Animal Crackers

Bart Barnum answers the phone in a theatrical fashion, his voice slow and cartoonish.

"Barnum House," he says.

You ask him if it might be possible for you to come by and take a look at the place. Of course it is, he responds enthusiastically. He would be delighted to show you around. You can even bring a friend or two. Since he grew up in the house, it's nothing new to him, of course, but other people do seem to take an interest in it. After all, his great-great-grandfather, P.T. Barnum, lived in it for ten years, he says.

Barnum tells you he gives about one tour per week, free of charge, mainly to groups from women's clubs who have heard about "them" -- him and the house, that is -- by word of mouth.

Barnum House, at 360 King Street, does indeed have a personality of its own. A cheerful two-story with a fresh coat of yellow paint, a high peaked roof, and crisp red and white trim, it stands out sharply from the small bungalows that fill most of the Barnum neighborhood, the hilly west Denver area hemmed in by Alameda and Sixth avenues and Sheridan and Federal boulevards. The mailbox next to the house is a replica of the house itself. A little red and green cottage sits only yards away, and several small, colorful buildings of different shapes and sizes poke up through gentle mounds of snow in the backyard. On a gray winter day with a few flakes drifting from the sky and long icicles clinging to the eaves, the little cluster of buildings looks like a group of circus tents pitched in a snow globe, untouched by the rest of the world.

A cement hitching post with an iron ring on top marks the beginning of the brick path that leads to the main house. When the white front door swings open, it seems like it would not be impossible for a trained seal or troupe of clowns to be posing in the foyer. Instead, 79-year-old Bart Barnum emerges from the bright-red entryway wearing a rust-colored button-down shirt, a pair of slightly stained khaki pants, and brown slippers. Bushy eyebrows hover above his blue eyes.

He welcomes you in, and you step right up to begin the tour.

Bart passes from the foyer into a dining room filled with muted green light. The house was built in 1878, he says, but in 1956 it had to be moved from its original site, which was exactly two blocks to the north. Sixth Avenue was coming through, and he had to get out of the way. Barnum House and all of its outbuildings -- a chicken coop, a carriage house, a children's playhouse and the little red cottage next door, which he rents out but which was originally the guest house -- were rolled down the street to 360 King. "I sure moved my fanny," he says.

To the right of the dining room is a round sitting room with bright-blue walls, ornate gas lamps that have been converted to electric ones, and a white domed ceiling with stained-glass skylights. The crown jewel of the tiny room, and perhaps the entire house, is an elaborate stained-glass window that depicts a young woman playing a pipe. It's an original Tiffany, Bart purports, appraised at $30,000. And the floor is made of lava from Mount Vesuvius, he adds.

"This thing is a Dutch Colonial, and it doesn't turn me on at all," Bart says of the house. "I like all the fiddle-faddle and whoop-de-do that a nice Victorian has."

The ceilings in the home are all very low. This is because the house is actually the old Barnum carriage house that P.T. Barnum converted into a home after his mansion burned down, Bart explains.

"Some people call it the 'Barnum Barn,'" he says, "just to be crazy."

The place has the feel of a museum, and Bart clearly has plenty of practice exhibiting it. Most of the tiny rooms in the house are labeled in black block letters above their doorways: LIBRARY. SCULLERY. Bart says this makes for less explaining when he's giving tours. From the "tack room" (now a miniscule bedroom) on the second floor to the wee "coffee kitchen" on the "garden level," the house is immaculate and orderly, but full of knickknacks and oddities of indeterminate age and origin: teacups with "moustache shelves" to keep gentlemen's whiskers from "getting in the goop," an indoor rotisserie, even a Winnie-the-Pooh doll sitting on a couch in the basement.

Bart heads forward through the dining room into the spacious yellow kitchen. It's done in 1950s style but contains the home's original stove, Bart says, a bright-blue monster that burns both gas and coal.

From the kitchen, narrow stairways lead both up and down. The entire top floor used to be the hayloft, a feature that is still evident from the many small doors -- once used for pitching hay -- that line the walls of the pink-hued master bedroom. Bart points out the fireplace in its inglenook and the cables that strengthen the peaked roof.

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."

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.

