From cheeseburgers to Ma Barker’s boy, heavyweight boxers and bears, Colorado has no shortage of roadside attractions
Probably once a week, a client wanders into the Key Bank branch on Speer Boulevard, just west of Interstate 25 in Denver, and while taking care of financial matters ultimately veers the conversation to … cheeseburgers.
Specifically, they want to talk about the Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In, the first eatery of its kind in the city and, the legend goes, the place where Louis E. Ballast created – and in 1935 trademarked – the burger variation that became a staple of the American fast-food diet. The restaurant, commonly referred to as “the Barrel,” once stood on this high-traffic slice of urban real estate. And though it has been gone for years, more than just memories remain.
Outside the bank building, by the parking lot, stands a stone monument commemorating the restaurateur’s contribution to American culinary history. And while there are other credible claims to the cheeseburger origin story, none are bolstered by solid granite like the marker at the bank, whose employees dutifully pass down the property’s colorful history.
“It was part of my onboarding at the branch, that before it was the bank it used to be the famous Humpty Dumpty, where the cheeseburger was invented,” said banker Casey Sprenger, who came aboard two years ago. “Everybody who comes on, we make sure they know.”
Historical markers like the one claiming the cheeseburger (placed in 1987, exactly 52 years after the trademark) pepper the Colorado landscape, calling attention – sometimes grandly, sometimes subtly – to the people, places and even animals that have shaped all aspects of the state’s story. From the solemn to the quirky, they add texture to the broad brushstrokes of history and often surprise natives and newcomers alike.
There are literally hundreds. Some broadcast their narratives in well-known locations while others might be hidden in plain sight. They take the form of bronze plaques, stone markers and sometimes expansive wooden displays, placed by government officials, local organizations or civic groups or just private parties hoping to preserve a snapshot in time of Colorado.
A stone marker on Speer Blvd. recognizes Denver’s first drive-in restaurant, the Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In — which is claimed to be the originator of the cheeseburger. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
There’s no singular protocol for creating a historical marker, says Derek Everett, who teaches history at both Metropolitan State University of Denver and Colorado State University and wrote “Colorado Day by Day,” a trove of statewide narrative nuggets both playful and profound.
“Whoever gets a wild hair and decides that this is a project worth pursuing seems to be able to get one installed,” Everett says. “It depends on where a marker is going to go. Does it need to have governmental approval? Does it have to be installed by an official agency or can it just be plunked down somewhere randomly? There’s really no hard-and–fast rule to any of it.”
The State Historical Society of Colorado, which now exists as History Colorado, for decades contributed to the proliferation of roadside signs with bronze and wooden markers that called attention to points of historical interest. It published more than 150 of them, covering the program’s start in the 1920s, in a 1970 edition of Colorado Magazine.
But the final wave of markers went in during the 1990s and early 2000s, “and we haven’t really had a set program since,” says Lindsey Flewelling, a preservation planner for History Colorado who works with state agencies and local governments to maintain – and if necessary, reinterpret – the total of more than 230 markers in its database. That’s just a fraction of the total placed around the state by a wide variety of organizations. History Colorado’s last contribution to the mix came in 2010.
This is something that’s as old as historical memory itself: What you choose to remember and how you choose to honor it changes from generation to generation, decade to decade.
Derek Everett, Colorado historian and author
“We’re currently trying to come up with a repair plan because some of them need it,” Flewelling says. “We want community members to be able to help to reinterpret or consider the interpretation of the historic events on the sign.”
Indeed, as times change, so do perceptions of historical markers of all sorts. For instance, last year a plaque in Denver’s LoDo area memorializing the “Hop-Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880” – an anti-Chinese rampage by a white mob – triggered critics and ongoing conversation. Who and what gets remembered, and how that memory is presented, evolves with the times.
“And that’s one of the big challenges of putting up a historical marker,” Everett says. “This is something that’s as old as historical memory itself: What you choose to remember and how you choose to honor it changes from generation to generation, decade to decade.”
Anyone can browse the various resources that catalog the markers (the Historical Marker Database is a good place to start) and each individual will undoubtedly come up with their own list of favorites – dots on the map that, once connected, offer a slice of Colorado history that’s broadly significant, personally meaningful or even just entertaining. Here are a few to get you started – not so much reminders of major historical narratives as markers that conjure unusual episodes in the state’s story.
When Everett discusses historical markers with students in his Colorado history classes, he tries to emphasize that history is, literally, everywhere.
“Places that you visit, the places that you go by every single day, have a history,” he says, “and sometimes it’s big and dramatic and sometimes mundane day-to-day stuff. But one of the most impressive and important aspects of studying local history is recognizing how events connected to national, even international stories have unfolded in your neighborhood, and you don’t necessarily realize just how complex the place that seems so mundane actually is.”
