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  • How Pat McMahon Helped Foster La Veta, Colorado’s Female-First Ethos

    The so-called "hippie-artist-builder" paved the way for other women to lead.

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    La Veta isn’t really on the way to anywhere. Tucked against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it has just one main road that serves a population of less than 900. At first glance, it seems like any small town—except it’s not.

    Of the 29 businesses in La Veta, nearly 70 percent are owned by women. (The national average is 39 percent.) One of the few statues in the state honoring a specific woman—Doris Tracy, a former resident who served as a pilot during World War II—sits in the city center. La Veta High School’s class of 2020 was all girls, so the homecoming court boasted two queens. Some have suggested that La Veta’s feminine mystique is a product of the area’s geography. (The Ute people call the Spanish Peaks, which tower just south of town, the Breasts of the Mother.) Others say it has to do with the rhythms of rural life. The truth is that any explanation has to begin with the legend of La Veta’s master builder, Pat McMahon.

    After growing up in Minnesota, McMahon hitchhiked to San Francisco at the age of 19 to experience the epicenter of 1960s counterculture and spent her early 20s at various communes in the West. While living in Gardner, Colorado, a prominent family asked McMahon, who had learned construction skills during her travels, to build them a house near Walsenburg. The project helped McMahon find her calling; she headed to nearby La Veta in 1978 to start a construction business.

    When McMahon arrived, La Veta was a fading mining and ranching town—and not everyone was a fan of the self-described “hippie-artist-builder” with an affinity for F-bombs. To obtain construction permits, McMahon constantly battled a town board that, she says, often introduced new ways of interpreting rules and regulations to slow her down. Some men also ridiculed her free-spirited ways and spewed derogatory language to describe her business. That never bothered McMahon: “A friend once asked me, ‘Do you know how mean those guys are to you?’ I told her, ‘I don’t care. They’re just dildos in the wind.’ ”

    Other women later moved to La Veta and took up prominent roles in the community. LaRissa Morris co-chairs the Spanish Peaks Chamber of Commerce; Peggy Zehring runs the La Veta School of the Arts; Kerrie Meyler rescued the Two Peaks fitness center from extinction; and Emile Dubia opened the La Veta Mercantile, an artisan market and music venue, in 2018.

    Like McMahon, all of them came to La Veta to pursue an independent lifestyle removed from the hustle of the city. But once there, each benefited from McMahon’s trailblazing, which made it easier for them to assume leadership roles in town. “She was the pioneer,” Morris says. “She paved the way for the rest of us.” Now 73, McMahon has constructed more than 20 buildings in and around La Veta, meaning that self-reflecting on her legacy is as easy as surveying her surroundings. “There was a lot of backwards in the area, and here I was, the Joan of Arc of feminism,” she says. “Good thing I don’t mind shock therapy.”

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