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Discovering and Writing History-less Colorado

By Tom “Dr. Colorado” Noel

Our late, great, state poet laureate Tom Ferril offered advice I have taken to heart and passed on to my students for the past 40 years:

Always begin right here where you are
And work out from here. . .
Then mount and ride away
To any dream deserving the sensible world.

All 36 books I have authored or co-authored and the innumerable columns, reviews and articles have focused on Colorado people, places, plants and creatures. And I badger my student at the University of Colorado-Denver: Rather than write yet another presidential biography or history of Lewis and Clark or rewrite the Union Pacific story, or re-examine the Turner Thesis on the significance of the frontier in American, why not tackle a virgin topic? Why not write about history-less people and places in Colorado?

Often it is the poorest people and ethnic neighborhoods that lack published histories. Even when published local histories exist, they need refinements or, at the very least, updating. We need to bring professional, skeptical, well-researched and documented historical study to bear on Colorado and its communities, its families, its institutions.

By looking beyond a community’s movers and shakers, you will find stories that are colorful and fun to research, as I discovered in Denver’s Larimer Street: Main Street to Skid Row.

Then let the natives, the locals, speak for themselves by using oral histories. History grows monotonous if you don’t include other voices besides your own. In Denver’s Larimer Street I tried to give a voice to the foreign-speaking immigrants who have settled there. I can still hear the broken English of Manuel Silva of La Casa de Manuel, Denver’s oldest Mexican restaurant. Deciding to avoid warfare between young newcomers and old timers and between Spanish and English speakers, he concluded: “Juke box cause fights. No more juke box.”

In telling their stories, people often interweave folklore and fact, which makes history tricky. Yet folklore often turns out to be fact, close to fact, or so tightly believed that it serves as fact. Include the folklore, no matter how improbable you find it. In your endnotes and your conclusion, you can and should express reservations about what is fact and what is fiction. As long as you are quoted and footing the source, it’s alright to have the Blessed Virgin appear on Larimer Street.

Folklore is an incredible part of history. In my first book — a history of my neighborhood in northeast Denver — I found that this neighborhood is always overwhelmed by the giant figure of the Baron Walter von Richthofen and his castle. That castle stills dominates the neighborhood and makes it special. If writers look hard enough for the special places and special people, they can make any community a compelling and publishable story.

Look for a great story in your neighborhood tavern, or the nearest bone yard, the old school or church, or the closest and cheapest ethnic café. Saloons are particularly fascinating. They resemble little theaters filled with changing characters, dramatic vignettes, mysterious transactions and romantic possibilities. The plots are usually tragic, but there is comic relief, too, all the stuff of great narrative. My books Denver: The City & the Saloon and Colorado: A Liquid History & Tavern Guide to the Highest State were fun to research and to write and to read – and both are still in print.

Nearly all of my work focuses on Colorado and yet there are many more people, places and things that I hope to explore in words from this microcosm. Some see Colorado as a small, provincial place, but you find people from all over the world here and can explore, from a Colorado context, practically everything, from America’s greatest ancient Indian ruins to the next space shot.

“The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”
–William Faulkner

Tom Noel’s latest book Guide to Colorado Historic Places: Sites Supported with the Colorado Historical Society’s State Historical Fund, published by Westcliffe Publishers, will be available by the end of June. The 392 page book includes 300 color and black and white illustrations as well as maps and other appendices.


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