Down by the River

Imagine yourself on the banks of the South Platte, lifting a Zang's brew with one furry-tongued William McGaa -- Denver's actual founder, or at least that's what he said -- as the sun sinks below the Rockies skyline. Never mind that this McGaa, in the company of his three Indian wives, Champa, Wewatta and Wazee, is actually Dennis Gallagher; the local character, history buff and city councilman promises a convincing show.

General William Larimer, a more legitimate booster of early Denver, called the Platte at its confluence with Cherry Creek "the tracings of the Almighty's finger." But it was Mark Twain who said of the so-called mighty river: "I wouldn't leave it out at night. Some dog might come along and lap it all up." Twain will accompany McGaa, Larimer and a ghostly host of local founding mothers and fathers this Sunday when the CU Foundation throws its Platte River Fandango at Cuernevaca Park. The event will benefit the formation of the proposed Public History and Preservation Center at CU-Denver. And as coordinator Tom Noel notes, it's a once-in-a-millennium chance to review the distant echoes of Denver's earliest days from the front row.

Noel, a well-known history professor at CU-Denver who would head the center, adds that the event embodies the intent of a public history program. "We're setting it up to try to get history out of the classroom," he explains. Noel hopes to see students become active preservationists rather than continue to write dry academic papers. "We want them to do actual landmark nominations," he suggests, or projects such as one student's thesis on the work of preservationist Dana Crawford.

To drive that point home, Noel will introduce a ragtag collection of historical figures performed by students and friends of history. LoDo resident and historian Barbara Gibson will be there as the Countess Murat, a French belle who opened a log hotel at the Platte River confluence (its remnants now rest in the basement of the Colorado History Museum) and fashioned Denver's first U.S. flag from Parisian undergarments. Parks manager Rod Lister will deliver an overview of the city's first parks as Mayor Richard Sopris, who purchased the land for City Park and Sloan Lake Park. And so on: It will all take place to the accompaniment of root beer and barbecue, along with tours of co-sponsor Crawford's Flour Mill Lofts and -- for a hundred-buck patron's donation -- post-tour dessert with Crawford in her own tony digs.

Noel stresses that the Fandango is strictly family entertainment. And although Westword editor Patricia Calhoun and the Colorado Historical Society's Peg Ekstrand will conduct their reenactment of a duel between Market Street madams Mattie Silks and Kattie Fulton, they will not do it topless, despite rumors to the contrary. As Mattie Silks once swore, "There are some things a whore won't do for money." -- Froyd

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