People walk Denver’s downtown streets constantly, but unless they notice the markers, they’d have no idea of the consequential or just quirky slices of local history that unfolded on the spot. Here are examples of both:
Silas S. Soule
The site of the Sand Creek Massacre has become a National Historic Site, but a lesser-known aspect of that tragedy involved a soldier who was killed for his refusal to be part of the killing of more than 240 Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped peacefully in southeast Colorado. Silas Soule, an officer in the 1st Colorado Cavalry, not only disobeyed orders to fire on the camp, but also testified against his commander, Col. John M. Chivington, and described the atrocities that took place during the attack. The plaque near 15th and Arapahoe streets in downtown Denver marks where he was shot, and notes that his assailants were never brought to justice.
The Barnes Dance historical marker, located at the southwest corner of the 17th and Stout streets, commemorates the first traffic signal with a pedestrian “walk” feature. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
The Barnes Dance
The collection of more than 40 markers positioned along Denver’s 17th Street comprise the Wall Street of the Rockies series noting the area’s “history and infamy.” One of the more distinctive ones celebrates the creation, by traffic engineer Henry Barnes, of the first traffic lights that included a pedestrian “Walk” signal. The arrangement triggered diagonal crossings that conjured visions of a square dance – hence, the “Barnes Dance.” The plaque quotes the inventor: “The time had come to give the pedestrian a 30 to 70% chance of getting across the street alive.”
Sharp-eyed walkers taking the downtown tour will also come across plaques recognizing “The Black Baron,” former slave Barney Ford, who became a “political activist, prominent businessman and sometimes millionaire.” Another pays tribute to Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, the renowned political activist of many talents, including poetry. His plaque, titled “Yo Soy Joaquin,” refers to the epic poem he wrote. He also packed a punch in the boxing ring, and managed several pro boxers who fought on cards at the old Escuela Tlatelolco at East 16th Avenue and Downing Street.
Some historical markers draw attention to a person, an event – and in more than one instance, an animal – that carries more than just the weight of history. It can also help define a small town. The legend of Mike the Headless Chicken remains entwined with the Western Slope town of Fruita, where an annual festival celebrates him.
“If you’re known for something even remotely noteworthy, it becomes part of the community’s identity forever. It just is theirs,” Everett says. “For small communities, you’ve got one thing that you can hold on to and celebrate and it’s like it’s fulfilling a need for the people of that community to say, ‘This speaks to us. This was our town’s moment in the sun.’”
Maybe the most obvious example of this resides in a small town in the San Luis Valley near the New Mexico border.
The “Manassa Mauler”
In the early 20th century, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey was one of the most recognized names in American sport. Born in Manassa, Dempsey blazed a trail throughout southwestern Colorado on his way to claiming the heavyweight crown in 1919 after a knockout of a much larger opponent – a fight so savage that famed newspaper writer Damon Runyon coined Dempsey’s nickname. Two Colorado markers recognize his stature: a statue of him stands next to his birthplace in Manassa, and a plaque at the base of a mural on the wall outside a Durango tavern marks the location of one of his early fights.
Prunes the Burro
In the last third of the 19th century, burros were valued assets in the Park County mining community. But none was held in higher regard than Prunes, who faithfully and reliably toted ore out of the mines for years, eventually under the ownership of a man named Rupert Sherwood. In Prunes’ later years, Sherwood set him free to roam the area almost as a community pet. Alas, he got stuck in a shed during a 1930 blizzard and by the time he was found it was too late for him to recover from near starvation. A monument to the beloved burro was created in Fairplay.
“Prunes was basically the story of Fairplay,” Everett says, “one thing it was known for – like Mike the Headless Chicken or Jack Dempsey. That was the thing the town was known for, until a couple of former students from CU started a cartoon show called ‘South Park.’”
Animals and other non-human life (we’ll explain in a moment) have also rated historical markers that entrenched them in Colorado lore. Two that stand out both reputedly roamed southern Colorado and left unforgettable imprints on the state’s history.
Old Mose (King of the Grizzlies)
Although grizzly bears were rapidly disappearing in Colorado with the encroachment of settlers on their habitat, their legend persisted through a bear people called “Old Mose” – reportedly because he would just mosey around south central Colorado doing as he pleased and wreaking havoc through “a myriad of depredations” that included one grisly encounter with a human. He eluded hunters for years, until two men brought him down in 1904. A statue and marker on the Adams State University campus in Alamosa pay tribute to the bear Outdoor Life magazine in 2004 claimed was the most famous grizzly to appear in the publication.
