Editor’s note: This is a shortened and edited version of a talk delivered to the Christmas Rendezvous of the Denver Posse of Westerners, Dec. 18, 2013.
Like every state, Colorado has its folklore, hoaxes, tall tales and humbugs.
Indeed a gold rush that many called a trick first put Colorado on the map. Three centuries earlier the first great Coloroddity attracted Spanish conquistadors. In 1540, Coronado set out from Mexico in search of the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. All too well aware of the problems that the Spanish could cause, smart Native Americans urged Coronado and his armored entourage to move on, assuring them that the golden cities were farther away — far, far away way, perhaps in what would become Colorado. Neither Coronado or anyone else ever found those mythical seven cities of gold.
Golden rumors continued to drift out of Colorado. After the first major gold discovery in 1858, one hoaxer claimed that you could simply put a big blade on the front of a sled, slide down Pikes Peak, and pick up the gold shavings. Daniel C. Oakes, the first of the major league Colorado hoaxers, wrote an 1859 guide book purporting to provide the safest and speediest route to a Pikes Peak fortune. Oakes assured folks that “the whole country between the Cache la Poudre and Cherry Creek is a beautiful rich valley full of mountain streams of living water and exceedingly rich in gold.”
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Such promises helped launch one of the greatest mass migrations in U.S. history. Between 1858 and 1861, an estimated 100,000 fortune-seekers rushed into what quickly became Colorado Territory. Most never found the guaranteed gold or the verdant valleys. Two-thirds of them became “go backers.” Along the trails back to their homes they hanged D.C. Oakes in effigy and planted mock tombstones:
Here lies D.C. Oakes
Author of the Pikes Peak Hoax
Lost gold mines and swindled investors led many others to see Colorado as a hoax. Of gold mining, Mark Twain supposedly said it best: “A gold mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar.”
Even that statement stretches the truth as the Mark Twain Library at the University of California Berkeley’s Bancroft Library reports it cannot find that statement anywhere in Twain’s papers.
In a state founded on a gamble for gold, get-rich-quick gurus have thrived on gullible greenhorns. Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith sold them soap at $1 a bar with assurances that $100 bills lay hidden in many a wrapper. Soapy earned the title “King of all the Western Con Men” bringing Colorado notoriety for its gullible residents.
Even scientists were fooled by the Solid Muldoon Hoax, the name given to an alleged petrified man exhumed 25 miles west of Pueblo on Sept. 20, 1877. More recently the Heene Balloon Boy Hoax of Oct.15, 2009, joined a long list of schemes and scams in a state founded on what many called a gold hoax. Hoping for fame the Heene family and their “balloon boy” became one of the newest Coloroddities and a reminder, generally unheeded, that if it is too good — or too bad — to believe, suspect another in a long list of boondoggles.
Other strange and curious things actually did happen — or at least claimed to. Below are some of the most remarkable Coloroddites:
Sometimes erroneously misspelled as Alferd, he is Colorado’s most celebrated cannibal. In 1873, Packer agreed to lead five gold-seekers into the San Juan Mountains despite the approaching winter weather. When spring finally came, Packer emerged alone from the still frozen high country. Discoveries, including the gnawed corpses, surfaced slowly leading to Packer’s trial for murder (cannibalism is not a crime). In the Lake City Courthouse, the judge sentenced him to hang supposedly with the words: “Alfred Packer, you man-eating son of a bitch, there were only seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of ’em.”
Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith polished his Colorado career in Creede and became the king of all Western con-man. An affable southerner, he could talk nearly anyone out of their cash. His name came from a favorite scam, hawking soap on street corners. To lure suckers, he would conspicuously wrap $100 bills into soap bars and toss them into a basket then sell you a chance to pick whatever bar you wanted for only one dollar. After stints in Creede, Leadville and Denver, he pushed on to Skagway, Alaska where he was shot and killed as a public nuisance.
Like many high country folks, Crested Butte residents wrestled with getting to the outhouse on freezing nights in deep snow. While some built tunnels, Crested Butte has surviving examples of another solution — two-story outhouses. The two levels are offset to allow the use of both stories. In Crested Butte, one such marvel is connected to the Masonic Hall by a covered wooden walkway. Another can be found on the rear of the Crested Butte Town Hall.
Georgetown is not one to be outdone when it comes to outhouses. Behind the restored Hamill House (1867, 1879) at 305 Argentine St. sits the state’s grandest outhouse. Silver mining tycoon George Hamill built the six-seat house with a fashionable cupola crown and in the same Carpenter Gothic style as his nearby mansion. The three walnut seats in front served the Hamills. Backside, three plain pine seats accommodated servants who, archaeologists report, used their holes to hide broken Haviland china and empty liquor bottles, along with other incriminating evidence.
The original caption from this 2009 photo read, “Rescuers tracking and chasing a “homemade flying saucer” that is in flight with a 6-year-old, by himself, on board. The incident started this morning in Fort Collins when the boy got into the balloon-like device built by his father and it came loose from a tether. 9News has confirmed the balloon belongs to Richard Heene, whose son, Falcon, is on board.” (Photo 9News)
Balloon boy hoax
In 2009, the Heene family reported to media outlets — not to authorities — that their six-year-old son Falcon had accidentally been launched in a helium weather balloon tethered in the family’s back yard. For hours, a worldwide audience soaked up non-stop television and radio coverage of the balloon as it drifted toward Denver International Airport. Only after DIA shut down flights, swarms of media and National Guard helicopters went aloft in rescue attempts. After a multi-million dollar search and rescue efforts, the balloon landed in a farmer’s field 15 miles northeast of DIA. Rescue crews rushed towards the balloon but found no child. Falcon was found hiding in his parents’ attic. Richard and Mayumi Heene, the press discovered later, met in a Hollywood acting school, and had long dreamed of television immortality.
