay County, northwest Iowa, on land homesteaded by his father and mother, James and Sarah Grant Zink.

Map of Nebraska in 1891, Asher & Adams, courtesy of David Rumsey Collection.

His stay in Iowa was short. In 1879 or 1880 the family moved to Fullerton, Nance County, pretty much smack dab in the middle of Nebraska’s eastern half.[3]

John J. grew up and learned the farming life in Nance County and then Loup City, a small town in Sherman County, a bit west of Nance County. The lifestyle made him muscular and tough. It’s said he was a good wrestler, a “devoted disciple” of Martin “Farmer” Burns and Frank Gotch, according to a Durango Herald story about the Zink clan written in 1958.[4] Burns and Gotch, both native Iowans, were famous wrestlers of the turn-of-the-century period, American champions in what was then called the “Catch as Catch Can” style. Matches would often last hours. Top wrestlers could make a living by traveling from town to town and competing.

John J. Zink wrestled only as an amateur. He was also an excellent first baseman, a powerful man at 6 feet and 200 pounds who could belt the ball a fair piece. He received “several flattering offers” to enter pro ball, the Herald story said.[5]

An account by Howard Zink, John J.’s son, said John J. was also offered a school teaching job but declined that too. (John J. finished eighth grade at a country school.)[6]

John James Zink, taken in Loup City, likely around 1900.

After his father’s health began failing, John J., only about 18, took over farming operations, which consisted of raising hogs, cattle and horses. The main crop was corn, with some hay. John J. also bought other small farms and ran a rather large scale operation for a time, his son John W. wrote.[7]

The 1900 Census shows John J., age 24, living at the house his brother Marion owned outright in Loup City. Both were working as farmers. Their sister, Martha, was living there, too, with her husband, William, who was working as a “day laborer.”[8]

It was around this time that John J. and a young woman named Ida May Dickerson were set up, so to speak, by their respective fathers, who served consecutively in the Nebraska legislature, representing the same House district. The story goes that their fathers might have arranged this relationship, or that John’s father James found out that Albert Dickerson had a beautiful daughter and passed the tidbit along to his son. When John J. got the tip he hitched up his buggy and “went a courting.”[9]

In any case, the match must have clicked. John was fairly tall, at 6-foot-2, while Ida May was rather short. Her brothers teased her that John could not bend down far enough to kiss her at the wedding. According to Howard, “Mom got a stool and put a cloth fringe around it and told the boys she would stand on it. She was so convincing that the brothers hid her stool on the wedding day.”[10]

John and Ida May were married in March 1901 in Loup City. (Some sources indicate 1902, but 1901 seems more likely.) The first of their eight children, Leonard, arrived in July 1903.

John J. Zink and Ida Dickerson were married March 20, 1901, in Litchfield, Nebraska.

After the marriage they lived in Ashton, a small town a few miles east of Loup City, according to a family history written by Ruth Ellen Zink Duncan (John and Ida May’s third child). “Father had a barber shop, a confectionary store, served meals and rented beds upstairs. All the stories they told about that episode … they soon decided that was not the life for them.”[11]

How this affected John is unclear, but a sad incident occurred in Denver on September 1, 1904, that shook the family. Marion had spent two years studying at Northwestern University in Chicago from 1901 to 1903, then worked on a farm in Greeley, Colorado, for a year. On that fateful evening in Denver he was badly beaten, and he claimed it was the police that did it. The police said they found him that way, and one version is the farmer was beaten and robbed by city toughs. The incident, unfortunately, left him a “raving maniac,” according to his aunt, Mrs. Alpha Zink, whom Marion was staying with in Denver. (Alpha was the wife of Alonzo Zink, the much younger brother of James Zink.) John Zink came out from Loup City to retrieve his troubled brother, who had to be taken to an asylum in Lincoln.[12] Marion died at the asylum on his 36th birthday in 1910.[13]

John J. and Ida come to S.W. Colorado

The year 1910 was an eventful one for John J. and Ida Zink. They welcomed a fourth child, Ida’s mother was accidentally shot in the head (see Anna Dickerson’s story), and they made a big move, not necessarily in that order. Also, John’s mother came to live with them (see Sarah Jane Grant Britton Zink story).

