Bill Koch could create a real Western heritage for Denver and the Stock Show

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How to put profit back in the non-profit National Western Stock Show -- enough to keep it corralled in its current location? That's the question a group of NWSS officials, business types and city representatives are studying, and their mission includes the possibility of establishing a Western heritage center. They should start by lassoing William Koch, the billionaire former oilman/art collector who came to Denver in the summer of 2011 to buy a Billy the Kid tintype for $2.3 million. Wild Bill Koch is now building a wild west town on his private ranch in Western Colorado. Why not in Denver?

On his 5,000-acre Bear Ranch in Gunnison County, Koch has been assembling dozens of historic buildings purchased from across the West -- including the town of Buckskin Joe -- and building his own private frontier town.

For more than fifty years, Buckskin Joe was a great shlocky tourist attraction in Cañon City, a real (sort of) Wild West town constructed in 1957 on a piece of land that already held the miniature Royal Gorge Scenic Railway. Photographer Karol Smith and MGM producer Malcolm Brown built the place using structures salvaged from old mining towns -- including the HAW Tabor Store from the original Buckskin Joe two miles from Alma, which gave the project its name. That burg's founder, Joseph Higgenbottom, was known for his buckskin outfits; he discovered the Buckskin Joe Diggings nearby in 1859.

By the time Greg Tabuteau bought the new, improved Buckskin Joe thirty years ago, it had already served as a set for such classics as Cat Ballou and True Grit -- and clunkers like The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox. And Smith had gone on to become the founding director of the Colorado Film Commission, the first state film office in the country, established in 1969.

But the glory days of Colorado filmmaking are long gone, and Tabuteau finally sold his holdings -- Buckskin Joe, the railroad, and the 806 acres that held both attractions -- to Koch in 2010.

Koch had the buildings -- some historic, some not -- carted to his ranch about ten miles from Gunnison, where they were rebuilt in a new-old town that contains an entire collection of Western memorabilia. But that collection is completely private, the ranch guarded and not open to the public.

Imagine, instead, if Koch decided to move his make-believe town to the banks of the South Platte, close to where Denver got its start -- perhaps on the cleaned-up (and empty) property of the former Asarco plant, just north of the current National Western Stock Show -- and shared with the public the incredible collection he's amassed. Sure, it would cost millions, but he has billions.

And that move would create a real Western heritage -- for Koch, for Denver, and for the Stock Show.


Later today, we'll post our six suggestions for how to improve the National Western Stock Show. From our archives: "Billy the Kid photo snapped up for $2 million by William Koch."

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