Golden Colorado: Small Town with a Big Heart
Recollections of the late 1950s by ChristiLee LaDuke
WELCOME TO GOLDEN
The last time I visited Golden was in 2015. We were greeted by the same arch I remember as a child, “Howdy Folks -Welcome to Golden – Where the West Remains.” Hubby and I were impressed with the cleanliness and vibrancy of the old downtown area. Even the new construction vied to retain its old-town, western charm.
Golden, Colorado has been beautifully re-imagined. It has become a beacon drawing the historian, the adventurist, the young and young at heart. My spirit soared as we visited the History Museum and walked the trails either side of Clear Creek for these very banks were my old stomping grounds; the best two years of my childhood, 1959-1961.
My father was born on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana in 1933. He was barely Indian, and we children, with our full-blooded Norwegian mother, didn’t look Indian at all. It is significant to mention that both our parents were born and reared in Montana, because Montanans raise their children with a sense of freedom and adventure. You will have a greater appreciation of this fact as our story unfolds. Dad was only 18 and my mother 16 when my eldest brother was born. Just six years later they had brought forth into this world four beautiful children. I was the second in birth order, born in 1953.
Dad had been raised in poverty having lost his own father at the tender age of four. He and my mom were raised in Cut Bank, a thriving community adjacent to the Blackfeet Reservation. After graduating from high school (1950) he got a job working as a wildcat on the local oil rigs. Cut Bank was known for its oil production, being one of our nation’s greatest producers during WWII. When the crew moved to Wyoming, he and my mother followed. My brother Michael wasn’t born yet, though he was on the way. It didn’t take dad long to figure out that in order to provide well for a family he would need a good education. That was back in the day when having a college education meant you could get a well-paying job of your choice. My dad was smart; dang smart. What a pity it would have been for him to surrender to poverty.
It was extremely rare for anyone born on the Rez to get a college education in the 1950s. Dad loved his homeland adjacent to Glacier National Park, yet wanted a better life for his children. His was the American Dream and he was chasing it. He envisioned himself returning to the Rez after a successful career wearing a big hat, smoking a big cigar and driving a big car.
Once in Wyoming, Dad got a job delivering milk. His early morning route allowed him time to pick up classes at the local community college in Casper. It wasn’t until 1958 that he completed his associate’s degree. There were no government programs or any financial aid to help needy families in those days. Dad borrowed money from every relative who would lend him a hand. He was the first and only one, in a family of seven children, to attend college. The others were just as hard working and intelligent as he, but he was the ONE.
In 1958 or 59 our family moved to Golden, Colorado. Dad was just 24 and mom 22 years old when he enrolled at the School of Mines. They were young, optimistic and playful with four energetic children; Michael (7), myself (5), Randy (3), and Renee (1). We children were wild and free. We sought adventure and knew nothing of boundaries.
MY VERY BIG WORLD
I do not know if we truly had more freedom than most children our age in the 1950s, but I know that we had more freedom than children of the late 20th or early 21st century. My parents rented the first level of a small house on 11th Street-where the Golden Hotel now stands. To the west of us was the town maintenance center with various out buildings used to store street maintenance equipment and supplies. Across the street was the mortuary.
Towards town center lived our neighbor Nina. Beyond her was, as I remember, a car dealership. The car lot itself extended behind our houses along the south side of Clear Creek. Upon reaching Washington Avenue we crossed the street to attend Mitchell Elementary School (probably where the parking garage is located}. Turning left on Washington you could cross the bridge over Clear Creek to reach the park. In my mind’s eye I can still see its grand deciduous trees casting dappled light upon the great expanse of manicured grass. Typically, we did not venture to the park alone, but in the company of our mother and pet dog, Prince.
At the end of our block, just three doors down, was Washington Avenue; the iconic Main Street of Small town, USA. At age 5, these landmarks were my very big world; my playground.
The house my parents rented was on the small side. The dining room had been converted into a second bedroom which was about 9′ x 9′. My brothers slept in bunk beds and my sister in a crib. At night a roll-away bed was sandwiched between them and that is where I slept. Understandably, with us being so close to one another it was hard for us to settle down at night. It wasn’t unusual for Dad to holler at us from the living room, “Shut up, damn it!” Occasionally, we were kept awake by my parents arguing loudly in the next room. My little sister, Renee, was just learning to talk. We coached her to say, “Shut up, damn it!” and sent her into the living room. I don’t think my parents thought it was funny, but we sure did… I still do.