John J. and Ida added two daughters to the family before 1909, when John came out to Southwest Colorado to take a look. Leaving Nebraska was his doctor’s idea.[14] John J. was diagnosed with “incipient tuberculosis,” and a move to a dry climate with fresh air would supposedly give him a chance at a longer life and help him breathe better. Sanatoriums for those with TB had sprouted up all over the arid Southwest in the late 1800s, Colorado Springs’ being the most famous.

“He came hither after reading in Nebraska some glowing-prom(otional) literature put out by an early day Montezuma county chamber of commerce,” the Herald reported.[15] Montezuma was created from the western portion of La Plata County in 1889.

Whether it was Montezuma or La Plata, he liked what he saw. John J. and Ida loaded their possessions and their livestock onto a train and headed west. John J. hung out in the cattle car with his stock, with Ida and the three kids in a passenger car.[16] By April 1910 the family was living on Main Avenue in “Animas Town.”[17] The later-to-be-established address was 3057 Main, and that’s where Albert Zink was born on August 20, 1910.

During the 1890s and 1900s John Zink had purchased parcels of land in Nebraska at very low prices. Land prices had collapsed in 1890 because of drought, overuse of credit, and low prices for farmers’ products.[18] (This crisis also led to the rise of the Populist Party, which John’s father, James, had joined. Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president – and lost – three times as a Democrat, was supported by the Populists.)

U.S. Geological Survey topographical map, Durango quadrangle. Surveyed 1896, 1907. Printed October 1908, reprinted 1946.

After buying low – as many as ten parcels, Howard Zink wrote – John Zink sold high. And he used those gains to continue buying land when he arrived in Southwest Colorado. That became his occupation for the next several years.

Newspapers of the early 20th century are handy because they list a lot of events that would seem inconsequential in the early 21st century. For instance, from the Durango Democrat of September 4, 1910, we learn that through Gallotti Investment Company, John Zink sold a ranch near Ignacio to H.L. Hendrix of Texas. Zink had bought the ranch just three months previously. “There was a material advance in the price,” the Democrat reported,” but Mr. Hendrix is going into the nursery business and it is just the place he wanted.” And it was likely just the deal that John needed to really get rolling at his office, located at 115 Eighth Street.

It was certainly a time of opportunity and growth. The local mines were pumping out ore laden with silver and gold. Durango’s smelter was going strong. Coal mining towns popped up here and there. Railroads, both long and short, carried ore, coal and more from the outlying settlements to the big city.

In 1900 the population of La Plata County was 7,016. By 1910 it had boomed, growing 54 percent to 10,812. A lull ensued, however, and the population grew by just 4 percent from 1910 to 1920.[19]

Upon his arrival in the area, John quickly became involved in local politics. He ran for mayor of Animas City on the Citizens Party ticket. His platform was against a proposal for water meters to be installed at each house that gets water from Durango, the April 6, 1911, Weekly Herald reported. Oh yes: He won the election.

During this “progressive era,” many Americans were championing social and political reform, trying to weed corruption out of local and national governments, and breaking up monopolies. John Zink was part of this movement.

(A side note for those who enjoy such trivial details: In 1911 it was $1.50/year for a subscription to the Weekly Herald.)

Lest you think John Zink’s life was filled merely with victories and great financial deals, here’s something:

John J. Zink was defeated by “one of the Schaller brothers, the acrobats and weight lifters traveling with the carnival company,” according to the October 5, 1911, Weekly Herald. Remember we said John was a good wrestlers back in the Midwest? Well, this was a wrestling match with a 10-minute limit. John was 35 years old at this point, but the word is he put up a good battle with the traveling professional. “It took nine minutes and 58 seconds for Schaller to put Zink’s shoulders to the mat.”

