Just how is community pride measured? In Hotchkiss, look no further than the Hotchkiss High School "H." For almost 65 years the 100-foot-tall, 60-foot-wide hillside letter has signaled that one is in Bulldog territory.
The cement structure rests at an angle of repose on H Hill just southeast of town off of Highway 92. Jim and Gladys Carpenter, members of the class of 1960, own the hill and graciously allow the school access for upkeep and maintenance.
That mainly took place on Red and White Day. Year after year, the senior class gave the H a whitewashing with an old-fashioned mixture of limestone and water during Homecoming week and just ahead of the homecoming football game. The project was staged on the Short Ditch at the base of the H Hill, where limestone and ditch water were mixed in cans and passed up the hill brigade-style. When it splashed on the skin, said 1961 graduate Carl Clay, it burned.
But time, erosion and exposure to the elements have left the letter, literally, in pieces. Last spring, a group interested in revitalizing the H met with representatives of the Town of Hotchkiss, the Hotchkiss-Crawford Historical Society, the Hotchkiss Booster Club and local business owners to create a plan to preserve the H. The "Raise the H" campaign was started and a committee began fundraising efforts, with a goal of raising $7,500.
The project involved stabilizing the cement, creating a framework, and covering the entire letter in white metal roofing material. The HHS Alumni Association began accepting donations and businesses, graduates and graduating classes dating back to 1953 pitched in. The class of 1993 offered to work during their class reunion held last July.
Ray Katzdorn with the class of 1986 was on the committee. He's wanted to fix the H for a good decade and offered to oversee the project. Katzdorn suggested covering the H with roofing material after the original idea of a painted wooden cover was deemed too expensive.
During summer break he and a core group of student-athletes worked Wednesday mornings after weight lifting, building trails, driving metal posts into the ground, stabilizing the structure and creating a framework for the roofing material. Seniors Parker Katzdorn, Wade Katzdorn and Kale Litzelman, the grandson of 1964 graduate Dennis Marty, showed up ready to work every single Wednesday, said Katzdorn. Jared Cantrell, Colton Deluzio, J.D. Miller and Nolan Egging also pitched in.
Several graduates and alumni association members worked on the steep hillside, including Monty Todd, a 1970 graduate, who worked alongside sons Tristen and Brady.
After work days they all went to Zack's for lunch.
The project is almost complete and the metal roofing was recently put in place. Now, when the sun shines on H Hill, the roofing reflects the light and really catches the eye.
"It's got the whole valley talking about it," said John Marta, a 1957 graduate of Hotchkiss High School and a town trustee.
Hillside letters got their start in California in 1905 when a large "C" was built on Charter Hill overlooking the U.C. Berkeley campus. The idea caught on. In 1908 the "M" overlooking Colorado School of Mines became the fourth hillside letter in the country and the first in Colorado. Wikipedia lists at least 24, and possibly 27 hillside letters in Colorado, and six on the Western Slope.
It wasn't until 1951 that the Hotchkiss H got its start. Maybe it was inspired by the massive "W" at nearby Western State University in Gunnison, where many a college-bound student went because it was close to home. But it started as more of a hillside trench.
Back then the high school was located where the K-8 school is now. That spring, recalls 1954 graduate Dan MacKendrick, initiation into the lettermen's H Club required freshmen to dig a trench in the shape of an H into the hillside. "It's been over 60 years, so my memory isn't too sharp," said MacKendrick. He remembers John Hotchkiss and Ed Ramey helped dig the trench, and possibly Bill Denton and Jim Owens.
In 1954, truckloads of white volcanic rocks were hauled from Raymond White's orchard on Rogers Mesa and put in the trench, giving the H more visibility. MacKendrick remembers loading rocks in Max Hotchkiss' Dodge Power Wagon and taking them to the site, where students lined up to hand rocks brigade-style up the hill. While it may seem like difficult work today, he said, "We were young and energetic. It was fun."
Marta was a freshman and went to Rogers Mesa to load rocks. He remembers looking across the valley toward H Hill and seeing what looked like a bunch of ants working away.
The first attempt to cover the H in concrete was made in 1959 and failed when cement just oozed downhill. Carl Clay said that in 1960 a second attempt was made. Every method and material imaginable to hold the cement in place was used. On one upper corner they laid a box springs down and filled it with concrete. It's still there, said Clay.
Clay's younger brother Keith, a 1963 graduate, recorded his memories of the H for the HHS Alumni Association last summer during the Farm to Fiddle celebration. "The whole school was on that hill with a bucket brigade to put the cement where it belonged," he wrote. "That degree of cooperation is rare and may never have happened again."
Others recorded their memories of the H, too, with most graduates recalling homecoming week and Red and White Day. Susan (Tate) Spencer, a 1974 graduate, wrote that the only time she ever ditched school was to help with whitewashing the H. Her mom was mad, but it was worth it to be a part of the tradition.
Marta recalls the annual inter-class track meet. Competition culminated in a four-girl, four-boy relay race from the high school to the top of H Hill. Marta anchored the relay his senior year, running from the ditch straight up the left leg of the H. While he won, "I was crawling by the time I got up there."
Lee Foglesong anchored the relay as a senior in 1959 and was in third place when he started up the hill. "He tried to claw his way up the middle and ran out of steam," said Carl Clay. The junior class runner steadily snaked his way up the hill for the win.
During whitewashing everyone got thrown in the water, recalls Marta. "No one got past the ditch without getting baptized."
Over the years the H caught the attention of rival schools. In the early 2000s, Olathe students painted it blue (Cedaredge was blamed at first), and in 1962, three Paonia boys dynamited the lower south leg of the H. They got caught, and payment included piecing the chunks of concrete back together, said Clay. The crooked section was a constant visual reminder of the strong rivalry between the two schools.
Eventually, paint took the place of whitewash, and shortly after the high school moved to its Bulldog Street location in 1981, the traditional relay ended. At some point the freshman class took on maintenance duties.
The project was largely completed in recent weeks. Some erosion control work still remains, and a gate will be placed on the ridge above the H to restrict traffic. HHS senior engineering students are researching a project to install solar lighting around the letter's perimeter, said principal Paul Rodriguez. They hope to have the project complete by graduation. "That's a great way to finish off high school," said Rodriguez.
Tax-deductible contributions to cover the cost of the remaining work can be dropped off at the HHS office or sent to: "H" Fundraising, in care of Karen Martin, PO Box 237, Hotchkiss CO 81419. Personal memories of the H are also welcome. The committee is also looking for some straw bales, and Katzdorn said he has some nice post drivers for sale.
With the roofing material in place, the longstanding tradition of painting the H on Red and White Day ended in 2015. This year's freshman class helped complete the wooden framework for the roofing material and worked on erosion control. It might be time to start a new tradition, or to bring back one of the old traditions to replace it, said Rodriguez. He likes the idea of reviving the relay, and is open to suggestions.
Students have been engaged in the project and have really enjoyed the work, said Rodriguez. "The goodwill of the project rubs off in a positive way on the student body."