Was General William Jackson Palmer really a teetotaler, or did he like a drink or two?
Check the whiskey bottles in his trash.
People tend to think Palmer didn’t drink because he famously established Colorado Springs as a dry community, Matt Mayberry says, but his trash tells a different story.
“There were wine bottles, whiskey bottles, beer bottles in the trash,” said Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. “We got to the point where we could identify some specific alcohol that he had — even types of wine.”
Not many museum directors get the chance to dig through a city founding father’s garbage, but in 2014 flood mitigation crews stumbled upon a trove of relics from Palmer’s life in Garden of the Gods — in what was once a trash dump on his land.
Palmer lived just up the hill from the site, where last fall archaeologists excavated about 60,000 objects from the trash zone. The haul included plate fragments, clothing remnants, fish bones, peach pits, bricks, light bulbs, batteries — and of course those bottles.
Every piece helps tell a story.
“They took those artifacts to the lab,” Mayberry said, “and they’re using them to analyze and test a number of questions that we have about what Palmer’s life was like, what the estate life was like — and a number of those never before seen thrown-away objects will be on exhibit as part of ‘Evidence: Finding the facts about William Jackson Palmer.’”
The exhibit, which opens Sept. 14. as part of the city’s sesquicentennial celebration, is “a really exciting project,” he said. “We’re looking at the myths related to Palmer and trying to test those — so we’re going to let visitors become historians and evaluate the evidence that’s available to us and determine whether the myths are true, or are they not.”
Since 1903, CSPM has been collecting, documenting and interpreting the tales of the once-quaint resort town Palmer championed. The upcoming exhibit is just one of the ways CSPM is working to bring the city’s history to life, connecting people with ideas and questions and groups they haven’t explored before.
“We want to engage the public, we want them to examine their life relative to the history of the community, and we want to tell new stories,” Mayberry said. “We’re constantly trying to mine our collection, evaluate our collection, for new stories that can be told, engaging new audiences.
“Right now, for example, we’re doing a really interesting oral history that will result in an exhibit next year on the Conejos Street neighborhood by the power plant, which went through great upheaval because of our power plant. And we want to document the families that were in that neighborhood — it was a very Hispanic community — and that will give us a chance to tell new stories about audiences that people don’t often think about.”
CSPM houses more than 45,000 items, a small percentage of which are on exhibit at any given time, as well as five nationally-significant manuscript collections and the Starsmore Center for Local History. It is a public-private partnership: The city of Colorado Springs owns the grounds, the building and the collection, and CSPM staff are city employees. The museum also raises money to support its operations through a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
The end of this year will mark Mayberry’s 25th anniversary with the museum.
“I’ve changed positions over time,” he said, “but I’ve been in this building for 25 years, almost.”
Mayberry says he thinks of that building “as our largest, most complicated and most expensive artifact for the museum.
“It is really integral to who we are, to our identity; we use it as our logo,” he said. “But because it was never designed to be a museum, it does present challenges.”
The Italianate domed granite building was the El Paso County Courthouse from 1903 to 1973, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. But in 1979 when CSPD moved in, it was distinctly lacking in charm.
“It was not in great shape — it was going to be torn down before the decision was made to transfer it to the museum,” Mayberry said. “And so part of that process was: Let’s hide parts of the building. Let’s put up walls so we could put things on exhibit, but also let’s hide part of the building because it’s not in great shape.”
They’ve been opening up those previously hidden spaces through careful renovations, revealing a distinctive piece of architecture here, a sunlit window there.
“Over the past five years we’ve renovated about 80 percent of our galleries, and the work that we do related to the sesquicentennial — which will total three new exhibits — will pretty much do the rest of that,” Mayberry said. “We are looking to expand our gallery space so we can open up new exhibit space for visitors.”
Last year CSPM set a new record, with 112,000 visitors — more than double the number passing through its doors six years ago.
To cater to those numbers, CSPM relies on an army of volunteers: Last year’s 8,086 hours of volunteer service also set a record, and is equal to the work of 3.8 full-time staff members.
“We could not do what we do without volunteers,” Mayberry said. “In many ways they do all the fun stuff, and they work in every aspect of the museum’s operations from collections to school programs to the museum store to events.”
As for Mayberry, he’s spending a lot of time behind a desk at this point in his career — but there’s nothing boring about it.
“Oh, local history is endlessly interesting,” he said. “I’m a historian by training, I love that field, and that’s why I do this. For the most part, I do spreadsheets and other things these days but I get to do enough history that it keeps me engaged in my original passion.”
How does he want people to think of the CSPM?
“I want them to think of it as their museum,” he said. “I mean, we are a public trust; we hold the collection on behalf of the public and care for it. We are a free museum by deed restriction, so we try to ensure that there are very few barriers to people coming in here. We want the public to think of us as a vital, active, energetic place. Our food truck Tuesday series is part of that, making sure people get on the grounds and are familiar with the site.
“We want them to think of the museum as a mirror of the community — that we are reflecting the people, the neighborhoods, the industries that made this place who we are.”