Animal Crackers

P.T. Barnum was a great showman, but Denver's Bart Barnum may be just as good.

And he jabs a finger at the center of the bed. "I was hatched right there," he says. "I jumped right out of the bed and started running, and I've been going ever since."

Actually, Bart says later, he spent his earliest years in Central City and didn't move into the Barnum House until he was eight years old. When he was older, he joined the Navy, which took him and his wife to San Diego, where he became an English teacher. But, he says, he returned to Colorado about thirty years ago and moved into the little red cottage while his father lived in the main house. His father died about twelve years ago, Bart says, and he inherited the house with the stipulations that he must occupy it and may not sell it.

Bart, long retired, now depends on Meals on Wheels to get by. He lives in the modest "servants' quarters" in the basement, where it stays warmer. He sleeps in what he says was the maid's room and watches television at night in a large room that is full of "junkaroo," including a washing machine, dryer and "Mrs. Barnum's old square piano."

No clowning around: Ida Uchill is writing a book on P.T. Barnum's Denver connections.
Anthony Camera
No clowning around: Ida Uchill is writing a book on P.T. Barnum's Denver connections.
Under the big top: The chicken coop, carriage house and playhouse behind Barnum House.
Anthony Camera
Under the big top: The chicken coop, carriage house and playhouse behind Barnum House.

Bart reminisces about his Texan daddy, whose portrait hangs in the library; his wife, who passed away eight years ago; and his German-speaking mother, Christine Barnum.

And while the tour is fascinating, it is strangely devoid of any substantial references to P.T. Barnum himself. A kitchen shelf holds two tins of animal crackers bearing the label "Barnum's Animals"; there's a window allegedly made from the wheel from one of P.T.'s wagons; and Bart tells a story about how P.T. Barnum wasn't allowed to have the keys to a cabinet where household provisions were kept because he had a tendency to take the goods and sell them. A picture of the "old boy himself," as Bart calls him, hangs in the dining room.

But Bart reveals that he's not especially proud of his connection to P.T.

"He was kind of a crooked old bastard," he says.

Barnum was indeed a master of subtle -- and not so subtle -- trickery, a trait best summarized by his legendary slogan: "There's a sucker born every minute."

The world-famous showman coined the names Siamese Twins and Bearded Lady and invented the concepts of the three-ring circus and modern marketing. In one famous hoax, "suckers" handed over their hard-earned money for a glimpse of an African-American woman named Joice Heth, who Barnum claimed was the 161-year-old former nursemaid of George Washington. When ticket sales started to falter, Barnum changed the story, claiming that Heth (who was actually eighty) was a machine made of whale bone and leather. The exhibit's popularity soared once again.

Barnum is perhaps most widely recognized for "The Greatest Show on Earth," which was originally called P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Menagerie, Caravan and Circus but evolved into today's Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. One of his early and most famous tours featured not animals, but people: It was called the "Ethnographic Congress of Nations," and showcased people from around the world performing religious rites and other ceremonies.

But Barnum didn't even get into the circus business until he was in his sixties, and his first love was his American Museum in New York. It was there that he exhibited Joice Heth and other famed hoaxes such as the "FeeJee Mermaid" -- as well as hundreds of live animals, including a whale that was kept in the basement.

Barnum was also a wheeler-dealer, making money by buying up land and building hotels around the country, and by giving lectures on how to get rich quick.

In 1871 he bought a 765-acre tract near what was then Denver, part of which is now the Barnum neighborhood. It seems that Barnum was the sucker in that deal, however: Instead of the elegantly landscaped area he had been promised by the Chicago businessmen who sold it to him, the land was a giant mud puddle. Barnum sold off some of it and turned the rest into Barnum Town, which Denver later annexed. He also bought a hotel in Barnum Town from a pioneer judge and his wife. The hotel, at Tenth Street and Hazel Court, was called Villa Park House.

Those are the facts. But like any good circus, this show has plenty of illusion as well.

As the story goes, Barnum housed his circus entourage, including his famed elephants, in Barnum Town, perhaps even on the land where Barnum Park now sits -- at West Fourth Avenue and Julian Street, right around the corner from Bart Barnum's house. This myth gained credence over the years because of a purported photo of one of Barnum's elephants pushing a circus train up Boreas Pass to Breckenridge. A second yarn had it that Zenobia Street, which runs through the Barnum area, is named after another of P.T.'s elephants. Then there's the account of Barnum's diminutive star performer, 25-inch-tall General Tom Thumb, participating in the opening ceremonies at Elitch Gardens in 1890.

These stories form a fantastic, almost magical tale, one that seems like perfect fodder for a children's picture book. Or better yet, a children's playground -- which is exactly the thought that struck the folks in the Denver Parks and Recreation department two years ago as they set about revamping Barnum Park.

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