The 1998 Neighborhood Bond Project allotted $90,000 for improvements to the playground, which is currently a forlorn patch of gravel that sports an aging metal swing set, a dome-shaped jungle gym and a slide. (The restrooms, the picnic shelter and the soccer fields are also set to be renovated.) Planners thought it would be appropriate to give the new playground a circus theme, says Ruth Murayama, a landscape architect with the parks department.

So the city paid Jump Design Company, a Denver landscape architecture firm, $12,000 to design the park's master plan. Jump then hired Cathe Mitchell, a landscape architect with a historical bent, to research and write a summary of P.T. Barnum's Colorado connections, including the history of the animals that were kept in the Barnum neighborhood. The company planned to use her findings to assure the city that the circus motifs planned for the playground were historically accurate.

One of the first things Mitchell did was arrange a tour of Bart Barnum's house for a group of Parks and Recreation employees last fall so that they could get some historical background for the project. Mitchell heard about Bart from Susan Fry, assistant director of parks, who came up with the circus idea.

Fry says she believes playgrounds have become standardized because of safety regulations, and she wanted to do something different here. She heard about Bart from a woman who lives in the neighborhood.

The trouble with Bart Barnum, Mitchell discovered later, is that P.T. Barnum had no sons who would have carried on the family name, and there is no place for him on the Barnum family tree. Furthermore, P.T. Barnum could not have lived in the Barnum House for ten years, as Bart Barnum claims he did, because he never lived in Colorado at all.

"Clearly, he's a fraud," says Mitchell. "But what about Barnum isn't a fraud?"

In more than a year of research, Mitchell has learned that most of what people thought they knew about P.T. Barnum in Colorado isn't true. He never housed his circus or its animals anywhere near Denver. Although he may have planned to bring them here, he bought the land sight unseen, and upon arriving, he realized the obvious impracticality of wintering tropical animals like elephants and lions in these chilly climes, says Mitchell.

And that photo of Barnum's elephant pushing the circus train up the mountain pass? It's a woodcut.

General Tom Thumb at Elitch Gardens? He died two years before the amusement park opened.

"I have found out more than [the city] ever wanted to know," Mitchell says.

Running into Barnumesque illusions and confusions like these made finding the truth as difficult as winning a carnival shell game, she adds, and for a time she found herself with a bad case of writer's block. "Everything was so elusive. It just became this tangled web I didn't know how to get out of.

"I think what we're finding out," she continues, "is there's a lot of myth about what Barnum did in Colorado, but we can still tie [the playground theme] to the myth."

The one person who could have helped Mitchell get untangled is Ida Uchill, a local writer and historian who has published one book, Pioneers, Peddlers and Tsadikim: The Story of the Jewish Colorado, and plans to self-publish 250 copies of another, Howdy, Sucker! What P.T. Barnum Did in Colorado, sometime this spring.

Uchill graduated in 1939 from the University of Colorado's journalism school, where she says the goal was to be "clear, concise and accurate." And after years of writing and teaching journalism in the Denver Public Schools, Uchill has stuck to those tenets. "I love to set the record straight," she says. "My book is a real debunker of everything."

Uchill, who first became interested in the Barnums as a child growing up near the Barnum neighborhood, has been researching the topic for more than ten years. One of her biggest finds was a special collection of 203 Barnum documents, including 125 letters written by P.T. himself, at the Denver Public Library. In 1995 she used her research to write a story for the Denver Post that deflated many of the popular myths about Barnum's activities in Colorado -- including the one about the elephant pushing the circus train up Boreas Pass, as well as the stories involving Zenobia Street, General Tom Thumb and Barnum's animals. (Mitchell used this article to begin her investigation.)

What is true is that Barnum was a good friend of Horace Greeley, founder of the northern Colorado town, and that both were active in the temperance movement here. Barnum gave a few anti-alcohol speeches in Colorado.

Barnum's primary ties to the state, however, involved his daughter, Helen, who caused a scandal when she left her husband and three children to run off with a doctor -- William Buchtel, brother of Henry Buchtel, who was chancellor of the University of Denver and later governor of Colorado. William Buchtel had tuberculosis, and he and Helen moved to Colorado for the dry, fresh air. Helen had a house on Lincoln Street and eventually took possession of the land that is now the Barnum neighborhood, which her father sold to her for one dollar.

According to Uchill's research, William and Helen lived for four years in the Villa Park House, during which time William was mayor of Barnum Town.

