Kenneth Baker, Legislative Consultant for the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, was born in Salida, CO on March 10, 1932, the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected 32nd President of the United States. Mr. Baker has seen, experienced, and accomplished a lot in his 87 years, which we learned when we sat down with him for an interview late last year. Our hopes were to hear a few stories about Ken’s life, his family, and his work, to glean from his experiences and knowledge, and to capture the story and the magic of a man that has meant so much to the water community and to those that know him personally. We hope to share a hint of that magic with you.
It’s a special thing to be entrusted with someone’s story, an even greater honor to be allowed to share it. When we first set our intention to create an archive of stories of individuals that have impacted the local water community we were reminded of the mission of StoryCorps’, which is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” On its website StoryCorps’ states, “We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.”
Of course, it would be impossible to communicate the depth and breadth of Ken Baker in one short article- 87 years is a lot of life to have lived! We hope that our video and audio archive, the compilation of articles that Ken has written over the years, and this little glimpse into his story will serve to facilitate connection and appreciation for a life well lived.
If you take a peek at Ken’s bio on the District’s website you’ll find these words. “Ken Baker graduated from the University of Colorado with BA, MA and JD degrees. He was admitted to the Colorado Bar Association in 1964 and practiced law in Salida from 1974 until 2001, specializing in water, real estate and administrative law. Mr. Baker was the Chaffee County Attorney for 25 years and former Poncha Springs Town Attorney. Mr. Baker was one of the founding members of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District and served as the manager and attorney for the District from 1979 until 2001. He was instrumental in developing the District’s blanket well augmentation plan and today is the District’s Legislative Consultant.” That’s a lot! And at the same time, it’s only a tiny piece of Ken’s story.
Here are a few other things we learned when we took the time to listen and dig deeper. Ken grew up in Salida, next to an Italian grocery store, one block from the railroad tracks. He was one of seven children, six of whom were boys. Salida was an immigrant community at that time, the railroad having brought people from all over the world, and it was not uncommon to hear Italian, Spanish, and Croatian spoken on Salida’s streets. Ken grew up fishing and playing along the Arkansas River and remembers Tenderfoot (S Mountain) as his playground. He knew the gulches by name and would regularly get water out of a spring across the river. For those that don’t know; that spring is called Pasquale Springs and is now part of the City of Salida’s water supply.
Both Ken and his father were students at Longfellow. Living so close to the tracks Ken remembers hitching a ride home on the back of the train, though he was always careful to jump off a block early and walk the rest of the way so his mom wouldn’t ask too many questions. The railroad was central to the community as Ken grew up. Ken’s dad was a railroader and Ken’s first job was as a railroad brakeman.
Ken planned to go to college right after high school but President Truman had a different plan for fellows his age. The Korean war had started and Ken joined the United States Navy. He remembers travelling from Denver to San Diego by train and a few things stood out to him about that trip. He saw his very first television in the window of a shop in Salt Lake City. He also remembers stopping in a quaint little gambling town in the middle of nowhere in Nevada. You may have heard of it- it’s called Las Vegas. Things sure have changed since Ken took that trip out West!
Following his service with the Navy, Ken returned to Colorado and was invited to play football at the University of Colorado, where he majored in history and Latin American studies. Ken then went on to study law, was admitted to the Colorado Bar Association in 1964, and started his first job as a lawyer in Alamosa specializing in land and water.
But this wasn’t Ken’s first experience with water. Ken grew up around water and knew about irrigation from an early age. His work in Alamosa with the agricultural community only served to deepen that knowledge and experience, which he then brought back to Chaffee County. Over the course of many decades Ken worked as a private attorney, Chaffee County attorney, and attorney for the Town of Poncha Springs. He was one of the founding members of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, serving as manager and attorney for more than 20 years, and remains the Legislative Consultant for the District to this day.
One thing you notice when Ken starts talking about this period of his life is his humility. Despite decades of work and life experience, Ken credits others for the many significant water related accomplishments that have been achieved throughout the years. His list of mentors is long, each name bringing forth a story and a deep sense of respect and gratitude. People like George Everett, Wendell Hutchinson, Tom Young, Denzel Goodwin, Jim McCormick, Glenn Everett, Eddie Holman, and Terry Scanga, just to name a few. A lot of these folks are no longer with us, but their legacies live on. It was a privilege to hear Ken share their stories with us, just as it honors us to share his story with you.
When we asked Ken about his role in founding the District and developing the District’s blanket augmentation plan he said, “I didn’t know what we were meant to do when we started but I’m proud of what we’ve done.” He says the District started as the little engine that could and turned into the little engine that did. And because Ken writes about the history and accomplishments of the District better than we ever could, we encourage you to read his article, “A Footnote in History as the Arkansas River Flows through the Upper Valley” .
Of course, Ken’s life is a vessel that is filled with more than water. It is filled with family, including his wife Linda whom he met square dancing and married in 1990, and his children whose accomplishments, like Ken’s, are too many to list. It is also filled with the many friends, mentors, and colleagues whose own cups are a little fuller because of Ken’s part in their lives.
We know that this article has only scratched the surface of Ken’s story, but hopefully this connection with history through his story has provided a reminder of our shared humanity. Ken has given his heart and soul, his mind, his resources, and his energy to protecting water rights, to holding up the doctrine of prior appropriation, and to his family, friends and community whom he loves dearly. If this little scratch on the surface of Ken’s life leaves you with a sense of anything at all, we hope it’s that Ken Baker’s story, like all of our stories, is one worth sharing.