Blake Like Me

Gramma Blake is not alive to see the drunken woman staggering up Gregory Street, her slot-machine earnings clinking in her fanny pack. Gramma Blake never did like this sort of thing. In the 1930s she would stomp down from her house on Blake Hill and into a Black Hawk bar called Jenny's, where her husband, Harry, would likely be having a few. Her aim was to break every whiskey bottle in the place. Often she succeeded.

The drunk woman wends her way past Crook's Palace, a bar well-known to the Blake family for the past 120 years or so. Unable to locate the right shuttle, she continues on toward Otto's Casino, named for one of two Otto Blakes who lived in Black Hawk. Every Blake knows the story of how one Otto and his brother were driving their horse and wagon along a Gilpin County road and found a bushel basket of Mason jars under a bridge. The Mason jars were full of moonshine. The moonshine was either very good or very bad--depending on which sex of Blake is telling the story. Either way, Otto and his brother confiscated it.

Gramma Blake was not advised of the moonshine incident. She would not have approved. Unable to read or write throughout her long life--she died in her late eighties in 1973--she was a matriarch with a heart of gold and fists of iron. When her son Melvin--"Leaky," as he was known--died in 1986, his remains were taken to the Catholic cemetery outside Central City and laid to rest within earshot of his mother. It didn't matter that Leaky's wife, who had preceded him in death by nearly twenty years, was buried miles away at Dory Hill Cemetery.

"It's funny," admits Delores Spellman, Leaky's niece, "but I think everyone just figured it would be better to put him with Gramma."

Although the cemeteries that serve Black Hawk continue to welcome Blakes and their descendants, there are still plenty of them alive and well and living in Gilpin County. Local historians claim that from the day the Black Hawk elementary school opened in 1870 until it closed down in 1960, there was never a year in which at least one Blake was not enrolled. For the past century, and maybe longer, people who know have called the town Blake Hawk.

What was historic Blake Hawk? Roger Baker has been trying to figure that out since this spring, when Black Hawk, now rolling in dough after five years of limited-stakes gaming, decided to hire a full-time publications and information specialist. Born out of the 1859 Gregory Gulch gold strike, Black Hawk's destiny was dictated by what Roger calls "an accident of geography." Unlike Central City, Nevadaville and other towns farther up the hill, Black Hawk had water, in the form of the soon-to-be-polluted Clear Creek, and a bit of flat land along its banks, where ore-processing mills could be built.

If the miners wanted culture--opera, a fancy dinner or a fancy woman--they went up the gulch to Central City. Black Hawk, "well, this was more of a working-class town," Roger muses. "By all accounts, it was an unpleasant place to live, with terrible noise from the stamp mills. When the smelters were here, they were putting out sulfur dioxide, which smells like rotten eggs."

Bayard Taylor, a writer who visited Black Hawk in 1866, was moved to describe Gregory Street as "a rough, winding, dusty road, lined with crowded wooden buildings; hotels with pompous names and limited accommodations; drinking saloons...piles of rusty and useless machinery tumbled by the wayside. There was also a brewery."

And Taylor's description was kind compared to those of his contemporaries, who "regarded Black Hawk as universally ugly," Roger says. "When people lament how gambling has changed the quaint little towns, they should realize that the quaint part is very recent."

Black Hawk's population peaked in the mid-1870s at about 1,800 and declined precipitously thereafter. The mines petered out by the turn of the century, and by 1925 the town was down to 300 residents. Despite the small summer tourist boom that began with the resurrection of the Central City Opera in 1932, the remaining townspeople eked out no more than an unspectacular living.

"Before gambling, you didn't need a whole lot of money to live here," Roger recalls. "And the folks who lived here had very little money to begin with. A lot of people moved away. Who stayed?"

He answers his own question as anyone else in town would:
"The Blakes."

In 1859 Edward Blake was just one of thousands of would-be mining moguls who converged on the area around Black Hawk and Central City, then known collectively as Mountain City. Gold had been discovered a few months earlier by a fellow Georgian, John H. Gregory, and Blake had followed his own father's advice to go west and make something of himself. But like most of the other men drawn to the gold fields, Edward did menial work in the mines without ever striking it rich. To make ends meet, he worked on the toll road to Denver, then began hauling ore from the mines to the stamp mills--huge buildings that had been thrown up in a hurry and crowded the streets of Black Hawk.

Somehow Edward Blake managed to not only scratch out a living but also establish a dynasty. When he died in the early Twenties, he left behind three sons, all of whom had been born in their father's original homestead. Although Osgood struck out for Pueblo at a young age, the remaining boys, Harry and Otto, stayed home to run the local livery stable, which later became the state's first Texaco station. Otto and his wife, Daisy, were childless, but Harry produced five sons--with the assistance of his formidable wife, Mary, still known as Gramma. All but one of their sons returned to Black Hawk after seeing duty in World War II. The hill across the highway from Black Hawk's small business district, once called Swede Hill for the immigrants who settled there, by now was known as Blake Hill.

"Black Hawk was dead," Roger Baker theorizes. "All the people were in the same boat. No one who lived here had any money, period. That had evaporated...but some of them ended up owning a hell of a lot of property. If you have a town of 1,800 people and 1,600 leave, a lot of property and mining claims get sold for back taxes. At times you could get a house for $5."

The Blakes held on. Although Harry's oldest son, Edward, had followed a munitions career to Nevada (hence his lifelong nickname of "Las Vegas") and was out of the picture, Harry's second son, Otto, was running the Gilpin Hotel with his wife, Ruth. The middle son had returned from a Navy post in Hawaii with more plumbing skills than Black Hawk had ever seen--though whether he was ever formally certified, no one really knows--which is how Melvin became Leaky. Through the Fifties and Sixties, Leaky stayed busy installing indoor plumbing for everyone around town--including the Central City Opera House and his own Gramma Blake. Norman, the second-youngest son, parlayed his Army job as a machinist into a career as Colorado's official mine inspector. He also had a number of side ventures, including a bus line that ran between Central City and Denver and was busy in the summer and dead in the winter. Dowell, the youngest of the Blake boys, was called Short Circuit or Sparks: He was the town electrician.

"And he was also everyone's Uncle Dowell," recalls Sharon Holmes, Black Hawk's deputy city clerk. Sharon moved to Black Hawk in the mid-Sixties to heal a broken heart. "I know it sounds corny, but it worked very well," she says. After a day at whatever job she could scrape together, she'd head to Crook's Palace for a beer--where she always encountered Dowell.

"He was there by five or six every day," she remembers, "and if he wasn't, someone would go get him."

"He was the living face on the barroom floor," quips Roger from his desk across the room.

"That could be," Sharon agrees. "Anyway, I used to have a wonderful time arguing with him about women. His view was that they should stay home, cook and be mothers, and there was no changing his mind. But he was a friend to everybody. I had beers with him the night he died."

Any discussion of the male Blakes of Black Hawk includes beer. It has to.
"Are you kidding?" Sharon asks. "I think cold beer would be most of the story." Certainly Leaky's story. "He drove a blue pickup truck," she continues, "and he would stop in at the liquor store after work and have cold beers with whoever was there. One night he came home and told his daughter Mary, 'God, it's awful cold tonight. I can't remember when it's been this cold.' The next morning, come to find out someone had stolen his windshield while he was drinking, and he never even noticed."

Unlike his brother Dowell, Leaky apparently never settled on just one tavern. People who encountered him on various bar stools around Central City and Black Hawk remember what a thrill he got out of telling two well-worn plumber jokes. The first--in which a woman calls in the middle of the night screaming, "I got a leak in my basement!" and Leaky replies, "Go ahead, lady, it's your basement"--was usually received with groans. The second is more existential. A plumber has to dig holes, Leaky would explain, and in the winter, with the ground frozen solid, this can be tough. Leaky said he solved the problem by digging extra holes during the summer and storing them--"stacked them up in the garage like Dixie cups."

"There have always been a lot of Blakes," says Black Hawk town alderman David Spellman, a Blake on his mother's side. "We were a prominent Black Hawk family, but only by virtue of being here forever. Open up the phone book and it was Blake, Blake, Blake."

David, grandson of Otto the younger, inherited a strong streak of Blake personality. Only 32, he's been a member of the city council for nearly ten years, and as such was one of the original supporters of the November 1990 referendum that legalized gaming in Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk. Having bought strategic real estate and boosted gambling for all he was worth, David is now enjoying Black Hawk's good fortune with a vengeance.

For the first time since the gold rush, the town is awash in money. City Hall has new carpet (not to mention an old photo of the first Otto, about ten years old, sitting on a donkey on Gregory Street), as well as 45 new salaried employees. Thanks to town grants made up of money raised by taxes on gaming, most of the local homes have been remodeled and quaintified by new paint. The town's historic business buildings clang with slot machines. And the Black Hawk casinos--all-new behemoths that look nothing like the mom-and-pop establishments touted by gaming's proponents six years ago--are making more money than those of Central City, which had long been thought of as the more cultured and classy of the two towns. Not even David could have predicted this, but he's wallowing in it.

"In terms of our cultural heritage," David says, "this is more than fitting. My ancestors came here in the beginning to make money. Now we're still here, and we're making more."

David Spellman has a bit of the Hollywood entertainment mogul in his manner. He strides around town in cowboy boots and Western wear and, as he will tell you, has been known to "partake of an alcoholic beverage from time to time." Confronted by last month's onslaught of publicity surrounding the fifth anniversary of gambling--not all of it positive--he has a statement ready. "It's a shame that the media has to look for the negative and sensationalize it," he says. "What happened here is a true renaissance. These communities were crumbling. Now they are not."

And the thing is, David always knew this renaissance was possible. A member of the first generation of Blakes to grow up with indoor plumbing, he remembers watching tourists head up to Central City every summer in the Sixties and Seventies and wondering how to get things hopping again year-round.

"You could characterize it as the Great Depression lasting a whole lot longer around here," he says, "but I always had visions that there was much more potential. Even before high school I was in construction, and within two years after graduating from high school, I had my own construction company. College teaches you to be dependent on others. I guess I didn't like the sound of that, so I didn't go."

David's first entrepreneurial effort was a two-bay car wash at the corner of Highway 119 and Chase Gulch (since torn down and replaced with a casino). But he knew it was just the beginning. And how did he know? Because of his grandfather Otto.

"My grandfather was a man of great common sense," David recalls. "He always told me to quit buying motorbikes and buy property. I did what he said, and he was right."

When David was born, Otto was already retired after 23 years in the bottle department at Coors and, never content to sit around, was amusing himself in a number of ways. "He loved to collect stuff," David remembers. "He had a secondhand store, Trash and Treasures. And then, because he needed something to do, he worked at the county dump. He got people trained to separate out their aluminum cans, and when people brought them in, they'd bring him a sixteen-ounce can of Coors or a fifth of Jim Beam. By the end of the day, he was always...happy."

On Sundays, as a teenager, David and a couple of his cousins would accompany their grandfather first to St. Mary's Catholic Church, and then on a tour of all the Blake homes, where they'd pick up the extended family's trash and take it to the dump. "Then we'd rummage around and see if other people had dumped any good stuff," David says. "By the end of the day, one of us would be driving Grampa, who always had a buzz, and none of us had licenses. Or we'd go down to Trash and Treasures. So many of my childhood memories center on trash."

Others center on arguments, of which David has never been afraid. "There has always been division in this family," he says. "There was a great deal of spirited words and discussions between my grampa and my uncle Norman. Uncle Norm is the patriarch of the family at this point. But you know what my grampa always said about him?" he asks, lowering his voice. "He said Norm drank like a woman. At home, in a closet."

But Norman Blake is not timid outside the home. In fact, when David was hit with his very first lawsuit a few years ago, it was filed by--who else?--Uncle Norman. The case appears to have had something to do with Blake real estate--a hard subject to dissect, as there is a lot of it and much of it is inherited.

But the real bone of contention between Norman Blake and David Spellman is gambling. David likes it. Norman does not.

"I used to get all my own legislation, too," recalls 78-year-old Norman Blake, sitting in the historically correct parlor of his house on Blake Hill. "And I went against the gaming. I could see what could happen to the little guy, and I was right."

While Norman admits that the real estate aspects of gambling have made him a considerable amount of money, he doesn't have to like the casinos. Ditto for Black Hawk officials and their well-meaning programs--the grants for renovation of historic homes, the oral history soon to appear on video. "I don't care what the city of Black Hawk has," he says emphatically. "I'm not gonna deal with 'em."

And that includes his great-nephew David. "He's cut my throat, and I don't know why," says Norman. "No, I do know why. He and his bunch have always been jealous of me. What they have done to this town is an insult to my family."

Family, of course, has always exerted a strong influence on Norman Blake. He sleeps in the bedroom where his father was born in 1882 and receives visitors in the parlor where his grandfather lay in state in the early Twenties. As for growing up during Black Hawk's less lucrative years, he says stoutly, "Well, I think it was an allright life. We had a ballpark and Central had one, and the two towns played ball. We kids went out and picked berries and fished. All the boys had horses and all the girls had donkeys, which are a lot smarter than horses, did you know that? None of my family ever took any kind of relief. My mother washed sheets for the Teller House, and my dad worked at anything he could."

By the time he was twelve, Norman himself was building an impressive resume. Before and after school, he delivered milk by donkey cart. Afternoons and evenings, he washed glasses at the Teller House bar. And he vividly remembers helping the local mortician cover the Opera House doors with felty black fabric. "Go up there and look," he suggests. "You can still see the tacks I put in."

Drafted in 1943, Norman spent the war working on the diesel engines of minesweepers in Florida and came home married to his high school sweetheart, Mildred Jacobs. (They'd wanted to marry earlier, but Gramma Blake had ordered Norman to wait until he was 21, and he did.) He went to work at a mine near Nederland the day after Labor Day, 1945, and became a state mine inspector in 1955. Included in his job duties were gruesome rescues from the area's numerous mine shafts--"and don't call them 'abandoned mines,'" he insists. "I hate that. There is not an abandoned mine in the nation. They may be non-working, but someone is paying taxes on every one of them."

Despite its small-town ambience, the area around Black Hawk attracted more than its share of dead bodies, murdered elsewhere and dumped down Gilpin County mine shafts to throw off the authorities. "There's plenty still down there, I'm sure," Norman says. Easier to find were the bodies of amateur prospectors who went down into the old tunnels looking for gold or uranium. "Everyone thinks they'll see lumps of gold lying around on the ground, and they don't--the assayer has to tell you it's there," he says. "But that doesn't stop these guys. They go down, run out of oxygen and sit down and die. Or they get a piece of rope, and when they start jerking on it to come back out, the rocks fall down and kill them. It was me who had to take their bodies back out again. I was good at it. I respected the rock. I never scratched a finger."

In his years as mine inspector--a career that culminated in his becoming commissioner of mines for the entire state--Norman knew whenever a potentially interesting mine came up for sale. He now owns "44 of the most historic mines, but they'll never let me work them," he complains. "With all the casinos in town, there's too many people around. It wouldn't be safe."

Although Norman has little use for those casinos, he has been known to stroll down to the Black Hawk Bullwhackers--for the cheap pizza, not the gambling. "What do I need with casinos?" he asks. "I got fifteen slot machines of my own in the attic."

These date to the Forties, when illegal gambling was rife in Central City and Black Hawk, thanks to Denver's Smaldone family, "who were angels compared to what we have now," Norman recalls. "They bought hot lunches for every schoolkid in Gilpin County, and 65 percent of the money they made stayed right here."

It was Norman Blake's job to hide the slot machines whenever federal marshals from Denver were planning a raid--which, he insists, the whole town would know about hours ahead of time. "I'd load them up in my truck and drive them away somewhere," he remembers. "I wore out my welcome at a bunch of garages in town. Sometimes I'd just park in the trees and wait."

"There certainly was open gambling," says Linda Jones, a longtime boardmember of the Gilpin County Historical Society, "and it was just blatantly connected with the Smaldones. By all accounts, they were very generous."

According to Linda, gambling was allowed to flourish in the Thirties and Forties because both Black Hawk and Central City had charters that pre-dated the state constitution, in which gaming was officially made illegal. "In any case," she continues, "the federal marshals finally cracked down in 1949. The newspapers ran a wonderful picture of the old woman who cooked the school lunches being taken away in handcuffs."

As a volunteer at the Gilpin County Museum, Linda has met a decade's worth of "old-timers" who grew up in Central City or Black Hawk, remember the original gambling days and have come back to see the new incarnation. One thing they notice right away is the domination of Black Hawk over Central City. "People used to say, 'Where's Black Hawk?' and you'd have to tell them they'd driven right through it," she recalls. "Now it's, 'Where's Central City?' It's a big change. Before gambling, our buildings were literally sliding downhill, so some of what has happened is good.

"But mostly," she adds, "if you ask anyone who's lived here a long time, it's changed. It's not the snug little town Norm Blake grew up in anymore."

Blake Hill is still full of Blakes, even if a preponderance of the female offspring have changed their last names. Norman Blake lives in the house his great-uncle Otto took over from Edward Blake, in the shadow of his great-aunt Daisy's art collection. Three hundred yards away, David Spellman lives in his grandfather Otto's white gingerbread cabin. His mother and father live next door; his two aunts up the hill. Leaky's former house, still marked "M. Blake," is occupied by still more Blake descendants. And the house where Dowell lived is being renovated by his son John, who still keeps a home for his father's faithful dog, Chiggers. John is not home today, but the half-inch stack of paper that records his father's life and death is waiting on the dining-room table.

