It’s 7 a.m. on a sunny June day — time to head for the mountains. I want cool air, sparkling vistas, snowcapped peaks, wildflowers in bloom, a fun day and a temporary respite from the urban clamor of the Springs.
I’m not the only one. Turning onto Highway 24 from 26th Street, I join a slow-moving stream of mountain migrants, each seeking a little piece of Colorado. My destination: Cripple Creek.
It’s time for Donkey Derby Days, a festive event that both brands the city and connects it to its roots. It’s one that arose naturally and organically, is sustained by the community and delights visitors (especially kids). In a time when Colorado Springs has surrendered its branding identity to a multibillion-dollar sports organization, it’s instructive to see a community embrace and cherish its own past and its own identity.
In the 19th and early 20th century, burros worked in the gold mines of Cripple Creek and Victor, pulling carts loaded with ore and doing hard work in confined spaces unsuitable for horses or mules. They were beasts of burden, not pets. As the mines played out, many of the burros were simply released, set free to fend for themselves. The tough little animals survived, endured and thrived. They came together as a herd, one that roamed the streets of Cripple Creek and grazed on the grassy meadows that surround the little city.
From 10,147 in 1900, Cripple Creek’s population fell to a low of 418 in 1970, but there was one constant — the burros. Residents looked out for the small herd, giving the gentle creatures carrots and apples in the summer and hay in the winter.
Today’s Cripple Creek is a mildly prosperous gambling mecca of more than 2,000 residents, and the burros still roam the streets. Compared to their ancestors, they’ve got great lives.
“We keep an eye on them,” said Wendy Field, the marketing director of Bronco Billy’s Casino. “City employees in the transportation department kind of monitor them, so we know where they are. From May to October, they just wander around the city and the countryside, but in winter they stay in an 18-acre paddock with a barn for shelter, water and food.”
Along with visiting burros, the animals are on display along Bennett Avenue during Donkey Derby Days. Itinerant vendors line the historic street, burros of all sizes and descriptions amble along, dogs are everywhere, kids shriek happily and even the most addicted gamblers abandon the slots to take a look.
As Bronco Billy’s embarks on a $70 million expansion plan, it seems clear that the city is poised for dramatic change. But it seems unlikely that Cripple Creek will “do a Colorado Springs” and flounder comically about in search of a new identity. Donkeys, gambling and gold mining define Cripple Creek, and always will.
Other cities in the greater Pikes Peak region have also forged brands that merge past and present with the hopeful future. Buena Vista, Salida and Cañon City embrace the Arkansas River, the surrounding mountains and their own colorful histories. And so does Pueblo, the reborn Steel City with its Arkansas Riverwalk.
But Olympic City USA? Seven U.S. locations have hosted Olympic Games, including two-time hosts Lake Placid and Los Angeles (which is slated to host for a third time in 2024). Those are Olympic cities — we’re home to a training center, a museum under construction and a few hundred amiable sports bureaucrats.
It’d be nice to have a real homegrown brand, but maybe that’s not possible. Our narratives are diverse and confusing. We’re a city of visionary idealists and shameless scammers, of immense wealth and immense charity, of proud men and women in uniform and divisive ideologues of all kinds. We’re the city of William Palmer, W.S. Stratton and Fannie Mae Duncan — and that of Walter Davis, Soapy Smith and Eat ’Em Up Jake.
And like Cripple Creek, we’re in a time of tumultuous change. We don’t really have an anchor, a humble herd of burros to bring us together. Maybe we’re a city of marketers, always looking for opportunity, restless strivers trying to make a buck. Shouldn’t we then embrace our sales history, one that started with the first lot Palmer sold in 1871? Here’s our slogan.
ABC: Always Be Closing!