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Oro City plans to rise again in 1995

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Local festival – June 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Since 1984, Leadville has resurrected its boisterous boomtown predecessor, Oro City, for an annual festival. But it’s not going to happen this year.

Like the mythical phoenix, however, and, come to think of it, like numerous Colorado mining towns, including Leadville — Oro City is slated to rise again after this year’s hiatus. And the reanimated Oro City promises to be bigger, better, and longer.

“I think Oro City is ready for a change,” says Oro City Commissioner Gloria Cheshier. “The community deserves to have a more permanent event, something which will be a draw for tourism.”

Toward that end, Oro City is supposed to reemerge in 1995 as a month-long, six-day-a-week living history festival, with an emphasis on family-oriented activities and atmosphere.

“Family values,” while buzz words for the 1990s, were definitely not an issue for Oro City’s original inhabitants, however.

Oro City (located about a mile northeast of what is now Leadville) sprang to life after an 1860 gold strike in nearby California Gulch — so named when an elated miner declared he had “all of California” gleaming in his gold pan.

As word of the discovery spread, hordes of miners and prospectors arrived, avidly pursued by the forerunners of today’s rock groupies — faro dealers, dance hall girls, and assorted con men, hustlers and riffraff. At its height, some 10,000 people crammed into the tents, wagons, lean-tos and crude huts lining Oro City’s rutted, muddy attempt at a main street. Everyone came for one reason, to get rich, either by “getting gold,” or by fleecing “them that got it.”

And most left pretty well satisfied. Oro City was the site of the single richest placer gold strike in the entire Pikes Peak rush. In just seven years, miners washed ten tons of gold, worth more than $5 million, from California Gulch.

But all good things must come to an end. By 1867, the gravels had played out — and soon afterward, so had Oro City.

Its modern counterpart outlived the original Oro City by three years, becoming something of a Leadville institution in the process.

The Oro City festival was originally planned as a living history event. The festival’s rough-hewn cabins and false-front tents housed a colorful collection of Oro City “residents” — artisans and craftspeople dressed in period costume and busy producing essential camp supplies.

There were on-going demonstrations of frontier skills ranging from soap-making, basketry and rug-braiding, to papermaking, brewing, blacksmithing and hide tanning. Hands-on experiences were the order of the day for visitors; the more adventurous could take a turn at panning gold or working a blacksmith’s bellows.

For me, this summer just won’t be the same without it.

UNTIL ORO CITY RETURNS, where will I practice hatchet throwing? I learned this nearly lost frontier art from an Oro City mountain man, who patiently coached me on technique while my hatchet repeatedly flew past its tree stump target and landed in the woods.

During one memorable season (I call it “Oro City: The Early Years”), this same mountain man forged some indelible vacation memories by dispatching ground squirrels with his bow and arrow, skinning them on the spot, baking them in a handmade clay oven and distributing samples to intrigued visitors. Tasted like chicken, I was told.

When not engaged in retrieving my errant hatchet, I took a turn churning butter (the frontier woman’s version of upper body exercise), panned gold (the frontier man’s reason for wishing chiropractors had been invented a bit sooner), twisted sheep’s wool into yarn, and helped create stories of ghoulies, ghosties and other assorted magical creatures in the tents of the yarn spinners.

I drew the line, however, at burro racing, a wise decision in light of the burro’s unflagging ability to sniff out novices and drag them, full-tilt boogie, through the dust, the sagebrush, the tents and the saloon…

And then there was this memorable reaction to a performance by Pat Quade, portraying Augusta Tabor, the first wife of philandering, 19th century silver baron and Leadville founder, H.A.W. Tabor. Wearing a puzzled expression, a woman sitting beside me stared at a photograph of the real Augusta, then at Pat, then back again, before whispering, “I didn’t know Augusta Tabor still lived here.”

Yep. And she’s looking pretty darn good for a 155-year-old. Must be the pure mountain air.

So will “bigger” actually translate into “better” for the revitalized Oro City festival of 1995? One could easily argue that anything drawing tourist dollars into economically ailing central Colorado towns like Leadville will have a positive effect.

On the other hand, transforming Oro City into an event attracting a larger visitor base means homogenizing it, toning it down, bleeding it of the colorful, rowdy, old West flavor that made Oro City a truly unique summer festival.

Still, the only certainty in life — besides death and taxes — is change. So whatever form Oro City takes, you’ll find me there. Whether it’s with hatchet in hand, though, remains to be seen.

When she’s not throwing hatchets in Leadville, Lynda La Rocca writes for many magazines, most of which pay better than Colorado Central.