Thomas David Lawrence Menke came to the San Luis Valley in 1880 from Matoon, Illinois. He settled first in Del Norte where he set up the books for Rio Grande County. Shortly thereafter he moved to Conejos where he established Menke Abstract Company, which is still in operation today. He is also credited with setting up the books for Conejos County. On October 5, 1890, he married Anna Denning, a school teacher from Lavatos. They made their home in Antonito, Colorado, where he also began a real estate company. Mr. Menke became a well-respected and prominent Conejos County businessman.
T. D. L. and Anna Menke had four children -- Ella (also known as Dutch), Gladys, Hazel and Lawrence. The Menke children had the advantage of a fine Catholic school, as well as voice, piano, and drama lessons. The Menke sisters participated in piano recitals and appeared in plays they had written. The Opera House also provided them the opportunity to enjoy the stage productions that came to Antonito.
The girls were sent to Loretto Heights College in Denver to complete their high school education. In 1915 they enrolled in Thomas Normal School in Detroit. There were many vaudeville houses in Detroit and the young women spent their free time in theaters. It was not long before they decided to go into show business. In 1916, with the blessings of their parents and their encouragement to get proper stage training, the three girls boarded the train in Antonito and headed to New York City. There they enrolled in the Alvino School to better prepare themselves for a future on the stage.
The following year the Menke Sisters were booked at Brooklyn's Myrtle Theatre where new acts were showcased. Appearing with George Burns and eleven other acts, the sisters were well received. They were signed for a tour by Lowe-Time, a prominent vaudeville circuit.
All three sisters were in the act. However, before the year ended, Dutch returned home to help her father in the abstract business. She became active in county politics and was the first woman county treasurer for Conejos County.
Gladys and Hazel continued in show business. They were booked with many of the popular acts of that time, including Martha Raye, young Donald O'Conner, the Marx Brothers, Morey Amsterdam, George Burns, the Mills Brothers, Andy Devine, the Horace Heidt Orchestra, and many more.
In 1930, Dutch called her sisters in San Francisco where they were appearing at the Golden Gate theater and asked them to come home to help with the family business. Their father's health was failing and Dutch's work as Conejos County Treasurer was taking most of her time. Gladys and Hazel returned to Antonito.
Following the death of their father, Dutch approached Gladys and Hazel with the idea of building a resort. On October 23, 1930, a warranty deed was recorded from E. S. Counselor to Ella J. "Dutch" Menke. Menkhaven-on-the-Conejos was opened in the summer of 1931. It was located on 17 acres on the banks of the beautiful Conejos River.
The huge log lodge and cabins, enough to house 50 guests, was a rustic sort of place, but totally comfortable, and was only steps away from some of Colorado 's best trout fishing. The 18 cabins they built were named for their friends in vaudeville. Meals were served in the big dining room and sometimes the sisters would entertain guests with some of their old vaudeville routines. On weekends, big bands provided music for dancing, not only for guests, but for people from as far away as Alamosa.
In 1957, after 25 years, the Menke sisters sold Menkhaven to Dr. Joe Webb and Mr. Raymond Akin, a realtor, from Plainview, Texas. These men did not operate the lodge. In fact, it was not even opened the following summer. In July 1958, Warren and Merle Kerr from Lubbock, Texas, bought Menkhaven and re-opened it to the public. In 1978, Jim and Gloria Lee from Fort Worth, Texas, bought the property and operated it until its purchase in August 2003, by John and Linda Heaton from Crawford, Texas.
Meals are no longer served at the lodge, but guests still gather to relax around the sunken fireplace, to visit, and to play cards and/or dominoes. Improvements have been made through the years. Nearly all the cabins have complete housekeeping, and a 14-space RV park has been added. Menkhaven is still rustic, but comfortable, in the best of Menke tradition!
A more complete history of Menkhaven, the Menke family, and other people and places in the San Luis Valley can be found in "Conejos County," by Frances Harvey Mead, and in "The San Luis Valley Historian, Volume XXVII, Number 2, 1995."