Dowell Blake's elementary school report cards are here, as is his honorable discharge from the Navy. There is correspondence regarding Dowell's request for retirement benefits from the National Electrical Benefit Fund and other missives. "Dear Mr. Salmone," Dowell wrote in one letter, "enclosed is the complete divorce decree. There is nothing more. There never was anything more."

The press clippings begin in 1991, when the owner of Crook's Palace sold out to a casino and the terms of the deal stipulated that Dowell Blake be given free beers for the rest of his life. "It's probably fair," a bartender is quoted as saying. "He's probably paid for the place a couple of times."

Life magazine picked up the story in 1992; so did the National Enquirer. Both mentioned that Dowell had been drinking at Crook's since elementary school, when draft beers set him back ten cents. The late Greg Lopez interviewed Dowell for the Rocky Mountain News, noting that he usually entered the bar saying, "I'm here and I must be ALIVE, so set 'em up."

Dowell Blake only drank two years' worth of free longneck Buds before he died in his sleep in March 1993, his dachshund in his arms. Four hundred people attended his wake at Crook's, which was closed to the public for the occasion. On the bar was a longneck bottle with a card propped up against it that read: "This Bud's for you, Uncle Dowell."

"Poor old Uncle Dowell," says one of the workmen who's rebuilding the house. "He had cancer. They gave him six months to live, and he lasted four years. He hung on all by himself."

"That's not true," says Delores, mother of David, daughter of Otto and niece to Dowell. "Dowell didn't have cancer. He may have had emphysema, but basically, he drank himself to death. That's why his wife, Nancy, left him, although she drank herself to death, too, in Las Vegas. Nancy had to wait for Gramma Blake to go before she could leave Dowell. While Gramma Blake was alive, you didn't do things like divorce."

It is Delores's contention that Gramma Blake's demise created a rift within the family that has never entirely healed. These days, one branch of the Blakes is often pitted against another. "I used to go help out Dowell," she recalls, "but he never came up to see me. He had time to go down to Crook's, but not for me. Finally I gave up on him. My thinking was, 'If I don't see you while you're alive, I sure as hell am not going to visit you when you're dead.'

"But then," she adds, a little sadly, "how could I know he was about to die?" Still, she didn't go to his funeral, either. "I think his kids were shocked," Delores says.

But Delores has family to spare. During the week she takes care of her son Mark's four-year-old daughter, who this afternoon is quietly discovering Silly Putty with a friend. The small house where they play is liberally sprinkled with Catholic memorabilia and Blake antiques--plus Delores's husband's stationary bicycle. Delores has never had to resort to such artificial routes to fitness; like her mother, Ruth, and like Gramma Blake, she didn't ever learn to drive, preferring instead to walk. "Except since gambling," she points out. "Now I have all these free shuttle buses competing for my business."

Another upside of gambling, she says, is the wealth of jobs. Mark, a Westminster firefighter for the past twenty years, could never find work in his hometown. "While he was in school," Delores recalls, "he was the Black Hawk fire chief, and they paid him fifty dollars a year, and he always gave it back because he knew they couldn't afford it. Now there's twelve full-time firemen in Black Hawk."

Delores isn't sure about the rest of the casino scene, however. "My son David doesn't even work a regular job anymore," she says doubtfully. "Black Hawk's destiny, that's what he does all day. He eats and sleeps it."

Destiny has again changed the face of Black Hawk. The old Gilpin Hotel, once owned and operated by Delores's parents, has become the Gilpin Hotel Casino. "We charged $17.50 a week for seven days' food and lodging," she recalls. "Our boarders were little independent mining promoters."

Another boarder was her future husband, Bill Spellman, who came out from Topeka with an artist friend "on a lark, gainfully unemployed," she says. Married in 1955, the young couple spent their first year together in Denver, moving back to a family house in Black Hawk for the summer. "Except that we never went back," Delores laughs. "My family was here, Gramma Blake was the center of it, and family was important. We went to church together. We were always told that being Catholic was a hard religion to live but very nice when you died. We got together for all the holidays, and our families got bigger and bigger."

Delores's two sisters ended up back in Black Hawk--even after seeing other parts of the world. They live on Blake Hill, too. Sometimes the three women will sit together looking at family pictures, remembering the past and marveling at how things turned out. There was never any question, however, of where they would turn out.

"We weren't all that sophisticated," Delores says. "We just knew that we'd stay here.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >