He is a gentle, soft spoken old fella,' with kindly hazel eyes and an old fashioned crew cut. Now generously sprinkled with white, his hairstyle is reminiscent of a bygone era, a time in history that is proclaimed by his courteous demeanor and a personal work ethic that is beyond reproach.
His name is Ben, "Gentle Ben" Casias, son of Bentura and Theresa.
Poppa Bentura, born in 1886 in Taos, New Mexico, immigrated to Colorado as a young man to seek his fortune in the coal mines. Theresa was the sister of old Ed Gomez and Betty Long. She, like the rest of her Gomez kin, was born in Sopris, Colorado. During my early childhood, both the Gomez and the Casias families were my immediate neighbors. The Gomez clan lived to the southeast, just a stone's throw from my home, while the Casias,' to the north, were so close we could almost hear them breathing.
Gentle Ben was born in Segundo, Colorado on October 3, 1918. He had a slew of siblings: Flora, Sam, Della, Gilbert, Albert, John, Eloise, and finally, Bob. All the kids attended the old Primero School. By this time the family had moved to Valdez, and the kids all walked the mile and one-half each way to old Segundo to attend to their studies. Ben made it to the ninth grade, and, so he mused, "I was lucky to get that far." Times were hard. "I had to go to work to help the family," explained Ben.
So Ben went off, like his father before him, to seek fame and fortune in the farm fields of La Junta and Rocky Ford. With great-grandpa Isadoro Gomez, he worked the vegetable and the beet fields of the high eastern-plains farming country. They lived in an old house provided by the owners of the farms. Weeding was Ben's responsibility, and down on his knees, with the flesh of his bare hands, he ripped the demon weeds from the mother earth in row after endless row, and acre after endless acre. It was a dismal and thankless endeavor, but he and great grandpa were earning enough money to just get by.
Thus, the next three years passed quickly for young Ben. Most of the work was done during the summer growing months. He eventually decided to seek a better life in California, so he hopped a freight train that took him out to Colton in the Pacific state where he found employment as a laborer, laying track for the railroad. After a year of back-breaking labor with the railroad, he decided it was time to go home, home to his family and all his friends. Upon his return to Colorado, he found work in the old Sopris coal mine. And it was there, in Sopris, that Ben met his future wife.
The old Sopris Club used to hold dances where the community met and socialized. It was at one of these dances, while hanging out with his buddy, Cosme Lovato, and his brother, Sam, that Ben encountered Margaret. Margaret just
happened to be the sister of Cosme.
"I had a Chevy convertible back then," recalled Ben. "I knew Margaret a little through Cosme, so I asked her to dance. We started getting acquainted and started seeing each other from then on, driving around in the convertible. All her family was from Sopris. She was a nice looking girl. About a year or so later we went to Raton and eloped."
The newlyweds moved into a house just east of the Frontier Tavern, one of several popular gathering places for the beer drinkers of Sopris, owned back then by Angelo Brunelli. Ben toiled hard to provide for his new bride, and shortly thereafter, his two children, Judy and Jerry. He found employment with the Works Progress Administration and took on any side job he could find. He also worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps which had its headquarters near the Trinidad power plant just east of town. With the CCC, he drove a supply truck, hauling food, clothing, and pesticides from Colorado Springs to the communities of Kim, Branson, and Trinchera. Eventually he would work in the coal mines in Burro Canyon, Valdez, Primero, Bon Carbo, and, of course, Sopris. He even did a stint in the coke ovens of historic old Cokedale.
"Working in those coal mines was pretty tough back then," explained 'Gentle' Ben. "Most of it was done with a pick and shovel. We worked on our hands and knees all day, and there was a lot of coal dust. There was no ventilation, and we couldn't stand up because the ceiling was so low. We used to chew tobacco to keep the dust out of our mouth. And we shot our own shots in coal veins that were only about four feet high. Eventually, when I worked in Valdez, I worked a cutting machine. We worked for company wages for $14.50 a day."
In the meantime, Ben moved the family into grandpa's house behind the church in St. Thomas, right next door to the Leonetti abode. Having neighbors like the Casias family made for some very good years for the Leonetti clan. In 1954, however, Margaret's parents moved to Trinidad, so Ben bought her and the kids a home on 1038 Robinson where he and his son Jerry reside to this very day. Ben paid a whopping $1,200 for the home on Robinson Street. "I got a good deal on that one," he boasted with a sly little grin." Eventually, with the closing of the coal mines, he found employment with the City of Trinidad where he labored for eighteen and one-half years as a heavy equipment operator, working the grader and the loader.
That's how it went for the old white haired, crew cut, fella who was born up-the-river in Segundo. Along with many of those old fell as from the coal camps, Ben had a passion for baseball and softball. Every little hamlet had a team. Ben played first base for St. Thomas. They had no mascot-they were simply, the "team from St. Thomas." The games were played on the dirt ball field between the church and the old St. Thomas Elementary School. Teammates were Erminio Lovato, Manual Roybal, Dan Arguello, Joe Archuleta (from Weston), Raymond Reyes, Becco Archuleta, and Harold Lovato. Fidel Martinez acted as the team's manager. They wore bright canary yellow uniforms that were about two sizes too small. "We were pretty fair," Ben reminisced about the quality of the team and ignoring the description of the team uniforms provided by son Jerry. "We used to always beat the Viola team for a keg of beer and they would really get mad. And sometimes we would beat the Trinidad teams, the Joe Marchiol group and some of those good players. Everybody was always so friendly. Sopris was a nice place to live until they built the dam. It was always a lot of fun."
Only Sam, Albert, and Joe remain of Ben's siblings. The family lost Margaret in February of 1996. And it was quite a loss, for Margaret was just as caring and gentle as Ben. And what a cook she was! My brothers and sisters and I probably ate as many meals at the Casias house as we did at home. Her beans and chili and home-made tortillas were the consummate food. When the fragrance of Margaret's cooking wafted across the yard to our eagerly anticipating little noses, the effect was almost Pavlonian. We had no choice. We were conditioned to salivate. "She was a good woman and a good cook," said Ben. "Her cousins Jenny and Max Martinez taught her how to cook."
Ben and Margaret's daughter, Judy, married Tom Ortiz. Two children, Tammi and Terri, were born to this marriage. Tammi is married to Rusty Guzzo and they have Jeffrey and Jacqueline. Terri is married to Terry Hessler and they have three children, Casey, Brittany, and little Terry. An the great grandchildren are active in football and wrestling and other school activities, and uncle Jerry and great grandpa Ben spend a lot of time following the kids around the state in their athletic and school related endeavors. Jerry remains single and assists Dad with his part-time job cleaning offices.
"We've always just tried to make a decent living," concluded Ben in his soft
voice. "And living in Trinidad and Sopris was great because we've always had good
neighbors. And I just try to always be honest.
"If you can do that, things seem to work out for the best."