Oddball Colorado: A Guide to Some Really Strange Placesby Jerome Pohlen
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A high-altitude alligator farm. A UFO watchtower. A monument to a headless chicken. While other travel guides tell you about tackling Pike’s Peak, skiing the back bowls, or rafting down the Arkansas River, this quirky regional resource offers unusual travel destinations and little-known historical tidbits. Imagine regaling coworkers with unique Rocky Mountain adventures, like spending an evening at a drive-in movie . . . in a queen-sized bed, or visiting a vapor cave clad only in a towel. How about seeing a two-headed dragon made of car parts, or watching cliff divers while eating Mexican food?
News of the Weird
Read an Excerpt
A Guide to Some Really Strange Places
By Jerome Pohlen
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2002 Jerome Pohlen
All rights reserved.
What do you think of when you think of Denver? The Broncos? Skiing? The Orange Crush? The mountains? John Elway? Geez, you gotta break up the routine.
How about Mexican cliff divers? Art deco amusement parks? Robotic mummies? Defiled graveyards? Button museums? Tiny towns with tiny railroads? Yep, they're all here, too, though they're not often front-and-center in most travel publications ... and isn't that a shame?
This chapter's collection of local sites delves into the weirder side of the Queen City of the Plains. Where did Buffalo Bill draw his last breath? Where did the cheeseburger draw its first breath? Where is there a religious shrine where it's difficult to draw any breath? While in search of answers to these questions, you'll have your tie cut off by a cowbell-clanging waitress, hear the true story behind the Old West's cowboys, and find out how many government workers it takes to change a lightbulb.
* * *
From the beginning, the B-1 bomber was a political hot potato. This supersonic, super-expensive bomber was killed by President Carter in 1977 as too costly for the nation's strategic defense, not to mention unnecessary. Ronald Reagan disagreed, and it was one of the many issues he used to defeat Carter in 1980.
Only four B-1s had been built before the plug was pulled. Those craft were dubbed B-1As when Reagan resurrected development on what became known as the B-1B. The second of the original B-1A prototypes is part of the Wings Over the Rockies collection.
It's a spooky, awkward-looking plane. The fuselage looks too fat for its narrow wings; its entire nose section, the Crew Escape Capsule, was designed to separate in an emergency to avoid having pilots eject at speeds over Mach 1. Go ahead, take a good look — you paid $325 million for each plane!
The museum has dozens of other aircraft, including a B-52 Strato-fortress, an H-21C "Flying Banana" helicopter, a German Luftwaffe trainer, and a Star Wars X-Wing Fighter. (No, Luke, you cannot take that last one out on a mission to blow up the Death Star.) If you're into space, local corporation Lockheed-Martin has donated an unused module intended for the International Space Station. And surrounding the central hangar are smaller spaces with aircraft-themed exhibits, such as WWI and WWII memorabilia, and the meeting room from Ike's Denver White House, moved from Lowry's Building 256, Room 230.
Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, The Hangar, 7711 E. Academy Blvd., Denver, CO 80230 (303) 360-5360
Hours: Monday-Saturday 10 A.M.-5 P.M., Sunday Noon-5 P.M.
Cost: Adults $4, Seniors (60+) $2, Kids (6-17) $2
Directions: Three blocks east of Quebec St. at 1st Ave.
Behold, the Messiah!
It's not every day the Messiah comes through town, yet Francis Schlatter came through Denver twice. The first time was in 1891, and few people took notice. This French cobbler had a shoe shop downtown on Stout Street. When he wasn't repairing shoes, he stared straight ahead like a zombie and rambled on about "The Master" who would soon bestow upon him healing powers. After a friend marveled that Schlatter had healed him, others dropped by for cures. Yet before he could develop his healing practice, he disappeared in July 1893.
Shoe Repair Shop, 1845 Stout St., Denver, CO 80202
Hours: Torn down
Directions: Between 18th and 19th Sts., where the federal courthouse stands today.
