Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

William Koch buys another piece of Western history: Buckskin Joe

Turns out that William Koch, the Florida billionaire who bought the tintype of Billy the Kid for more than two million bucks at a Denver auction in June, isn't just interested in photos of the Old West. He's interested in Old West towns, too. And he just bought himself a big chunk of Colorado history.

Last summer, when Greg Tabuteau announced that he was closing the Buckskin Joe "edutaining" attraction/tourist trap outside of Cañon City that he'd owned for 25 years, he said that he'd sold the 805-acre property to a Western fan who wanted to remain anonymous and was more interested in the historic structures on the land than the land itself. That fan was Koch, who recently moved some of the buildings to his private ranch outside of Gunnison.

This wasn't the first time those buildings had been relocated. Back in 1957, boosters -- including Karol Smith, who later founded the Colorado Film Commission, the first state film commission in the country -- bought the remains of the original Buckskin Joe, an early gold camp two miles outside of Alma, and reassembled them, along with two dozen other buildings from old ghost towns, at the edge of the Royal Gorge as a set for Western movies. The movies filmed there ranged from the first True Grit, starring John Wayne, to the truly dreadful The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal.

Almost a century before, the original Buckskin Joe had seen its own share of stars. Horace and Augusta Tabor had run a store and the post office there before moving on to Leadville, where Horace amassed a huge fortune and dumped Augusta. Silver Heels, the prostitute with the heart of gold, had reportedly nursed minors through an outbreak of smallpox there in 1862, then disappeared into legend. And although some of the town's more civilized residents had tried to name the place Laurette, it could never shake the Buckskin Joe moniker inspired by Joseph Higgenbottom, the buckskin-wearing prospector who found gold in the area in 1859.

Tabuteau got an undisclosed amount of gold when he sold the second Buckskin Joe to Koch. In February, Fremont County officials approved permits to dismantle and move a half-dozen buildings from the site, including the original H.A.W. Tabor Store. "Some of the building's he's reassembled," acknowledges Koch's spokesman, Brad Goldstein.

But unlike the last Buckskin Joe, this third incarnation will not be open to the public.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Top 5 most photogenic Colorado locations for the Dougherty gang to have been nabbed."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun