Holding down the fort

Carol Davis at the front desk at South Park City. Davis is retiring after 48 years there.

Fairplay’s historic South Park City is now open for the season. The outdoor living history museum is open every day, rain, snow or shine, from May 15 – Oct. 15; 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. May 15 to Memorial Day, 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day, and 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Labor Day to Oct. 15.

SPC is on the northwest end of historic Front Street, where one steps back in time to a representation of Colorado boom town life in a mining community of the late 1800s. SPC is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The South Park Historical Foundation was organized in 1957 and it purchased the property for SPC. SPC is a non-profit, privately-owned corporation. The museum first opened May 15, 1959.

According to Carol Davis, retiring 48-year museum curator, there were some hard feelings among some of the Front Street businesses because Front Street was closed off at SPC. Front Street was Colorado Highway 9 through Fairplay to Breckenridge. The main thoroughfare through town was re-routed a block to the north, onto Main Street.

There were seven original historic buildings on the site and more mining and historic buildings have been moved there over the years from around the county. There are now around 40 buildings on the site, said Davis.

They will be moving in another stone building from farther east on Front Street this summer, Davis said. She watched them move some of the other buildings in during her tenure there.

People have donated the almost 60,000 items, with many more in storage, that portray the economic and social life of an 1880s boom town. Many groups helped set up the displays.

Davis received her degree in elementary education and came to Fairplay in 1965, intending to teach school, which she did for a time. Davis was asked if she would like to be the parttime bookkeeper for SPC in 1973 and went on from there to become the chief cook and bottle washer, doing everything from bookkeeping, greeter, cleaning every spring from April 1 to May 14, curator, working on exhibits, buying books for the book store, research and writing. By the way, curator means one who takes care of stuff and sets up exhibits, said Davis.

Every day was different, she said, and many times she was the only employee. Davis loved everything about the job. It was “a rollicking ride” and SPC has “a lot of good junk.”

Davis is a wealth of information on the history of SPC, its buildings and the people who lived there, and has many stories to tell.

Four of the original buildings belonged to Leonard Summer. Summer had the first brewery in town, but his log brewery burned down in the devastating 1873 fire which destroyed pretty much all of the Front Street business district.

Summer re-built the brewery and saloon out of blocks of red rock, which came from Red Hill southeast of Fairplay.

The Summer family lived in the third story of the saloon while the family home was being built next door.

Summer’s brewery went “belly up” because it was cheaper to have beer shipped from St. Louis and bottled here than brew it here. The brewery became a butcher shop. The red rock smokehouse next to the brewery is another original site building.

Sadly, after his second wife left him, Summer committed suicide in his saloon.

Across the street from the Summers’ home was the house of buffalo hunter Frank Mayor. Mayor was part of the federal buffalo harvest in 1873, which almost wiped out the buffalo. Mayor was born north of New Orleans in 1849 and died in 1954 at 105 years old. As a teen he went north and joined the Civil War.

“A false front on an historic building usually indicates it was a business,” Davis said. “They could put that up quick and easy; behind the false front there was tent until a permanent structure could be built.

You will hear these and more stories on your visit to SPC.

Everyone always worked as a team and many have worked at SPC over the years, according to Davis. They survive on entrance fees, donations and grants. El Pomar and the Gates Foundation have donated quite a bit. There is always restoration work refurbishing the historic structures and maintenance to do.

Davis officially retired last December, although she said there was no work after the museum closed Oct. 15, after 48 years on the job. She plans to volunteer on a limited basis, plus she feeds the museum cats during the winter.

The end of July features Burro Days. The annual burro races finish along Front Street through SPC.

The second weekend in August is Living History Days, where the past really becomes alive. People dress in historic 1800s outfits and participate in skits, live demonstrations, gunfights and more. There are miners, townsfolk, painted ladies, cowboys, tradesmen, preachers and saloon keepers.

Plan on a visit to South Park City and meet the new curator, Erin Pulsipher. “Your visit will enhance your understanding of life in those rip roaring days when life was risky, fortunes were made or lost overnight and men and women of vision laid the groundwork to Colorado’s future,” according to a museum brochure.

The museum phone number is 719-836-2387, or visit www.southparkcity.org.

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