But during his lifetime, P.T. Barnum himself spent only four weeks in Colorado: one each in 1870, 1977, 1882 and 1890, says Uchill. The circus did come here once in 1880, but it was with Barnum's partner, James Bailey, not Barnum himself. And P.T. never lived in a Colorado mansion, or in its converted coach house, she adds. "He never wintered the circus in Colorado. He never summered the circus in Colorado," she wrote in her 1995 story.

Larry Fisher, executive director of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, says he knows exactly where Barnum really did winter the circus: in Bridgeport, the headquarters of Barnum's circus. Throughout Barnum's circus days, his entourage -- equipment, animals and performers -- spent the winter months in a compound centered around a specially designed, 330-foot-long wooden car barn. The roof was carved with designs of circus animals, and the whole thing was large enough to house the entire circus train. Barnum's elephants made a striking sight as they exercised in the midst of a wintry New England scene, clapboard houses in the background, says Fisher. And a Barnum lion made headlines when it escaped and broke into a nearby garage, where a woman tried to drive it off with a broom.

Plans are under way in Bridgeport to restore the site, part of which is now a park, to some of its former glory, he says. The park itself has fallen into disrepair, and another portion of the old Barnum land was converted into an industrial area that was recently cleaned up by the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, says Fisher, a committee is working to spruce up the area and add plaques labeling the foundations of Barnum buildings and explaining what went on there.

As for Bart Barnum, Uchill has devoted nearly an entire chapter, titled "The King Street Hoax and Other Humbugs," to him. "He's nothing to P.T." says Uchill. "He's a typical Barnum fake."

Uchill found out about Bart Barnum years ago from employees at the Denver Public Library who believed he was a genuine descendant. But she couldn't figure out how he was related to P.T. At first she thought that perhaps Bart was connected to a Barnum cousin who had once owned a shop in the area. But when she called Barnum House to ask, a man who answered the phone hung up on her, she says. She later visited the house and found a man outside watering the lawn. But when she inquired about the Barnum connection, he became irate and ran her off the property, she says. Uchill never got to see the interior of the house, and she hasn't been back.

Instead, she tried to dig up building permits, maps and fire-department records that would show where Barnum House originated. She hasn't had much luck. Uchill has found no record of a barn or carriage house on the property of Barnum's Villa Park House, but she has found a building permit for 550 King Street, the location two blocks north of Barnum House where Bart claims the building originally stood. However, she also found a 1956 Denver Post account of a barn on the "Barnum estate" being moved. The barn, according to the Post story, was owned by a James Failing, who'd purchased it in 1921 and converted it into a house.

In fact, Bart Barnum acknowledges that his real name is Robert Failing and that his father was James Failing. (He says he uses Barnum as his last name because he thinks "Failing" is an "ugly name" with negative connotations.) Property records show that he is indeed the owner of Barnum House.

But he denies allegations that he is not who he claims to be. "I fit into the Barnum family somehow, but I've never bothered to investigate exactly how," he says, describing the connection as "distant" but at the same time maintaining that he is P.T.'s great-great-grandson. "I just kind of steer clear of that. It can get awfully complicated."

One person who's not confused is Pat Gregory. As the great-grandniece of Helen Barnum Buchtel and one of the most well-recognized descendants of P.T. Barnum living in Colorado, she says she has never spoken to Robert Failing and that neither he nor his mother, whom Bart calls Christine Barnum, is related to the Barnum or Buchtel families.

Gregory's mother's cousin, Leila, was the daughter of Helen Barnum Buchtel, and Gregory, who lives in a Denver retirement community, has the family heirlooms to prove it: an oil painting of "Iranistan," a colossal, pink Moorish-style mansion that Barnum built in Bridgeport (it burned down long ago); a portrait of Helen Barnum Buchtel as a child; and a champagne cooler and toothpick holder bearing P.T. Barnum's crest and initials. And while the Barnum museum has called Gregory to ask for these items, she's not giving them up. She's proud of both her Barnum and Buchtel lineages and says family tradition calls for mothers to pass the paintings on to their eldest daughters; Gregory got them from her mother, Barbara Buchtel, and intends to pass them on to her own daughter.

The Barnum Museum's Fisher says that while the museum would indeed like to have the items, he is glad that Gregory has them instead. "At least they'll stay in the family," he says.

Then again, the Barnum museum's version of the family tree doesn't include William Buchtel or anyone from the Barnum/Buchtel lineage, including Gregory. "It's not really acknowledged," Fisher says, explaining that second marriages are often left out of official family histories.

