James O'Hern is the keeper of Colonel Little's big dream in Douglas County.
James O'Hern is the keeper of Colonel Little's big dream in Douglas County.

It's a Small World

After the Civil War, the legendary Colonel Little settled in Douglas County, seeking to build a new utopia.

By the time he was planted in his tiny grave (not far from a former onion patch), "Littletown" had grown to 42 buildings and over 1,200 residents. To this day, no one challenges the Colonel's authenticity, although a search of military archives won't produce any record of this three-inch-tall man.

"I just tell people he existed," says James O'Hern. "No one questions it." That's because O'Hern is not just the caretaker of Colonel Little's Littletown, but also the creator of the miniature historical village, an attraction that draws 1,500 visitors (mostly schoolchildren) to his back yard every year.

"History has to be preserved," O'Hern explains. "We can't make ski slopes out of everything."

O'Hern has kept Littletown going, and growing, for thirteen years, through wind, storm and squirrel attacks. The retired principal was inspired to establish his tiny town after a visit to the real Tiny Town, just outside Morrison, with one of his seventeen grandchildren. "I thought it would be neat just to do this," he says. Still, there were hurdles to overcome. "The only thing I had ever made was a bread board in fifth grade," he admits. "And negotiating with my wife for space in her garden is tough."

Undaunted, O'Hern, who holds a doctorate in alternative education, bought a drill and a saw, took a course in woodworking and began to fashion replicas of 1870s-vintage Colorado buildings. After his first plywood model didn't fit through the back gate, he downsized his dream and started setting up his miniature settlement. Neighborhood children asked what he was doing, and the veteran educator realized this was an opportunity to teach youngsters about the past -- a subject on which he and his wife, Jo, also a retired history teacher, are quite passionate.

Because they were from Illinois, "where all we had was Abe Lincoln and Harry Caray," O'Hern explains, they started researching Colorado history. Armed with new facts and a vintage 1870s Sears catalogue, O'Hern set up a garage workshop, where he assembled his buildings.

That garage is now the starting point for tours of Littletown. O'Hern shows visitors his model of an "orphan train" that brought immigrant children from Eastern cities; there are also slates for lessons. As they leave the garage, time travelers pass through a gate into the 1870s, for a "Honey, I Shrunk the Ancestors" experience. The peppermint growing in an herb garden becomes a tool for learning about Native Americans. "I tell them it's like the mints they get after a restaurant meal," O'Hern says. "Herbs were medicine to keep from getting an upset stomach."

Wooden buildings line the yard in a cozy procession, each standing about two feet high and sporting a hinged roof that O'Hern raises with a stick to showcase the interior. There's a Catholic mission, complete with a priest saying Mass; a bandstand and band (accompanied by a tape of period music); a billiards parlor; Lonely Dan's cafe; the Littleton Press; a model of the Castle Rock train depot; and an Indian settlement snuggled around an eight-foot Aspen tree. None of the town's residents are over three inches tall, and despite their jigsaw genetics, they come in all hues.

"Indians, African-Americans, Hispanics -- everyone's together," he says. The town even has a Chinese laundry, a nod to a tradition that flourished in frontier times.

Littletown also takes notes of other historic realities. It has a jail, but the four gallows with their hanging stiffs were recently removed after a kindergartner said the sight scared him. Instead, a wagon carrying a striped-suited prisoner was introduced into the scene. And O'Hern also built a hospital, "because we have so many accidents in the mine," he says.

In fact, it was a tragic accident that inspired the construction of a scale-model Twin Peaks molybdenum mine this past spring: O'Hern's wooden fence blew down. While replacing it, he brought some rocks over from a neighbor's yard and built a miniature mine, complete with yellow canaries to alert miners to poisonous gases and a ghostly Tommyknocker that superstitious residents heard tapping in the dark.

Hand-lettered signs explain each scene in the town. And while O'Hern often embroiders the past, more historic venues don't mind his little hobby.

"I think it's kind of neat," says David Gerace, who's worked at Tiny Town for the past fourteen years, fighting off marauding elk and overeager children. "There's not many miniature towns left in the country."

Nor does the actual City of Littleton -- incorporated in 1890 -- object to its itty-bitty imitator.

"Well, it's the first I heard of it," admits Bill Hastings, exhibit curator for the Littleton History Museum. "But it doesn't bother me at all. Anytime someone tries to teach history and give an appreciation of the past, it's a worthwhile endeavor."

But O'Hern doesn't want to just focus on the past -- he also wants to show that retirement can be productive. A volunteer teacher at local schools who also plays trumpet in several bands, he still pours time and money -- as much as several thousand dollars -- into his town, building little hotels or cutting out fans to place in his "original" Coors field.

"I get letters from the kids," he says. "They really like it."

Colonel Little would be proud.


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