Animal Crackers

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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."

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Megan Hall