Sunday, March 31, 2024

John Demphy of Salida CO — Many Talents, One Great Sorrow

A German immigrant who ultimately settled in Salida, Colorado, John B. Demphy was a man of multiple talents, as cabinetmaker, bartender,  saloonkeeper, whiskey blender, policeman, poultry farmer, truck driver, and justice of the peace.  None of Demphy’s skills, however, could save the life of his highly promising only son.

Demphy was born Johan Dampfle in Baden Germany in 1868. When he was but nine months old he was brought to the United States by his parents, Johan and Elizabeth,  aboard the steamship Schmidt embarking from Bremen.  The family early on settled in Buffalo, New York,  where his father was employed as a carpenter and cabinetmaker.  The youth received an education in the the Buffalo school system, and following in his father’s footsteps began work as a carpenter.

After achieving adulthood, he anglicized his name to John Demphy and changed his occupation to tending bar.  In that role the young immigrant caught the notice of a Buffalo newspaper in 1896 as the chief bartender at Buffalo’s Genesee Hotel, shown here.  Demphy, 28,  was in charge of a squad of barkeeps hired on to serve a New York convention of Tammany Hall politicians “and keep their thirst slaked…Johnnie worked so hard that he said last night he was sure the thousand or more Tammany men came up ‘Just to let the Irish see…Dutchmen work themselves to death.”

In 1894 Demphy had married Ruth M. Hudson, a local woman 11 years younger than he.  The next year their first child, Mildred, would be born, followed by Marshall Albert in April 1898.  The family was living at 2411 Michigan Street in Buffalo.  Demphy was restless, apparently seeking wider opportunities than offered by tending bar in Buffalo.  About 1902, when his children were still young Demphy bundled up his family and headed West.  

After a brief stop in Omaha, Nebraska, which apparently proved unproductive, Demphy headed 680 miles further west to Salida in Chaffee County, Colorado. Shown below,  Salida, “exit” in Spanish, was named for its location near the place where the Arkansas River flows out of an agricultural valley and into Bighorn Sheep Canyon. Downtown Salida had burned twice, once in 1886 and again in 1888. Both times local businessmen rebuilt using local brick, as shown below in an 1890s postcard of the main avenue, F Street.

Despite the solid look of Salida, it was not a “get rich quick” opportunity for the newly arrived Demphy.  It was not a Western boom town because of gold, oil or other underground wealth.   But neither was Salida overflowing with saloons serving thirsty miners.  Instead Demphey found regular employment working for James Collins at his popular downtown saloon at 104 F Street.  The Irish owner and German barkeep apparently proved highly compatible.  About 1910 Collins decided to retire and leave town.  He sold the F Street saloon and his residence to Demphy.   Shown below, the house, built about 1888, still stands, known as the Collins/Demphy House and on the Salida roster of historic buildings.

Now Demphy had a saloon in his sole possession to manage and a large comfortable home in which to house Ruth and their two children.  Seemingly having found the future he had been looking for, the saloonkeeper expanded his efforts.  As shown below, he became the regional agent of  Anheuser-Busch Company, a brewery then making a concerted marketing effort in the West.  He also was offering customers at the bar drink tokens, a common tradition in Western saloons.

The transplanted New Yorker also expanded his efforts beyond simply dispensing booze over the bar into becoming a liquor wholesaler, supplying whiskey to the other saloons in Salida and vicinity.  He was bringing supplies into town from distillers all over the region via the railroad —the station shown here, Demphy was “rectifying” (blending) whiskeys to achieve desired smoothness, color and taste, and selling them at wholesale in ceramic jugs, shown below and the image that opens this post.

Demphy appears to have been a man of immense energy.  By 1913, along side his liquor business he was breeding and selling chickens at a facility at West Seventh Street and the railroad.  Perhaps briefly, he also was a member of Salida’s small police force.  The Salida Daily Mail of December 17, 2013, reported that the city council had convened an emergency meeting to investigate an incident between Patrolman John B. Demphy and a superior officer named Bailey:  “In the course of an argument over police duties Demphy accused Bailey of lying.  Bailey retorted with three blows to the face ands neck causing a discolored eye, cut lip and scratches on the neck.  Demphy was given first aid at a barber shop.”  Both men subsequently resigned from the force, apparently leaving the city with virtually no police.

Demphy’s biggest blow, however, was to come three years later.  His son Marshall, shown here, had gained considerable attention in Salida as an outstanding youth.  The Daily Mail wrote:  “Marshall was gifted with a wonderful intellect and a special talent for drawing…attested by the many pen sketches which adorn his home and the Salida high school. In mechanical drawing he had achieved a degree of perfection rarely attained by anyone….Throughout his school life [he] secured numerous trophies at various track meets and athletic events.”

At the age of 18 Marshall was struck by spiral meningitis, treatable by antibiotics today but not available in that era. The malady was known to strike young people and often be fatal.  The boy lingered for ten days in the grip of the disease while his anxious parents looked on at his bedside, and died on October 23, 1916.   After a Catholic funeral service in the Demphy home, he was buried in Salidia’s Fairview Cemetery, Sec. G, Blk 23, Lot 12.  His gravestone is shown here.

Less than a month later Demphy sustained another blow when on November 3, the voters of Colorado passed by a majority of 52% a referendum mandating the statewide prohibition on the making and sales of alcohol.  He may have seen this coming.  In 1907 the anti-liquor forces had forced through the Colorado legislature a local option law.  Because Salida and Chaffee County were strongly “wet,” the law had little effect on Demphy’s business but may have suggested to him to diversify into poultry.  After his liquor interests were ended permanently, for  a time he also drove a truck for a local lime quarry.

In the years that followed, Demphy, despite no formal legal training,  also became a justice of the peace in Salida, gaining a reputation for his human touch in the course of his duties and with some frequency making the newspapers.  After pleading guilty for starting a forest fire in the nearby Cochetopa National Forest, a defendant received a minimal fine and, according to the Daily Mail, was: “Warned by Justice Demphy to be more careful in the future and to warn others with whom he came in contact.”  On another occasion when an out-of-state couple came to the Salida courthouse asking him to marry them, Demphy invited them to his home because it provided better scenery .  “Using the two spruce trees in his front yard as a setting for the occasion, he pronounced them man and wife, while their friends took snapshots of the ceremony.”

Demphy died in October 1945, age 77  He had lived long enough to see the end of National Prohibition, but did not reentered the liquor trade.  He was buried in the family plot with son Marshall and both were joined in 1952 by Ruth Demphy. 

Notes:  This post has been dependent on a variety of sources, with the Salida Daily Mail as a principal one.  Although I have a photo of Marshall Demphy from his obituary, I am lacking one of John Demphy and hoping that an alert descendant will be able to supply one.


  1. Congratulations on 1.7m view Jack! That’s amazing! Appreciate all you do. All the best, Curt

  2. Curt: Thanks for your kind comments.