Secrets of Colorado: 11 secrets of the History Colorado Center

DENVER - How do you pack Colorado history in one building?

There's the Native Americans who came across the plains and those who built homes in the cliffs at what is now Mesa Verde. There's the hunters, the trappers and the miners who sought their fortunes in the Rocky Mountains. There's the settlers and the soldiers.

The new History Colorado Center that opened in 2012 has taken on the task of preserving thousands of years of Colorado History.

Let's go inside!

Secret No. 1: While there are hundreds of items on display, there are 200,000+ artifacts behind locked doors in temperature- and humidity-controlled storage rooms.

And not everything in the collection is in the building on 12th and Broadway. Larger items, like furniture, mining equipment and vehicles are stored offsite in North Denver.

The collection has items dating back some 3,000 years. 

Secret No. 2: The oldest items from Colorado are sandals from the Basketmaker people -- predecessors of the Ancestral Puebloan people who inhabited Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, according to Elisa Phelps, Director of Collections and Library Division.

Secret No. 3: While there are items from 60 tribes, there are more than 500 Ute items like these arrows.

A group of tribal leaders from three Ute tribes recently visited the museum to review the collection and even coach the museum staff on how to properly handle the items.

When a rancher in Southwestern Colorado, Richard Wetherill, discovered dwellings in the cliffs of Mesa Verde, he collected pottery, baskets, textiles, sandals, stone, bone, and wooden implements, ornaments and more.

Secret No. 4: The state of Colorado bought part of Wetherill's collection. While there are about 100 of the items on display in the museum, there are almost 3,000 items from the Mesa Verde area behind the scenes, including this cracked pot held together with a tie made from an animal hide, Phelps said.

Secret No. 5: There's military history in the History Colorado Center's archives including soldier Kit Carson's compass..

...and items from the 10th Mountain Division.

The 10th Mountain Division soldiers were skiers, forest rangers, lumberjacks, others outfitters and guides -- anyone that could take care of themselves out of doors in all four seasons. The museum has their clothes, weapons and even the gear they used to cross the snowy mountains of Europe during WWII.

(These are some of their helmets and ice axes in the photo below.)

Secret No. 6: There's remnants of Colorado's checkered past in the collection including Alfred Packer's gun.

Packer was a prospector's guide who was accused of shooting his companions and eating at least part of them near what is now Lake City, Colorado.

There are also robes, sashes, photos and others items from the Ku Klux Klan.

While it's not well known now, the Denver Public Library says, "By 1925, Klan members and [Klan] sponsored candidates controlled the Colorado State House and Senate, the office of Secretary of State, a state Supreme Court judgeship, seven benches on Denver District Court, and city councils in some Colorado towns. Mayor Ben Stapleton of Denver and Gov. Clarence Morley of Colorado were also Klansmen."

Secret No. 7: The museum has more than 200 items related to Horace Tabor -- one of Colorado's first millionaires.

Behind the scenes, there's photos, journals and even some of the lavish gifts Tabor gave his second wife, "Baby Doe." Just three years or so ago, the museum was able to acquire the headboard and dressing table Horace bought Baby Doe as a wedding gift.

Hand carved in Philadelphia, the headboard is carved with nighttime creatures including an owl and bats.

The dressing table is carved with daytime creatures, like songbirds, Phelps said.

"It's a reflection of wealth and the lavish lifestyle of the times," Phelps said.

Secret No. 8: A map of Denver from 1859 shows many streets names haven't changed -- there's Wewatta, Wynkoop, Wazee, Blake, McGaa, Larimer, Lawrence and Arapahoe. Wait? McGaa? McGaa Street was originally named for William McGaa, but according to Denver History tours, politics got in the way and the street was renamed for Benjamin Holladay.

By the 1880s, when Holladay Street became the center of the city's red light district, the Holladay family petitioned the city to remove their name from this street and the city complied, renaming it Market, according to the Denver History tours blog.

Secret No. 9: Even though that map and these other items are behind locked doors, you can see quite a bit of the collection from your home computer. To search the collection online, visit the History Colorado's collections website and type in what you want to see -- Basketmaker sandal, Tabor, Wetherill, etc.

Secret No. 10: If you want to inspect these items personally, it's possible. At the Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center in the museum, visitors can see the newspapers, maps, photographs, artifacts and other items.

However, unlike most libraries, you can't check things out. You have to use the items at the library.

The Library & Research Center is open to the public and free of charge, Wednesday through Saturday.

Secret No. 11: The behind-the-scenes archives include dolls, toys, paintings, textiles (like drapes and quilts), weapons, hats, dresses and much more.

The History Colorado Center is open every day. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for students with ID (13-22) and $8 for kids (ages 6-12).

You can go behind the scenes and see some of these same artifacts during Doors Open Denver, April 25 and 26. History Colorado will offer behind-the-scenes tours and 50 other buildings will also be open that weekend. Learn more on the Doors Open Denver website.

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