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Oro City is back, but will anyone recognize it?

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Local Events – July 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Leadville’s Oro City festival is back this year, although in a form that living-history purists may neither recognize nor embrace.

Conceived as an authentic re-creation of the actual gold mining camp built in 1860 along California Gulch near present-day Leadville, in years past modern Oro City was a raucous, rollicking reincarnation of its predecessor.

From 1984 to 1993, the Oro City festival featured more than a dozen false-fronted tents housing artisans dressed in period costumes and demonstrating frontier skills like hide-tanning, rug-braiding, butter-churning, and blacksmithing.

Mountain men in furs and leggings led their trusty burros to the saloon, where dance-hall girls held court to the strains of fiddles, banjos, musical saws, and spoons. Supplies and homespun wisdom were dispensed from the general store. A replica of a hard-rock mine was chiseled into a hillside. Visitors were invited to try their hand at trades being plied throughout the camp, and to pan for real gold in salted dirt.

Now Oro City is moving to the lawn of the Lake County Courthouse from its dusty, sagebrush-studded “home” on Highway 24 near the entrance to Colorado Mountain College’s Timberline Campus. Geographically, that’s a distance of less than a mile. Spiritually, the sites are light years apart.

So is this revamped Oro City, scheduled for July 1, 2, 8, and 9, still a valid representation of life in a Colorado frontier gold-mining camp? Or is it merely a “contrived marketing hustle,” to quote a friend, designed to appeal to Front Range visitors with bulging wallets?

Oro City committee member Gloria Cheshier says that while Oro City’s location has changed, its spirit remains intact.

“The thought process has shifted a little bit since the inception of Oro City,” notes Cheshier, who is also executive director of the Greater Leadville Area Chamber of Commerce. “But we’ve retained the core of what the festival was about.”

That means music, gold-panning, story-telling, costumed artisans doing their frontier thing, maybe even a couple of false-fronted tents and a makeshift saloon.

Extensive vandalism — culprits unknown — sealed the fate of the California Gulch site. The general store was broken into, every boarded-up window smashed from the inside, the interior damaged and the stove stolen. Structures were smeared with tar. Some squatter apparently took up residence in the saloon, partially dismantled its plank walls, and used the wood for fuel.

“It’s hard enough to get the site ready on a good year, but when you’ve had this kind of destruction, it’s nearly impossible,” says Cheshier, who doesn’t rule out returning the festival to that site in 1996.

Cheshier does not mince words concerning potential critics of the newly christened 1995 Oro City Music and Arts Festival. “There’s plenty of room to serve on the committee. If you have the time to volunteer and serve, your vote counts. If not, thank you very much for your opinion.”

And Cheshier doesn’t believe that Oro City symbolizes the end of an era of wild, one-of-a-kind “pure Leadville” celebrations.

“We hold our festivals for us,” Cheshier maintains. “That’s kind of a Leadville thing. Certainly event organizers want to attract people from outside the community,” she continues. “But I don’t think we’d stop holding events if we didn’t attract visitors. We’re thrilled to have visitors and we’re delighted to share our heritage with them. But the show goes on, regardless.”

Cheshier points to August’s annual Boom Days, which are “really a Leadville reunion. People who went to high school here, former residents who’ve moved away, they all come back that weekend just to see old friends.”

And she believes that some form of Oro City celebration is better than two straight years with none. “If we can have a fun time, then let’s do it. The grass will be different, but if people will come and enjoy what’s here, they’ll have a great time.”

So why not come up and see for yourself?

Lynda La Rocca, who lives near Leadville, tells stories in print for money, and has been an official story-teller at earlier Oro City festivals.