The Headless Hatchet Lady of Red Rocks
This legendary horror rides horseback, with her coat pulled over her head, brandishing a bloody hatchet. She is the terror of teenage couples, who come to explore Red Rocks Park and each other. The legend originated with a Mrs. Johnson who homesteaded nearby and was very concerned about her daughters’ reputations. Some say that if she found a fellow fooling around with one of her daughters, she would chop off offending body parts. That is why the rocks are red at Red Rocks.
Mike the headless chicken
Lloyd Olsen, a Fruita farmer, chopped Mike’s head off while butchering chickens in March 1945. These birds sometimes flopped around after their heads were cut off, but Mike was still alive the next day. Word quickly spread and national newspaper and magazine articles celebrated “Miracle Mike, the Headless Chicken.” Olsen kept Mike alive by using an eyedropper to give him water and ground grain down his esophagus. University of Utah scientists examined Mike and reported that the rooster could live because his brain stem was still connected to the spinal cord and his throat and windpipe were intact. Olsen turned Mike into a sideshow hit, traveling around the country to display him in front of paying tourists. He used the money to pay off his farm mortgage, purchase a pickup truck, and buy feed for Mike, who lived for 18 months until October 1946. Fruita’s famous fowl had faded from memory until 1997 when the town looked for a way to promote the area. Once again Mike received national, even international attention, as the star of Fruita’s Mike the Headless Chicken Festival.
Roman legions invade Colorado
Viejo San Acacio
The 1856 Capilla de Viejo San Acacio is named for St. Acacio, a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity. As the legend goes, when Ute Indians attacked this tiny Hispanic farming village, townsfolk prayed for help. Miraculously San Acacio appeared with a troop of Roman soldiers and chased off the astonished Utes. San Acacio’s statue adorns the altar retablo of this church which is also protected by its 18-inch thick adobe walls.
Along with the Denver Omelet (add diced green peppers, ham and onions) and the Denver Boot used to immobilize illegally parked cars, Denver brags about the first cheeseburger. Louis E. Ballast at his Humpty Dumpty Drive Inn, 2776 Speer Blvd., sent in his patent application on Jan. 1, 1932. He invented the cheeseburger by accidentally spilling cheddar cheese on his hamburger grill.
Campo is one of the few places where jackapheasant sightings have been reported. These creatures are a cross between jackalopes (see Walden in this chapter) and pheasants. Jackalopes are so rare that they have trouble finding mates of the same species and have courted pheasants in their desperation, resulting in two-legged, jackalope-headed, pheasant-tailed curiosities.
Diamond Hoax of 1879
Maybell, Moffat County
Diamond Peak in the northwest corner of Colorado commemorates the great Diamond Hoax of 1872. Two shaggy, dirty prospectors showed up in a San Francisco bank one foggy morning with a pouch of raw diamonds. In no time, the diamonds inspired creation of the New York and San Francisco Mining and Commercial Company capitalized at $600,000 to exploit their discovery. It took U.S. Government surveyor Clarence King months to locate the site in a remote area of Moffat County and expose the hoax.
Frozen dead guy
The small mountain town 15 miles west of Boulder hosted perhaps the most macabre Colorado ritual. The mortal remains of an 89-year-old Norwegian named Bredo Morstoel, who died in 1989, was brought to Nederland in 1993 by a family member who dreamed of opening a cryogenic-body storage business. A caretaker was hired by the family to keep Morstoel cool while awaiting the advent of a future scientific breakthrough that could resurrect him. In 2001, the town started to capitalize on its unique attraction with a Frozen Dead Guy Festival in early March, complete with coffin races, a parade of hearses, the crowning of an Ice Queen, and tours of the dry ice cryogenic chamber of Bredo Morstoel. By 2011, up to 20,000 revelers showed up for the three-day funeral festival, the town’s greatest economic boom and claim to fame. Unfortunately, the festivals fate is uncertain in 2020 after its longtime coordinator announced that she was done.
Web footed horses
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Roaming the sands of what is now a National Park, these web footed horses are dramatic examples of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory concerning survival of the fittest. Horses introduced by the Spanish in the 1500s became wild and found a haven in the Sand Dunes. Over the centuries, their hooves slowly grew larger and more like those of fowl, enabling them to gallop through even the softest drifting sands.
Virginia Dale stage
Outlaw Jack Slade built a hewn log stage stop and named it for his wife. The Overland Stage Company had hired Slade to build and run this stop to keep him from robbing it. A notorious gunman, Slade was described by Mark Twain in “Roughing It” (1872) as an “ogre who, in fights and brawls and various ways, had taken the lives of twenty-six human beings.” Since the stage abandoned it in 1869, the structure has been a post office, general store, dance hall, and women’s clubhouse. It is thought to be the last intact stage station on the Overland Trail.
Near Boreas Pass 10 miles north of Fairplay, 13,817 foot high Mt. Silverheels commemorates a silver-slippered dance hall girl. When smallpox struck the mining town of Buckskin Joe, she nursed many of the miners either to good health or to their graves. Ultimately, she contracted the dreaded disease which scarred her once lovely face and she disappeared into the mythical mists.
Sleeping Ute Mountain
Fifteen miles southwest of Cortez lies an elongated mountain that resembles a reclining Indian warrior with his headdress to the north, arms folded across his chest and toes tapering off to the south. Centuries ago, according to Ute folklore, he went to sleep, allowing the Spaniards to come into Colorado, followed by Plains Indians, and then by pale-faced prospectors. Someday, Utes believe, Sleeping Ute Mountain will wake up and drive all these newcomers out of Colorado.
Noel is the author or co-author of many books, including “Colorado: A Historical Atlas,” published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
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