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From 'Paris On The Platte' To Packer, Dr. Colorado Takes A Walk Through State's History

It just makes sense to meet with CU Denver history professor Tom Noel -- also known as “Dr. Colorado” -- at History ColoradoCenter’s exhibit "Zoom In: The Centennial State in 100 Objects." From the Native American pottery of Mesa Verde to John Denver’s guitar, each of the 100 items tells a part of the state’s history.

“I like to tell my students, those who flunk history are doomed to repeat it,” he said.

Depending on the story, that might not be so bad.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Molly Brown's opera cape

“Most people know the story of Molly Brown,” Noel said pointing to Brown’s opera cape. “Poor Irish girl who marries well and then educates herself and becomes a booster, a promoter for Colorado.”

Near the cape are a pair of Crocs that Noel joked about pairing with the cape. No, the pair of very pink plastic shoes from the Niwot-based company wouldn’t have matched the fur-collared cape. But that’s part of the fun of Colorado’s eclectic -- sometimes eccentric -- history, like the pair of long anti-contamination gloves used at Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility Lab.

“Nothing’s been bypassed here,” he said.

After walking past the point of a spear that dates Colorado’s earliest resident at 13,000 years ago, Noel talked about the state’s other population booms and busts.

“The gold rush of course is part of this exhibit,” he said. “This changed Colorado forever, of course. It had been a place for Native Americans and a few Spanish in the San Luis Valley. This brings in 100,000 people in just 1859, 1860. One of the great mass-migrations in American history.”

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
A spear point from the Lindenmeier site

While it isn’t part of the exhibit, when asked about the oddest bit of local lore, he said it’s definitely another story from around this same time.

“That’s got to be Alferd Packer,” Noel said.” Who took prospectors into the mountains and returned all by himself. Explaining that they’d died of starvation, but he had this fat, greasy look to his face.”

It turns out Packer may have resorted to cannibalism.

“And then he was sentenced to death with the famous words -- that aren’t actually true but it’s too good a story to pass up, ‘‘Packer! You man-eating son-of-a… There are only seven democrats in Hinsdale County and you, you ate five of them!’”

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
A pair of pink Crocs

While it may be one of the oddest moments, it’s not Noel’s favorite. That distinction goes to the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. It was a time of social activism and political reform around the country, and it had a big impact on Colorado.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Anti-contamination gloves from Rocky Flats

“Mayor Speer in Denver, for instance, transforming a dusty, drab, ordinary city into ‘Paris on the Platte,’” he said. “How you can transform cities? How you can solve a lot of social problems? By planning, putting in a great civic center, Greek theatre, attention on the public sector, on public education, on libraries, beautiful cities, beautiful environments.”

To Noel, history is a chance to look back on those moments and learn from them.

“How can we know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been?” he asked. “We have so many newcomers coming into the state, they need an introduction.”

And they’re about to get a lot more teachers.

Since 1924, History Colorado has appointed a historian to work with the organization to preserve, interpret and share Colorado’s past. Last month, the group announced a new State Historians Council.

In addition to Noel, who was appointed chairman, the council includes Nicki Gonzales (Regis University); Jared Orsi (Colorado State University); Duane Vandenbusche (Western State Colorado University); and William Wei (University of Colorado Boulder).

Having more voices from across Colorado was important, he said.

“One of the things we struggle with at History Colorado is not being Denver-centric, but trying to represent the whole state,” Noel said.

(On Aug. 1, admission to History Colorado is free. The museum will host a variety of events in honor of Colorado Day.)

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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