Eagle County’s tee-totaling judge | VailDaily.com

Eagle County’s tee-totaling judge

Kathy Heicher
Special to the Daily

Some judges may indeed like beer, but Eagle County's most historically notable judge, Lydia Tague, most definitely did not. Nor was her judicial demeanor ever a point for public debate.

There was surprise, but no controversy in 1911 when Tague, 42, a resident of the raucous mining town of Red Cliff, became the first woman judge in Colorado. The seat had been left vacant by her husband Patrick's sudden death.

The Tagues were well known in Red Cliff. Patrick, a Pennsylvania coal miner, came to the county in the early 1880s, seeking silver and a climate more accommodating to his weak lungs. Lydia, the daughter of a prominent Boulder County judge, arrived in 1884 with her sister's family, and worked at the post office. The pretty young postal clerk caught the eye of several miners, but kindly, bookish Patrick captured her heart. They married in 1889.

The newlyweds opened up a general store, but lost that business in the Panic of 1893. The county commissioners, seeking an educated man to serve as county judge, tapped Patrick, who served several terms while Lydia raised their five children. Patrick's illness worsened, and he died in February of 1911. One week later, the county commissioners appointed Lydia, one of several applicants for the job, to take his place.

"No other county in the state can boast of a woman as county judge and we should all be proud of this record. Mrs. Tague thoroughly understands the duties of the office and will make an excellent official. The appointment is met with approval by all," read the Feb. 24, 1911, Eagle Valley Enterprise.

In the county court, Lydia deftly handled cases ranging from resolving boundary disputes between sheep and cattle ranchers to setting punishments for law-breaking miners. She was best known for cracking down on bootleggers. Prohibition became the law in Colorado in 1916, and the tee-totaling Lydia was an ardent enforcer of that rule.

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No liquor for Lydia

Prohibition did not quench the pioneer county's thirst for alcohol, and there were plenty of renegades operating hidden whiskey stills. When the offenders came to court, Judge Tague levied heavy fines and substantial jail sentences.

One bootlegger reportedly lacked remorse when Tague set a fine for his misdeeds. Flush with cash from his illegal operation, the man pulled a bundle of money out of his pocket and offered to pay the fine immediately. But Tague wasn't finished. Annoyed, she banged her gavel and added the penalty of a jail sentence, inquiring sharply, "Do you also have that in your pocket?"

In 1922, Lydia made headlines when she voiced concerns that several prisoners (including a bootlegger) that she had sentenced were being treated as "pampered guests" at the Garfield County jail (Eagle County's one-room jail in Red Cliff could not house numerous prisoners). Annoyed, Judge Tague ordered the prisoners moved to the less cozy Lake County jail in Leadville.

Tague was re-elected three times, and earned $100 per month. Local newspapers praised her as "fair but strict," prompt and meticulous. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld Tague's rulings.

"Her abilities as a judge is unquestioned by all of the attorneys who have had cases in her court, and there should be no hesitancy upon the part of the voters of the county in placing their mark of approval after her name for the position," read the Eagle Valley Enterprise on Oct. 25, 1912.

She stepped away from office in 1924, but stayed in the judicial system for several years, working as a court clerk. Lydia, 69, died in 1937 after suffering a stroke. She earned praise even in death.

"As a public official she was faithful always to her trust, was a loyal, patriotic citizen to her county and community, and a neighbor beyond compare," the Eagle Valley Enterprise reported on Jan. 22, 1937.

It could be a while before that kind of praise for judges comes around again.

Kathy Heicher is the president of the Eagle County Historical Society and the author of several local history books. She can be contacted at kheicher@gmail.com.