A hundred miles east of Denver is a rise that, at around 5,900 feet, is the highest point between Denver and Kansas City -- or between Denver and Chicago, or between Denver and New York, depending on who's doing the measuring and who's doing the bragging. This rise marks what has traditionally been a busy travel hub: Wildlife have long beat a path to a nearby spring; cowboys brought their Texas-Montana cattle drives to that same spring in the 1860s; and an early stage route came by, too. The trains soon followed: As railroads headed west across the plains, optimists placed a boxcar just east of the rise for a depot and platted a town there.
At first it was called Creech, after a Rock Island executive; when that didn't catch on, the name was changed to Cable, but that moniker also fell flat. As the story goes, the burg got its next -- and final -- name when a dying Italian railroad worker told his friends that he wanted to die back in his home town in Italy. He never made it back to the Old Country -- but he did die in Genoa, Italy. See also: Our Journey uncovers Colorado's prairie treasures
Wonder View Tower in its heyday.
The town became a small but popular center not just for travelers and railroad workers, but for nearby farmers and ranchers, as well. In addition to the depot, Genoa boasted a newspaper, a hardware store, a post office and a hotel. And after U.S. Highway 24 came through it, the town got its most spectacular amenity yet.
Inspired by the lofty elevation, in 1926 Charles W. Gregory and his partner, Myrtle LeBow, built the Wonder View Tower on top of the rise. At the base of the wooden tower, they opened a cafe in a room made from rocks, with every state represented; over time, Gregory added additional rock rooms that sprawled along the rim. But the real wonder at Wonder View was the tower itself: a wooden structure with 87 rickety, ladder-like steps leading to a balcony from which you could see six states -- if the day was very clear, you had extremely good eyesight...and you were looking through the tower's telescope. Gregory liked to use that telescope to spy the license plates on cars laboring up the rise of U.S. 24, and would shout appropriate greetings over his megaphone: "How're things in the Buckeye State?" That and the billboard promising "Eat, drink, gas and pop at the Tower" were often all the encouragement drivers needed to pull over for a break at this unexpected roadside attraction.
Inside the Wonder View Tower.
But there was more: Gregory not only studded the tower's rooms with rocks, but he also had artisans decorate the walls. The Indian Room, for example, was painted with murals by Native American artists; Old West scenes adorned others. Gregory's marketing savvy earned him the nickname "Colorado's P.T. Barnum" -- no small accomplishment, since Barnum himself had worked out of Colorado for a time, platting his own development in west Denver.
Gregory wasn't all talk, though. The U.S. Geological Survey reportedly confirmed in 1934 that the tower's peak was indeed the highest point between Denver and New York City. And no less an authority than Ripley's Believe It or Not proclaimed that it was truly possible to see six states from the top of the tower: Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico...and Colorado, of course.
This magnificent edifice would have passed on when Gregory did, but Jerry and Esther Chubbuck bought the Wonder View and all its wonderful contents in 1967, and continued to add to them, renaming rooms to reflect the collections within. Jerry was an amateur archeologist, and he installed his stash of 20,000 Indian arrowheads, as well as artifacts from the 8,000-year-old bison kill he'd unearthed in nearby Cheyenne County and a 75,000-year-old Imperial mammoth skeleton, also found in Cheyenne County. The Animal Monstrosities Room held many more physical marvels, including a two-headed calf and an eight-footed pig.
Chubbock charged visitors a dollar to enter the Wonder View Tower -- but in addition to access to all the collections, that also bought them the chance to climb to the top and to spy those six states as well as all the fake people he'd installed along the balcony. The website RoadsideAmerica.com devotes a page to the "Wonder Tower," noting that visitors could get their money back if they won Jerry's "Guess What" game, successfully identifying the ten oddities he would show them. "The items include rooster eyeglasses, camel nose bells and a walrus penis," the site notes.
The railroad pulled out long ago, and Genoa suffered a near-mortal blow when I-70 took a route slightly to the south. The hotel closed up; the bank was shuttered. Today the town hall is only open part-time (and the clerk didn't return calls on Monday). But despite the challenge of being a roadside attraction that was no longer on the side of the road, Wonder View Tower kept bringing in visitors -- until last summer, when Jerry Chubbock passed away and the attraction closed. It is still shuttered (RoadsideAmerica.com has updated the page to note that the tower is "reported closed"), and its contents will be auctioned off at the site over three days next weekend. Keep reading for more on the Wonder View Tower.
Indian paintings in the Wonder View Tower.
A big banner around the outside of the increasingly decrepit -- and currently very off-limits -- tower announces the auction, set for September 19 through 21. Tom Bruhns, owner of Bruhns Auction, will be conducting the sale for the Chubbuck family. Normally, his owner-based business handles higher-end estates, filled with often priceless antiques -- so the Wonder View project "is intriguing," he says. "At first it seems like kind of a gimmick, but the longer you're in there, the more intriguing it seems. Conservatively, there are over 100,000 items in there."
And for the past two weeks, he and his crew have been going through all of them, boxing things up, taking them outside, and determining how they will be sold in the tents set up on the property. The original furniture is going; many of the pieces are antiques, although not of the sort he normally auctions off. Most of the arrowheads will be sold in groups; Chubbuck kept detailed accounts of how and where the artifacts were found, which adds to the value. The old bottles, many of them sporting advertising slogans dating from the mid-1800s to the 1920s, will be split up and sold individually.
The infamous two-headed calf.
Yes, the two-headed calf and the eight-footed pig will be on the block.
Bruhns is selling the contents of the tower only; the family plans to hold on to the buildings for now. "They're in a little bit of disrepair," he says of the tower and the surrounding rooms. Although there's not much of a market for off-road attractions these days, in the true tradition of Gregory, Chubbock and the Wonder View Tower itself, the family has a grand plan. They'd like to figure out how to donate the entire site to a historic group, to make it a real museum for Lincoln County.
And to create a true landmark of Colorado's not-so-distant past, when explorers came across the plains not in creaking covered wagons, but in overheating automobiles.
Will wonders never cease?
The auction of the contents of the Wonder View Tower starts at 10 a.m. Friday, September 19. Find more information here.
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