Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Reds caption John “Crush” Sumner of Colorado Springs pitches to a striker (batter) at the dish (home plate), hoping to render a dead hand (prevent the batter from reaching base). © Bryan Oller
By Pat Woodard
Originally published: May/June 2017
On the printed page, history can be as dull as the blade on a rusty knife, as hard to read as a green at the Masters and dry as Prohibition. It doesn’t have to be that way, and across Colorado, there are people whose mission is to bring history alive in all its vibrant hues. With one foot in the past, they provide a bridge to the present. History has never been this much fun.
“I spy a milk boy!”
“Sir, are you manly enough to send out an ant killer?”
“I believe we have a Greeley man at the dish.”
Did I just hear another insult?
As I soon learned, those barbs were not aimed at me. I just happened to be in the crossfire of the catcalls flying back and forth between ballists engaged in a spirited contest of modified rounders being played out in front of hundreds of cranks hoping to see someone tally an ace or render a hand dead.
On what looks like a pasture at Rock Ledge Ranch in Colorado Springs, the Colorado Territorial All Stars are taking on the Camp Creek Cloud Busters in a game of base ball. Not baseball. Base ball. Played under the auspices of the Colorado Vintage Base Ball Association (CVBBA), today’s game is a wrinkle in the fabric of time—a living look at the national pastime as it was played between the 1860s and the 1880s.
The insults can be marvelously subtle and obscure. I learned that “Greeley man” is a reference to a supporter of Horace Greeley in the presidential election of 1872. The beauty of the insult is that you’re not sure if it’s directed at the recipient’s political philosophy or his intelligence. Not only did Greeley win just 66 electoral votes, he died before the Electoral College met. All but three of his votes were apportioned to other candidates.
Her bloomers flaring, a “striker” (batter) in costume runs on contact during the 2015 Vintage Baseball Game at the Rock Ledge Ranch. © Kenyon Jordan/Westside Pioneer
Throughout the summer and fall, the CVBBA sponsors vintage base ball games across the state, mixing the ingredients of the game’s earliest rules with thespian flourishes to open a window not only on the game that became baseball, but on the society and culture that evolved with it. Match results always come in second to education and entertainment.
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Roger “Digger” Hadix, a ballist decked out in the uniform of the Denver and Rio Grande Reds. “You don’t have to be a super athlete and anyone from 18 to 80 can play.”
Roger, I mean Digger, walks to a group of cranks (fans) sitting in what should be home run territory in center field, or center garden in the parlance of vintage base ball.
“Folks, you are in fair territory. If you catch a ball and hand it to a player, that striker (batter) is dead. You may also be asked to help the arbiter (umpire) with a call.”
Really? Fans can advise the ump on a call? That’s the way it was when Colorado Territory’s first organized team was formed in 1862. Those ballists got in only a few games before the expanding Civil War put such pursuits on hold, though the war is credited with spreading the game among soldiers wearing both blue and grey.
At a vintage base ball game, you never know who will show up or exactly what decade they might be from. To open today’s proceedings, which will be played by 1864 rules, President Theodore Roosevelt tosses a coin to determine which team will bat first, predicting that the game will be a “bully good show.” I know, I know. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t occupy the White House until 1901, but nobody wants to be overly picky and spoil the spirit of the event. Welcome, Mr. President.
Suffragettes young and old (Rock Ledge Ranch staffers and docents) march on field during the 2015 annual Vintage Baseball Game—all part of a 19th-century reenactment. © Kenyon Jordan/Westside Pioneer
I’m not sure what inning it was when the suffragists invaded the field, but no dry history lecture compares to real people carrying signs reading “Votes for Women” and pleading their case with utmost conviction to fellow citizens of another time.
When Colorado became a state in 1876, many ball games were still played on unimproved fields, or even pastures. So, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when the cow wandered onto the field at Rock Ledge Ranch. The ballists didn’t seem surprised, maneuvering around the “center bovine” with surprising dexterity.
The game itself is played under the most realistic conditions that research allows. Don’t look for fielders’ gloves. They didn’t come into common usage until the 1880s, which may explain pre-glove games with scores like 50 to 39 featuring 20 or more errors. A fielder in today’s game will record an out if he catches a batted fly ball or line drive on one bounce, though he will almost certainly be cruelly taunted with a biting jibe like, “Unmanly, sir!” Ouch.
Powwow is part of the weekly cultural mix at Tesoro Cultural Center’s new, summer-long Living History Experience. © Tesoro Cultural Center
The drums called, their rhythm irresistible. Yet I knew that what I felt didn’t come close to equaling the spirit that moved the powwow dancers, whose artistry seemed less rehearsed than guided by an unseen force.
