— Sign on the door of Fannie Mae Duncan's Colorado Avenue nightclub, circa 1950
Some years ago Arcadia Publishing launched its "Legendary Locals" imprint. Each book in the series "delves into the history of some of the unique individuals and groups, past and present, who have had a lasting impact on their community throughout its history."
Recently I agreed to write Legendary Locals of Colorado Springs.
The format is simple and accessible. Approximately 170 individuals will be profiled, each with a photo and a 200- to 400-word capsule biography. The book will have a dozen chapters, arranged more or less chronologically. Of the subjects, roughly 60 percent will be historic figures (i.e., thoroughly dead), while 40 percent will be reasonably contemporary.
So who's on the list? Some names are obvious: General William Palmer, Spencer Penrose, Winfield Scott Stratton. Most are not, and that's where you, the readers of the Independent, come in.
The history of Colorado Springs belongs to all of us. The many who have lived in this favored corner of the world will be symbolically represented by the few who can be featured. I know a lot about regional history, but not enough. Send me names and stories! (Use the email below.)
I don't want this to be a traditional history, full of dour old gentlemen doing boring-but-important things. I want to write about people who are as lively, interesting, sad, joyous, striving, incomplete, beautiful, tragic and full of life as the community itself. Here are two examples.
John "Prairie Dog" O'Byrne might have been just another jack-of-all trades adventurer in the rip-roaring Colorado City of the 1880s, but for his team of elk. Around 1888, he bought a pair of orphaned elk, hand-raised them, and trained them to harness. Contemporary photos show Prairie Dog in a carriage, reins in hand, his handsome antlered steeds trotting gracefully down Colorado Avenue. In 1922 he wrote an autobiography, complete with bad poems, rehashed history, and delightful stories. He tells of excursions to Colorado Springs in the carriage with the fair Laura Belle (often described as Colorado City's most notorious madam) by his side.
It's fun to imagine the laughing couple, the galloping elk, the dozens of spooked horses along the way, and the triumphant return to Colorado City. Few remember Prairie Dog, but he'd be happy to know that a neighborhood bar/restaurant in Old Colorado City is named after his elk: Thunder and Buttons.
Peggy Marshall died at 92 in 2006. She was, I wrote then in the Independent, "the last of a generation of remarkable women who shaped and nourished this community for much of the last century. Twice married and twice widowed, she raised six kids, cultivated her many gardens, and, for over half a century, passionately advocated for the arts, the developmentally disabled and our city. She's best known for, 42 years ago, founding Cheyenne Village, which enables people with developmental disabilities to live independent, productive lives ...
"After the funeral at Shove Chapel, hundreds gathered at the Gates Common Room for Peggy's last party. Never one to leave things to chance, Peggy had given her minister specific instructions. The place, the time, the music, the hymns, the prayers, the speakers and, she added, tell everyone to wear bright colors! ...
"There was a bulletin board of photos from Peggy's life: child, young woman, ski instructor, bride, young mother, nonprofit leader. Then there were photos of her in her 70s, 80s and 90s, but none of her as an old woman because she never really aged. She danced, walked, did yoga and remained thin, graceful and elegant, the last flower of a distant summer."
You know someone like Peggy, or have family stories about someone like Prairie Dog. Introduce them to me! I have 170 stories to tell and I don't know them all. It's almost time for the party, and we need to send out invitations.
Ted Haggard and Frank Whitworth will be there, as will Amy Divine and Bee Vradenburg. Music be provided by Flash Cadillac and Charles Ansbacher. Mayor Bob Isaac will be at the bar, flirting with Laura Belle, while Leon Young chats with Helen Hunt Jackson ... don't miss the fun!
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