Saturday, December 03, 2016

Searching for 1919 Denver

The lakeside promenade in Denver's City Park, 1919. From the Colorado page on the Penny Postcard web site. 
After driving around Denver for five days, on an errand of mercy, I have to ask: "What was this city like in 1919?"

Not many people can supply first-hand answers. They would have to be more than 100 years old, a rarity even in this era of increased life spans.

Even though we now live in a post-factual country, I must turn to the facts for some perspective.

Denver's population in the 1920 census was 266,491, roughly the 2015 population of Greeley, a sister city with Cheyenne along the Front Range Urban Corridor or FRUC which has led to more than one wag asking: "Who gives a FRUC about Denver?"

Denver does. It cares very deeply about itself. During the past decade, it has ended up on every "best cities to live in the U.S." list, sometimes along with neighboring FRUC cities of Boulder, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. Sometimes Cheyenne makes the list. but only for those reporters who fail to notice the city's infamous nine-month winter with accompanying hurricane-force arctic winds. Not to mention the loony far-right Wyoming Legislature that parks its retro-ass in Cheyenne every winter.

Suffice to say, Denver has a big head, abetted by mass quantities of Purple Haze bud and daily infusions of Trippel-Dubbel Imperial Black IPA with 17% ABV.

But what was it like in 1919-1920? I ask because I'm writing a novel set in Denver during those years. All of my grandparents migrated to Denver then. This fascinated me as it seems oddly coincidental. It seems to be one of those waves of in-migration to Colorado, such as 1859 gold-seekers, the post-World War II infusion of veterans and the 1960s-70s invasion of the Baby Boomer hippies for Rocky Mountain High in Colorado. In 1919, World War I was over and veterans were restless, having left the Iowa farm for Paree and gas attacks in the Meuse-Argonne. Prohibition was on its way into law as was universal suffrage. Cars were replacing horses and buggies. Jazz was in as were flappers and their beaux. The Ku Klux Klan found a welcoming audience in a Denver concerned about an influx of Mexican workers and the plague of marijuana.

Doesn't sound too different from 2016. Except for the people and the traffic. Car has always been king in Denver and remains so, even though the city is beginning to build mass transit and invest in higher-density living spaces. Downtown is in after the post-war rush to the suburbs has died down. But flying into Denver, with lights twinkling as far as the eye can see, you might wonder about the so-called death of the suburb. The burbs are alive and well in the Denver metro area.

I can read Westword to get a snarky take on present-day Denver. Or scores of different blogs. But I am looking for info on 1919. I want to know why my ancestors came to Denver and what they brought to the city. I knew my grandparents but never heard them utter one word about why they came to Colorado. They might have been from Iowa or Maryland or Ohio or Ireland but were damn glad to now be Coloradans. They worked hard, loved the mountains, had kids and fought the good fight when it came time to die. Only one kept a journal, my maternal grandmother. It began and ended with her service as a nurse in World War I. Since I am a fiction writer, I am only using my relatives as a jumping-off point to a bigger story. Not sure what that story is. I will find out as I write.

Meanwhile, this Wyoming retiree will try not to be a burden to Denver's go-go motorists. I am looking forward to conducting research at Colorado History and the Denver Public Library downtown. I would welcome any comments from my loyal readers, or even not-so-loyal ones. I might even preview chapters-in-progress on these pages or on Facebook. Never done that before.

First time for everything.

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