In 1877, a man named George Hull partnered with P.T. Barnum on the hoax that the “missing link” between humans and apes had been found buried near the town of Beulah. The so-called Solid Muldoon, echoing a popular Irish song about a stoutly built man, was actually an amalgam of crushed rock, ground meat and other organic material – including a human skeleton – elaborately molded with plaster to create the appearance of an 8-foot-tall prehistoric man. The ruse didn’t fool anyone in the scientific community, but it became a touring phenomenon until being exposed about a year after its faked discovery.
That said, the Beulah Historical Society arranged for a tongue-in-cheek Irish wake and reburial (of a replica) in 1984, complete with a gravestone.
“I guess it’s a recognition of the ability of people to laugh at themselves,” Everett says. “It was fun. The Solid Muldoon is a fake news story. And the reaction of people in the late 19th century to realizing they’ve been suckered in by this fake news was to laugh at themselves. Just imagine today, trying to convince someone it’s actually not real. Thank goodness that people in the late 19th century didn’t have social media.”
It can take years, even a century, before a historical marker goes up to recognize a person or event of significance. In Colorado, sometimes that’s because the connection to history is short-lived or tangential – a relatively brief interlude that gains stature over the years, or just provides a fleeting connection to someone or something of much broader importance.
A couple of the more obvious examples lie along the Front Range – in Colorado Springs and the Denver suburb of Westminster.
Tesla Experimental Station
The Tesla name is ubiquitous these days – but that probably owes more to the electric car that bears his name than the real-life accomplishments of Nikola Tesla, a Croatian immigrant responsible for many groundbreaking technologies common to our everyday lives. But Tesla spent about eight months – from May of 1899 to January of 1900 – performing experiments at what became known as the Tesla Experimental Station in Colorado Springs.
His invention years earlier of the Tesla coil, used to conduct electrical experiments, was replicated on a large scale at the Colorado lab, where the 49-foot in diameter coil reproduced the effects of lightning. The lab building eventually was torn down, and it took researchers years to identify its actual location in a city that bore little resemblance to the place Tesla visited. Finally, in the mid-1980s, it was determined to have stood at the intersection of Kiowa Street and Foote Avenue. But the 2017 plaque noting Tesla’s presence resides in the city’s Memorial Park.
A sidewalk plaque notes Ma Barker’s gang, a notorious outlaw family from the 1930s. Ma Barker’s son Lloyd “Red” Barker eventually settled in Westminster, where he lived until his death in 1949. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
Remnant of Ma Barker’s gang
When Ma Barker and her youngest son, Fred, were found dead in their Florida home after a prolonged shootout with the authorities in 1935, it ended a bloody chapter in the America’s-most-wanted era, in which the so-called Barker-Karpis gang wreaked havoc across the United States. But in a small park on West 73rd Avenue in Westminster, a sidewalk marker notes that one of Barker’s other notorious sons, Lloyd “Red” Barker, left his life of crime in 1938 after getting out of prison to make another kind of life in the Denver ‘burb.
According to the plaque, installed in 2002 by the city’s historical marker program, Lloyd served in the Army during World War II and later worked at a Denver bar and grill while residing in Westminster. Still, he met a violent end – shot dead by his wife in their home in 1949.
Historical markers recognizing man-made structures are abundant, but they most often come attached to buildings. One notable example of one that is not is the wooden marker placed by the Naturita Chamber of Commerce and the Bureau of Land Management in 1965 to honor an obscenely expensive (for the time) structure that very quickly outlived its usefulness.
High above the Dolores River, down the highway from Naturita on the way to the Utah border, a wooden historical marker notes an artifact of 1890s engineering – one that was only lightly used, at considerable expense, before being abandoned. “Hanging Flume,” suspended from cliff walls for 6 miles to transport water for hydraulic mining at the Lone Tree Placer Mine, was a classic example of budget-busting construction, as it cost more than double its original $75,000 estimated price tag.
Workers and lumber were lowered into the sandstone canyon from above to construct portions of the flume, and while the sidewalls are long gone, timbers that supported the device remain, thanks largely to the dry climate. In its three years of operation, it never proved profitable.
“If you’re driving down the road, you look up at this thing, what’s left of it clinging to the top of the canyon, and it just boggles the mind to figure out how they managed to build that successfully,” Everett says. “I think it’s a national engineering landmark. But it’s one of those that’s not really easy to maintain. There’s not much you can do except gaze at it until what’s left falls off the canyon side. And the fact that it hasn’t in the almost century and a half that it’s been up there is astonishing.”