Loosely defined, powwows like the one I visited celebrate Native American cultures that took root before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Buffalo Bill introduced powwow to the masses, adding eye-catching flourishes that the crowds loved. They still do.
The Powwow Trail beckons.
The Fort restaurant in Morrison, an adobe replica of a fur trading post, hosts an annual powwow, the 17th edition of which will be held on June 3. The one-day celebration will help launch a new event—Tesoro Cultural Center’s Living History Experience, held every weekend from June through Oct. 15. Wander the grounds and you’ll swear your car somehow deposited you in the early to mid-1800s. Mountain men display the skills and equipment used to survive during Colorado’s fur trade days. Blacksmiths and artisans immerse visitors in sights and sounds that were a familiar part of daily life in the 1830s and 1840s. Short films and hands-on activities provide insight into Native American life and culture. Watch for specific weekends designated for “Special Engagement” performances and workshops that include Powwow and Fandango dancing and acoustic music of the early west.
The June 3 powwow will honor retired U.S. Army Ranger Sgt. Tome Roubideaux, 70, a member of the Lakota Sioux who served in Vietnam and now resides in Conifer. In 1967, Roubideaux took part in Operation Junction City, the largest airborne operation in the Vietnam war.
Starting the Memorial Day holiday period set aside to honor our nation’s war dead, drums and song herald the arrival of Native American military veterans who carry the flags heading the procession that opens the powwow. Ignacio is the seat of the Southern Ute Reservation, and over the three days of this powwow (May 26–27), the Sky Ute Fairgrounds turns into a mini city of Native craft and food vendors.
Going to an intertribal powwow fosters images of a multitude of Native nations living in peace and harmony. The reality was a tad bit more complicated. Yes, different tribes could be allies, but they could also be rivals, even bitter enemies for reasons shrouded in a distant past. This event, on June 10, promotes a shared cultural connection, sponsored by a charity that donates powwow proceeds to families in need on reservations scattered across more than a half-dozen states.
Native singing and dancing on the University of Denver campus every year in early May (May 7). This is a good one for powwow newbies. Not only is it free, but it provides a good knowledge base through brief explanations of the meaning and history behind each performance.
A few words about powwow etiquette. Bring your camera but be aware that photography may be prohibited during certain songs, which the emcee will let you know about. Don’t refer to a traditional dance outfit as a “costume.” Dancers wear regalia that can include items passed down from one generation to the next, or may have religious significance.
Some powwows let visitors enter a Dance Circle during specific dances. If you’re invited, don’t be a wallflower. Go for it, and you’ll find your own pulse pounding in rhythm with the drums, and your heart soaring to a timeless beat.
The Denver Dolls, an Andrews Sisters tribute group, pose in front of a WWII-era C-45 (Beechcraft Model 18) trainer plane. © Jessica Monet Photography
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into this hangar at the Boulder Airport.
Okay, so the quote is mangled a bit, but the hangar does seem a bit like Rick’s Café in Casablanca. You could also say it looks like a base for American flyers in England, or maybe a club where soldiers preparing for the D-Day invasion danced to Glenn Miller’s music or laughed at a joke from Bob Hope.
I’m a sucker for the styles, the language, the music and the general feel of the time period dominated by World War II. The cultural touchstones surrounding the greatest cataclysm in world history carry a sense of joyous counterpoint to the darkness engulfing the globe.
Swing dancers swing under a canopy of movie set lights during the 1940’s WWII-Era Ball in 2016. © Josh Barrett/Ignite Images
For those of us who didn’t actually experience ration cards, war bond drives and the sudden sight of family members and friends in uniform, it can be difficult to feel the spirit of the time. But, every June, you can put on your cheaters, drive to the Boulder Airport and swing a wing, and it doesn’t matter if you’re 1A or 4F. Just remember, loose lips sink ships.
The 1940s World War II Era Ball (June 17) is an evening out with live swing band music and dead-on impersonations of entertainers like Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and more. Everybody is either in uniform or the civvies of the day. I would have thought Rosie the Riveter could have changed out of her work clothes, but no doubt she came here straight from a shift at the factory. Last year’s theme was based on the war in the South Pacific, so there were hula dancers, tropical drinks and a limbo contest.
Holding the Ball at an airport was a smart move. Not only does a hangar allow the space to recreate a nightclub or dance hall, the runways provide a landing strip for World War II era military airplanes that fly in for the event. You can have your picture taken next to a B-25 Mitchell medium range bomber that seems surprisingly small and fragile for the job it had and the fire it faced.
Pat Woodard is a freelance writer in Denver, and a regular contributor to EnCompass.