Longform

Animal Crackers

Page 4 of 6

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Megan Hall