John J. Zink also served as a local justice of the peace, and heard at least one murder case. In 1912 he became involved with the La Plata County Democrats, and was a member of the “Permanent Organization and Order of Business” committee.[20] Not to get too sidetracked here, but this was an interesting election on the national level. Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat being championed by John J. and others, won just 42 percent of the vote, but easily won the election. Former President Theodore Roosevelt split much of the Republican vote by running as a Progressive; he got 27 percent. William Taft, the Republican incumbent president, earned 23 percent. Eugene Debs – a Socialist for gosh sake! – took another 6 percent. And you thought modern presidential elections were convoluted.

Standing (clockwise): Bert, Zelma, Leonard, Ruth and Blanche. John W. in chair.

Move to the country

About 1912 the Zinks moved to the Dudley place in the valley near Hermosa.[21] The family was getting closer to the Waterfall Ranch, but not quite there yet.

In 1913, John J. Zink purchased the A.J. Buchanan ranch above Trimble Springs for $9,000. “This is a splendid farm home and convenient to Durango,” the newspaper said.[22] By now, John’s land dealings had netted him a decent fortune. In 1914 he bought a horseless carriage, or motor wagon. This was newsy enough to make mention in the paper, which reported March 29 that “John J. Zink, of the Animas valley, recent purchaser of a Buick, motored into town yesterday with the machine full of ladies from that part of the country.”[23] Apparently he had a large smile on his face, although the new laws said he had to stay under 18 mph, 10 mph in the city. (It is said that when he was Animas City mayor, he set a 15 mph limit there.) At the time, because cars frightened the horses pulling the ubiquitous carriages, or surreys, of the day, cars weren’t allowed on roads on certain days, particularly Sundays.

John and Ida May continued to add to their family as they farmed and sold their produce in town. Blanche was born in 1914 at the Dudley place.[24]

John periodically traveled to San Diego to visit his father, who had moved there from Nebraska by 1910. The first trip was around 1915 or 1916, Ruth Zink Duncan recalled.[25] With her father gone, Ruth left school temporarily to help her mother. She would have been about 8 or 9 at the time.

“We sorted apples and potatoes all week. We would get one of the Ross boys to come on Friday morning and load the wagon for me. I delivered apples and potatoes to homes all over Durango, took eggs and butter to the store, and brought all the kids from high school home after school. Seemed quite a distance those days. Leonard and I would haul hay on Saturdays to fill the feed bunks on Sunday afternoons. Bert usually went along to take the kids back to school.”[26]

John Wilson Zink, the sixth child, came along on December 12, 1916. He was born in Hermosa, but he didn’t stay there long.



[1] U.S. Census, 1910.

[2] Durango Evening Herald, November 30, 1910.

[3] The 1880 U.S. Census shows the Zink family in Fullerton, Nebraska. Family records indicate that brother Clarence was born in Iowa in October 1879.

[4] Durango Herald-News, June 1, 1958, “From A to Zink … or One Man’s Family.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Howard Zink, “A Little History and a Few Memories,” written in 2001 for the John James Zink family reunion.

[7] John W. Zink’s story, written for the 2001 John James Zink family reunion.

[8] U.S. Census, 1900. (Note: Most records from the 1890 U.S. Census were destroyed in a 1921 fire.)

[9] Howard Zink, 2001 story.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ruth Zink Duncan’s family history, written in August 1992 for younger brother Howard Zink.

[12] Rocky Mountain News, April 8, 1905. The story was about a couple incidents of police brutality being investigated in Denver.

[13] Sherman County (Nebraska) Times, March 10, 1910.

[14] Durango Herald-News, June 1, 1958.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Memories of the Life and Times of Ruth Ellen Zink Yearwood Duncan, by Sara Willey, included in John James Zink Family Reunion booklet, July 2001.

[17] U.S. Census, 1910. Animas Town was officially known as Animas City.

[18] Nebraska legislature’s Blue Book, history section.

[19] Figures from U.S. Census reports.

[20] Durango Democrat, July 28, 1912.

[21] Ruth Zink Duncan’s family history.

[22] Durango Democrat, March 9, 1913.

[23] Durango Democrat, March 29, 1914.

[24] Ruth Zink’s family history.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.