Where did Schlatter go? Some say he wandered through the Mojave Desert, fasting, charming wild rattlesnakes, and healing the poor. He reappeared in New Mexico in July 1895, and he had a new message: he was the reincarnated spirit of Jesus. Denver alderman/businessman Edward Fox liked the sound of that and arranged to bring Schlatter back to town. Schlatter soon moved into Fox's home at 33rd Avenue and Quivas Street.
Word got around and hundreds were flocking to the Mile High City for cures. Fox built a stage in his front yard for folks to receive the Messiah's blessings. If Schlatter couldn't lay his hands on the faithful, he laid his hands on handkerchiefs that were mailed out. More than 60,000 people visited him over a two-month period.
Mimicking the story of Jesus, Schlatter claimed he would be called home by "The Father," and he had the date: November 16, 1895. The push was on for last-minute healings, but the self-proclaimed Messiah skipped town four days early. The disappointed mob outside Fox's house tore down the platform and fences — apparently they were well enough to riot.
Miners found Schlatter's bones in the mountains of New Mexico in 1897.
Schlatter Home, W. 33rd Ave. & Quivas St., Denver, CO 80211
Hours: Torn down
Directions: On the southwest corner of 33rd Ave. and Quivas St., two blocks north of I-25.
Black American West Museum & Heritage Center
Think of the pop culture icons of the American cowboy in the Old West — John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, the Lone Ranger — and what did they share in common? Well, for one, they were all white. Heck, even their horses were white. And if you're thinking, "So? What's your point?" perhaps you should stop by this small museum with a big mission: to "Tell It Like It Was."
And how was it? Not even founder Paul Stewart knew at first. He'd grown up with the same lily-white image of the cowboys. As an African American child, he'd often wondered if there were any black cowboys. As an adult he investigated, and found out there were a lot of black cowboys. In fact, one out of every three cowboys was black, many of them ex-slaves who'd left the South for freer, greener pastures out west.
Stewart's collection of artifacts, historic research, and personal histories became the seed for this unique museum that touches not only on the lives of cowboys like Bill Pickett, "The Father of Bulldogging," but other black pioneers in the region. The museum is located in the restored (and relocated) former home of Justina Ford, M.D., Denver's first black female doctor. Between 1902 and 1952, Ford delivered more than 7,000 babies, most of them in private homes because black people could not be admitted to city hospitals.
3901 California St., Denver, CO 80205
Hours: May-September, Daily 10 A.M.-5 P.M.; October-April, Wednesday-Friday 10 A.M.-2 P.M., Saturday-Sunday 10 A.M.-5 P.M.
Cost: Adults $6, Seniors (65+) $5.50, Kids (5-12) $4
Directions: Just west of Downing at 30th St.
Have you ever wondered what a saloon in the Old West was really like? Then mosey on over to the Buckhorn Exchange, Denver's first official restaurant/drinking establishment. Don't believe it? Check out the liquor license over the bar: Number 1.
The Buckhorn was started in 1893 by Henry "Shorty Scout" Zietz, a scout and friend of many Western figures, including Teddy Roosevelt, Sitting Bull, and Buffalo Bill. It has been a favorite of celebrities ever since, including James Cagney, Jimmy Carter, J. Edgar Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, Will Rogers, Charlton Heston, and Roy Rogers, just to name a few.
Five hundred mounted animals cover the walls, many bagged over the years by the Zietz family. Not all are in traditional poses; they've got an antelope cut lengthwise, the back end of a deer, a two-headed calf, and a beefalo. Don't miss the jackalope and the "duffle bird," a rare fowl that eats hot chili peppers and flies backward to cool its tail feathers.
Dozens of other critters grace the menu. You can chow down on buffalo, alligator, rabbit, elk, rattlesnake, moose, and of course, beef. They're prepared the way they were a century ago, with ingredients like juniper berries, spring onions, and dried fruit. The priciest item on the menu is a four-pound $160 steak that feeds five.
The Buckhorn Exchange has always remained true to its heritage. The building is on the National Historic Register, and the mural on its north face was painted by Native Americans years ago. Each February the restaurant hosts a Buffalo Bill Look-Alike Contest.
1000 Osage St., Denver, CO 80204
Lunch Hours: Monday-Friday 11 A.M.-2 P.M.