Fisher also says he can find absolutely no sign of a Bart Barnum or a Robert Failing -- acknowledged or unacknowledged. He also has no record of Barnum House. Although the Barnum Museum has very little information relating to Colorado, if P.T. had ever converted a carriage house here into a home for himself, either the museum or the Bridgeport Public Library (which share a massive Barnum collection) would have a record of it, Fisher says.

"One of the things about P.T. is he wasn't shy about marking his spots," says Fisher. And "Barnum was very meticulous about inventorying the content of his homes and identifying his purchases."

Despite the overwhelming evidence that Bart is not a Barnum and that P.T. Barnum didn't live in Barnum House, Denver's librarians and parks department employees aren't the only people Bart has "humbugged," says Ida Uchill. The house was once listed by the state as a tourist attraction, and Uchill says she heard that the Colorado Historical Society used to give tours of the house and pay to rent it for afternoon teas and other functions. (A spokeswoman for the society says there is no record of these tours or teas, at least not within the last fifteen years.)

Bart himself says he no longer likes to make much of his family connections. "When I was younger, I used to get kind of a kick out of being in the limelight," he says. "Now I'm content just to pull in my horns and stay in my little hole."

Yet as recently as last summer, Bart spoke for several minutes about the history of the Barnum area and his connection to the family during a bus tour of west Denver parks that was hosted by Carolyn Etter, who was co-manager of the Denver Parks and Recreation Department from 1987 to 1991. Etter says she had no idea Bart Barnum was really Robert Failing; she adds that he was quite knowledgeable and told wonderful stories.

The parks department's Murayama, who was on the Barnum House tour that Mitchell arranged, says she thought the house was interesting and that Bart was entertaining. And she was surprised when she found out that Mitchell believes Bart to be bogus. "If he is an impostor, I can't imagine why he is doing it," she says.

In late February, Mitchell submitted her report to the city, and despite the Barnum House hoax and the other myths surrounding P.T. Barnum, she recommended a circus theme complete with blue-and-white-striped playground equipment and concrete "elephant footprints" scattered around the park.

City Councilwoman Ramona Martinez, whose district includes the Barnum neighborhood, would like to see a petting zoo at the park as well, according to her legislative analyst, John Soto. Martinez will need to get input from local residents and find a private donor first, however.

Murayama says she hasn't heard about the idea and that it's not within the city's budget, but the department doesn't want to release the specific details about what the final design will look like. Construction is scheduled to get under way this fall.

Uchill, who says her book will contain a few surprises when it is finally published, has an alternate suggestion for a playground theme, however: dinosaurs. A triceratops horn was unearthed in 1887 just yards from Villa Park House, she says; although Barnum combed the globe for oddities, she says, he died four year later without ever knowing what an amazing find had been uncovered in his own backyard.

And Uchill, despite her passion for truth, says she thinks that Bart, with his colorful house and colorful character, is actually doing a service to the legend of P.T. Barnum -- who famously said that "the public loves to be fooled" -- and to the Barnum neighborhood.

"He's really in the tradition of P.T. Barnum," she says. "This is a great thing. It's a hoax within a hoax."

Julia Rogers, however, a recreation instructor at the Barnum Senior Center, says she has never doubted that Bart is a Barnum descendant. Bart, who goes by that name when he visits the center, comes by about twice a week to drink coffee and chat with other seniors. "I don't think he'd have any reason to lie," she says. Rogers says she has even taken groups of seniors on tours of Bart's house. "They love it," she says. "They absolutely love it."

But Rogers is concerned about Bart's failing memory and says workers at the center are worried that Bart may not be able to live on his own for much longer.

Bart himself doesn't see it that way. "I'm damn near eighty years old, but I feel forty," he says. "I feel real bouncy. I go to the old fogies' meetings over at the senior center, and I say to myself, 'I'm not in this category.'"

He is worried about who will take over Barnum House when he "kicks the bucket," though, since none of his grown children seems to want it. "They're good kids, but they just don't vibrate to this sort of thing," he explains. Neither does a friend of Bart's who checks in on him from time to time to make sure he is all right.

"You know, this isn't a cheap thing to live in," says Bart. "I'm just sitting high and dry here waiting for someone to take an interest in it."

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Megan Hall