The floor plan of our home was such that you could walk in a complete loop from living room to kitchen, to parent’s room, to bathroom (which had two doors}, to kid’s room and back to the living room. When you are chasing a child, this is to the child’s advantage. We children had so much energy that babysitters came over two at a time. What fun it was as they chased us round and round in circles trying to get us to go to bed. It was hard for my parents to find willing sitters. I don’t remember seeing any of them more than twice.
The garage of our home had been converted to a kitchen which had a staircase leading to four upper bedrooms. These rooms were also rented by students who attended the School of Mines – foreign exchange students to be precise: Miguel from Argentina, Efrain from Ecuador, George, a Mongolian Chinese, and Stuart from Taiwan.
George and Stuart did not talk to each other, for they both feared the other was a Communist spy. Although our living spaces were separate from these young men, it was not unusual for them to visit us or to go on outings with our family. I remember them telling us stories and showing us hats and other small items from their homelands. It was an incredible multi-cultural experience! Fond attachments were made and I cried the day Efrain left for good.
In addition to the sharing stories we also had the opportunity to savor the flavors of various cuisines. George Kong especially liked to cook and blessed us with many a Chinese meal. After graduating from the School of Mines, George remained a friend of my parents and stayed in Denver for much if not all of his adult life. I had the opportunity to visit him in about 1990. He still loved to cook.
THE RING LEADER
Before we go too much further it must be noted that Michael grew up to be a responsible citizen and loving husband and father. He attended first and second grade in Golden. He was just a kid, but was given the responsibility of looking after his three younger siblings. The decisions he made were not always wise, but they were always fun I In his own words, “I am amazed at my life knowing what a hellion I was growing up.”
THE MAINTENANCE SHEDS
My mother was quite the smoker. It wasn’t unusual for her to send Michael next door to Nina’s house to borrow matches. Where Michael went, we all went. When we got to Nina’s house he would ask for two books of matches; one he would give to mom and the other he would keep for himself. Michael was fascinated by fire. He loved striking the matches, so we would walk along with him striking matches as we went. Most often, they just fell into the grass and extinguished themselves, however, it was a different story as we walked among the maintenance sheds next door. The grounds of the complex were not paved, but covered in finely crushed rock. With all that heavy equipment going in and out there was no shortage of oil and grease on the ground. You guessed it. There was a pretty good ground fire and it was all hands on deck to put it out. It took some time to get going, so we were nowhere to be found once it flared up. Thank goodness.
Another time, the boys were out walking in the crispy autumn grass along the river and started a fire. Locals quickly got things under control as we stood by and watched. When questioned about it Michael described two “older boys” he saw playing with matches. The worst time was, again in the fall, when things were dry. Our back yard sloped down towards Clear Creek. Between us and the car lot was a small patch of woods off to the west. Michael thought it would be cool to start a campfire. I don’t remember how big the fire got, but I remember the fire station was alerted and a firetruck sent our way. Neighbors and men from the maintenance sheds were able to extinguish the fire before they arrived. It must have been pretty bad. My mom freaked out, I mean really freaked out, about having the baby with us. The three of us older kids got a good whippin’ with the belt. I recall it hurt for two weeks.
Despite what thoughts a mortuary might conjure up for you, the reality is that the owners of the mortuary were fine folks. Michael recalls how happy the mortician was to show off his new hearse. Michael had been hired to clean the place at 50 cents per cleaning. One day as Michael was vacuuming, a corpse near him started to twist and move as rigor mortis set in. He let out a blood-curdling scream, ran home and never returned.
THE CAR LOT
Zorro was a popular movie and TV show in the late 1950s. I remember having nightmares about him slashing a big “Z” on my bedroom door. Michael and Randy liked to tie their bathrobes around their necks and play Zorro. At night they easily snuck out the back door with their robes tied around their necks and headed for the car lot. Picking up sticks, they wielded their swords as they jumped from car hood to car hood. I joined them once… but I was pretty sure it was a bad idea. No doubt, a few insurance claims were filed on our account.
Rounding the corner of 11th Street onto Washington Avenue one was immediately welcomed to Golden by the grand arch which spanned the street. In the 1950’s Golden was your typical “Small Town, USA” with the usual array of fundamental shops: a bakery, a butcher shop, Five and Dime, grocery, bank, hardware store, movie theatre and JC Penney’s . From 11th Street to 14th Street we had the run of the town. To this day I still find it hard to believe that we had so much freedom, yet we did. Up and down the street, in and out of shops, anytime we wanted. The only rule mom gave us was “look but don’t touch”. We were never made to feel like vagrants or urchins. Never scolded. We never stole anything, we never broke anything. We just wandered around checking stuff out, Michael, myself and Randy.