Dinner Hours: Monday-Thursday 5:30-9 P.M., Friday-Saturday 5-10 P.M., Sunday 5-9 P.M.
Cost: Lunches $8-$11; Dinners $19-$39
Directions: Five blocks west of Santa Fe Dr. at 10th St.
Buffalo Bill Death Site
Everyone's got to go sometime — even the roughest, toughest cowboy in the west. Buffalo Bill Cody was broke when he and his wife ended up at the home of his sister, May Cody Decker. When the end drew near, Cody was baptized as a Catholic at the request of his wife. He died a day later on January 10, 1917.
Though penniless, Cody's funeral was anything but spartan, thanks to his old friends. In fact, the ceremony was declared to be "Denver's gaudiest" by a local paper. That would have pleased the former showman. Cody was laid out in a glass-topped coffin on a purple couch at the Colorado Capitol building where a master of ceremonies hustled along 25,000 viewers who had come to pay their respects. Those who missed the event could see his casket while it was later paraded down 16th Street from the capitol to the Elks Hall.
Cody's widow claimed her husband wanted to be laid to rest atop Lookout Mountain, and locals were happy to oblige (see page 28).
2932 Lafayette St., Denver, CO 80205
Hours: Always visible; view from street
Directions: Two blocks east of Downing St., between 29th and 30th Sts.
Cheesman Park: Defiled Graveyard
Unsettling though it may be, when you stroll through Denver's Cheesman Park, you're treading on the defiled dead. The park and the adjacent Denver Botanic Gardens stand on what was once City Cemetery. Started in 1858 by then-mayor William Larimer, it was designed in such a way that high-class people were planted at the top of the hill, and lowlifes at the bottom.
Though the cemetery was still being filled, prairie dogs and grazing cattle began to take over. Word around town was that this was no longer the fashionable place to be buried, and people began shopping around. The land fell further into disrepair when the Catholic and Jewish communities moved their bodies elsewhere. But the secular city-managed plots remained until City Hall ordered all graves moved in 1893 to make room for development. Living Denver residents were told to move their dead relatives within 90 days or the bodies would be turned over to contractors to exhume.
The scene was ghastly. Workers were paid $1.90 for each corpse they dug up and transported to Riverside Cemetery (see page 21). To save money and space, the city asked contractors to place the exhumed into smaller coffins. Try to shoehorn a 6-foot corpse into a 1-by-3½-foot coffin and you'll begin to appreciate the depth of the problem.
Workers began unearthing coffins, prying them open, and rehousing the dead. Corpses were stripped of their valuables, broken into pieces or folded in half, and thrown into whichever boxes were available. Bones and body parts were left lying around on the ground. Neighbors were understandably upset, and the Denver papers shamed Mayor Platt Rogers into halting the project. That only made the problem worse. The site was abandoned for almost 10 years before the remaining bones were plowed under for the new park.
Today, psychics claim that disturbed souls still haunt the park and the homes adjoining the grounds. Neighbors sometimes see gunslinging pioneer ghosts in their mirrors. Given the events that happened here, is it any wonder?
13th Ave. & Franklin St., Denver, CO 80203
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Thirteen blocks east of the State Capitol; bounded by 8th Ave., Franklin St., 13th Ave., and Race St.
There are only two mints currently in operation in the United States. The largest, moved to this building in 1904, is where more than 12 billion coins are pressed each year. That's 48 million coins each day. The entire process is open to public viewing from an observation walkway. At the end of the line, workers bag up coins in thick canvas bags that are much too heavy to walk off with ... so don't even think about it.
Gold ingots, on the other hand, are slightly more manageable. Just ask Orville Harrington. This night-shift worker hobbled out the front door with 53 gold ingots, one at a time, hidden in his hollowed out wooden leg. The Secret Service caught up with him in 1920 and recovered the gold (valued at $80,000) buried in his yard at 1485 S. University Boulevard.
A more successful robbery took place here on December 18, 1922, though the mint is quick to point out that it didn't happen inside. Gunmen met a Federal Reserve Bank armored car as it pulled up on Colfax Avenue and, after a gun battle, walked away with $200,000 in five-dollar bills. One guard and one thief died in the shoot-out.
The Denver Mint is also one of three gold depositories in the United States. Fort Knox and West Point are the others. Approximately 25 percent of our nation's reserves lie a few floors beneath your feet on the tour. You were once able to see a few gold bars on the tour, stacked up like firewood in a vault. But ever since the Oklahoma City bombing, the door has been closed tight.
320 W. Colfax Ave., Denver, CO 80204
(303) 405-4761 or (303) 405-4765
Hours: Monday-Friday 8 A.M.-3 P.M.
Directions: Four blocks west of the State Capitol at Cherokee St.
Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls, and Toys
Just west of City Park is a unique Victorian home filled with many more Victorian homes ... and adobe pueblos ... and Newport mansions.
Welcome to the Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls, and Toys! Every room in this enormous home is crammed with old doll houses, Kachina dolls, tin toys, and teeny-weeny furniture. While many have been acquired, others were made by museum members specifically for display here. One of the strangest collections is a room with tiny haunted houses — see a front porch decked out for trick-or-treaters, take a peek into Vincent Price's attic, or see what a witch has stashed away in her closets.
In addition to the toys on display, the museum has plenty of toys out for children to play with. These goodies come in handy; kids aren't tortured by seeing toys they can't play with, and adults aren't distracted by bored kids.
1880 N. Gaylord St., Denver, CO 80206
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 A.M.-4 P.M., Sunday 1-4P.M.
Cost: Adults $5, Seniors (62+) $4, Kids (2-16) $4
Directions: One block west of York St., north of 18th St.
Forney Museum of Transportation
The Forney Museum of Transportation has long been Denver's best museum of buggies, trains, and automobiles. It recently moved from an abandoned and dusty warehouse along I-25 to a larger space next to the National Western Stock Show. Now everything is indoors — even the trains. Classic auto lovers will get the most out of this collection that includes:
Amelia Earhart's yellow "Goldbug" Kissel
Nepalese Prince Aly Kahn's 1927 New Phantom Rolls-Royce with its gold-plated hood and wheels
Admiral Richard Byrd's 1915 Cadillac
German Ambassador General Von Wagner's wheelchair-accessible 1928 Mercedes-Benz; it was confiscated by the United States at the onset of World War II
A 1975 Pontiac "Zabeast" art car covered in bumper stickers
Messerschmitt's 1955 three-wheeled Cabin Scooter KR-20, made with a leftover airplane engine from World War II
An energy-saving 1981 Freeway built by H-M-V Vehicles, designed to triple gas mileage on long hauls
A funky addition to the new Forney Museum is a collection of famous figures bought at auction from a defunct wax museum. No longer do you have to imagine Amelia in her "Goldbug" — she's sitting in it! For some reason, W. C. Fields is standing off by himself, and the Wright Brothers are planeless. Former Colorado Governor William Gilpin hangs around in the snack lounge to make sure you've cleaned up after yourself.
4303 Brighton Blvd., Denver, CO 80216
Hours: Monday-Saturday 9 A.M.-5 P.M.
Cost: Adults $6, Seniors $5, Teens (12-18) $4, Kids (5-11) $2
Directions: Just south of I-70 from the Brighton Blvd. exit.
If You like Ike ...
Though he was born in Texas and raised in Kansas, Dwight D. Eisenhower was as attached to Colorado as anywhere in the country. As a military man, he spent time on army bases throughout the world, but his wife, Mamie, had Denver roots. She was born in Iowa, but Mamie Doud graduated from Denver's Wolcott School for Girls in 1914. Two years later, on July 11, 1916, she married Dwight in a simple ceremony at her mother Elivera's house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. They honeymooned near Boulder in Eldorado Springs.
Excerpted from Oddball Colorado by Jerome Pohlen. Copyright © 2002 Jerome Pohlen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jerome Pohlen is the author of Oddball Illinois, Oddball Wisconsin, and Oddball Indiana. He is a regular travel commentator for 848 on WBEZ, the Chicago affiliate of National Public Radio. He lives in Chicago.
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