Mitchell Elementary School was only a block away but there was no light on the corner of 11th and Washington. If we did cross at 11th, we had to walk across a very large playground which could be muddy or snowy. So, unless we were running late, we went to 12th where we could cross with the light. The walk was a lot longer, but much safer. My boyfriend in kindergarten was Jimmy Olson. We would duck into a recessed entrance of a local shop on our way to school. There he would kiss me on the cheek and give me his Scooter Pie. He was cute, kind and generous. He set the standard. Whatever happened to Jimmy?
Our dog, Prince, also had the run of the town. He had a regular route down the alley behind the shops where he was greeted each day by the butcher who gave him a bone. A few times he snuck through an open door at the grocery store and brought home a loaf of bread. It wasn’t unusual for him to cool himself in Clear Creek, so he often came home wet and stinky.
Once Renee was old enough to walk, our parents started a new routine. On Saturdays Michael was given fifty cents. With no adult supervision he escorted us down Washington where we stopped at a store to buy 10 cents worth of candy; enough for all of us. Continuing down the street another few blocks we went to the Saturday Kid’s Matinee at a small movie theatre. It was a really big deal. Unfortunately, one time baby sister got scared of the evil witch in “The Snow Queen” and started crying. The movie had barely begun when we had to turn around and take her home. We never did get to see the whole movie. Bummer.
In an upper apartment above the mortuary lived Ron and Dorothy Nelson, a fun-loving young couple with whom my parents became very good friends. He had been in the US Navy and his claim to fame was his “spit shine” shoes. He taught Michael how to spit shine and care for shoes… which he does to this very day. They were a very modern couple – having an aluminum Christmas tree. A rotating disc set on the floor cast different colors on the tree as it turned. So impressive!
Keep in mind that we were poor, living hand to mouth, borrowing money from neighbors from time to time to keep food on the table. As Christmas approached we found some brand new toys on our front steps; one for each of us kids. For me, there was a play stove. These were not cheap toys, they were very fine toys. For one whole afternoon I got to play with this fine stove. Soon, however, mother discovered which shop owner had purchased the gifts for us and she made us return them. My parents’ pride robbed the gift giver of the joy found in blessing us, and us of the joy of being blessed. My advice is to let people bless you. Joy is doubled.
BEYOND MAIN STREET
The laundromat was up the hill a few blocks from us. One time mom was there with Michael only; the rest of us were probably napping. He stayed in the car while she loaded up the washers. Well, of course, Michael pretended to drive the car. Unfortunately, he put the car into neutral, and since it was on a hill, it started to roll down the street gaining speed as it went. A passer-by perceived what was happening and jumped into the car pulling it over before anything or anybody was hurt. This was truly the hand of God. Oh Michael, you really put your guardian angels to the test!
Heading westward on 11th today you will find a nicely developed sports complex with multiple fields and a football stadium. When we lived there it was a grassy field with a few bleachers at the end of a dirt road. I remember driving there for night games. The freshness of the mountain air and the contrast of field lights against the night sky left an indelible memory in my heart and mind.
Dad worked nights at Coors and went to school days while mom took primary responsibility for four little kids. It was a team effort. They had but one car which worked out for them… most of the time. Like I said, everything we needed was in walking distance. But in the winter, if mom needed the car while dad was at work it meant that she had to wake us up at three in the morning and bundle us all up just to go pick up my dad who worked about a mile away. It happened with some regularity, but no one complained.
Life was no picnic for my young parents as Dad worked his way through school. Their resilience and commitment to family pushed them forward. Initially, Dad set out to become a geologist and work for an oil company, but he changed his major and transferred to Denver University where he then earned a Mechanical Engineering Degree. Afterwards, we moved to St. Paul, Minnesota where he secured a well-paying job with 3M. By the end of his first year he had repaid all his loans and put a down payment on their first home. Dad retired in 1990. He had purchased a lovely summer home in East Glacier Park, Montana, adjacent to the Rez. He drove into town wearing a big hat, smoking a big cigar and driving a big car.
We moved a lot when I was young; about every year until I was in fourth grade when we moved into our house in Minnesota. Truly, of all the places I lived as a child, Golden was my favorite. Not only was life an adventure, but we were surrounded with those beautiful mountains and with the love and nurturing spirit of a community that embraced us for two Golden years. For me Golden, Colorado remains my Small Town with a Big Heart.