7 – Cheyenne, WY

Episode 7: To Find Ways to Bring Peace and Equity to This Naiton with Glenna Hirsig

Glenna Hirsig describes a Great America where Americans of all ages find ways to bring peace and equality to the nation.

She is a longtime resident of Wyoming. Glenna worked in retail merchandise and spent her entire married life as a ranch wife. She is a member of Cowgirls of the West, which has a museum in Cheyenne that is open to the public.

Glenna grew up post World War II in Wyoming working for room and board on a ranch, putting up hay, milking cows, gathering eggs and riding fences. They also cooked and cleaned, and all this was by kerosene lamp. This experience taught her that hard work could be fun and rewarding.

https://www.cowgirlsofthewestmuseum.com/

Cheyenne, WY: The Great America of 1867-1887

The time when Cheyenne was “great” was the years between 1867 and 1887, the years of the cattle boom in Wyoming. Though much has happened since then, Cheyenne continues to celebrate this era and Wyoming’s branding as “The Cowboy State” remains central to Wyoming’s identity as a state.

It is important to understand that the American cowboy, and the cattle industry as we know it, has its origins in Mexican-American traditions in the states along the southern border, but the image of the cowboy in popular culture owes much to the works of author Owen Wister, who is credited with creating the western as a literary genre. Though he set his writings in various places around the west, his two most famous and endearing novels, Lin McLean (1897) and The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) took place in, and were based on first-person accounts of, Wyoming during the cattle boom. Together with his illustrators, Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington, two other great American mythmakers, Wister had helped secure a special place for the Wyoming cowboy in the popular imagination.

The origins of the Wyoming cowboy, the beginnings of the cattle boom and the genesis of the city of Cheyenne all happened at the same time. In 1867, the Union Pacific railroad laid track across what would become Wyoming Territory and established a railroad depot at Cheyenne. Within two years, the so-called “Magic City of the Plains” was home to 200 businesses, had a population of 4000 people and was the capitol of the new territory.

This growth was powered by the rapid development of the cattle industry. Though there was some ranching in the area since the 1850s, it suffered from lack of access to markets. The railroad not only addressed this problem, it also brought investors from the Eastern States and Britain. This ushered in the era of huge, heavily capitalized cattle operations. It seemed, for a time, that no one could lose money in the cattle business.

Cattlemen dominated politics. In 1879, the Cheyenne Club was established in an ostentatious building which nearly dwarfed the territorial capitol. This became the premier gathering place for the biggest players in the cattle industry, and functioned as some ways as a “third house” of the territorial legislature where deals would be made over liquor, cigars and oysters.

While this arrangement worked very well for a small number of cattlemen backed by Eastern and foreign financiers, it excluded many Wyoming residents. In their quest to monopolize land and water resources, the heavily capitalized large cattle operations were engaged in conflicts, sometimes violent, around the territory with sheepherders, farmers, and small-time ranchers. While these feuds did not involve Cheyenne directly, it is safe to say that the problems of these smaller players, many of whom were immigrants, were not discussed by the denizens of the Club.

Another excluded group seems a little ironic. Though the city was named Cheyenne, the tribe would not be a part of the life of the community. In the 1870s United States was actively at war with the Cheyenne and other plains tribes and the army was initially the primary market for beef. In fact, the cattle industry that gave the town life would not have even been possible had the Cheyenne sill been at liberty on the plains.

Beyond this, a lot of people got written out of the mythmaking of the period. Though a significant number of cowboys were African-American or Native American, and Mexican-Americans worked the initial cattle drives to Wyoming from Texas, these were not the men elevated by Wister. The author considered the Anglo-American cowboy to be a paragon of the nation’s values and dismissed others with words like “mongrel.” His heroes were White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, and this shaped the popular notion of the cowboy in Wyoming and beyond.

The cattle boom came to an abrupt end in 1887. The number of cattle both exceeded market demand and the capacity of the range to support them. The final blow was a particularly severe winter in 1887. The Cheyenne Club was soon abandoned. Though the industry survived, it was no longer dominant in the same way.

In 1897, Cheyenne held the first Frontier Days to celebrate cowboy culture and the legacy of the boom days. Now known as the largest annual outdoor rodeo in the world, it remains the major cultural even in Cheyenne. Today, government is the largest employer in the city, and fossil fuel production is the main driver of the economy, but the identity embraced of Cheyenne and the state of Wyoming very much harkens back to the halcyon days of the cattle industry and the iconic characters who it employed.

-Tom Prezelski, Resident Historian

6 – Denver, CO

Episode 6: A Return to Indigenous Structures with De La Vaca

De La Vaca describes a Great America where there is a return to indigenous structures and indigenous ways of life in America and globally.

He is the managing editor of Yellow Scene Magazine in North Metro Denver and Boulder County Colorado and is a journalist of color. “North Metro Denver and Boulder County’s leading arts and entertainment magazine flooding the front range with slightly irreverent content monthly.”

De La Vaca is a global soul, born in East L.A. but having travelled the world and lived many places. He is comfortable living in one place for a while, but equally comfortable packing up and leaving at a moment’s notice.

Yellow Scene Magazine

Denver, CO: The Great America of 1983-2003

The years between 1983 and 2003 were a time when diverse, progressive and forward-thinking leadership elevated Denver to a position of national prominence rare for a city in the intermountain west. These were years when Denver emerged from a depression after the collapse of domestic petroleum production to become not only economically prosperous, but a center for arts and culture and an exciting place to live.

The energy crisis of the 1970s prompted the nation to look for domestic sources of energy, and Colorado’s coal, natural gas and oil shale resources attracted the attention of investors. This led to a real-estate boom in Denver, whose once-humble downtown suddenly sported glass-and-steel skyscrapers. When oil prices crashed in the mid-1980s, the real-estate market did as well, and the downtown was described as having “see-through buildings,” as many of these high-rises were unfinished or otherwise unoccupied.

Denver’s recovery was due in large part to the leadership of two mayors, who were remarkable not only in terms of their policy accomplishments, but also because the coalitions that got them elected reflect a unique and vibrant political culture. Federico Peña, elected in 1983, was the first Mexican-American mayor of Denver. During his term, the city invested in the downtown as a cultural center, with a library, convention facilities, and, perhaps most famously, a major league baseball franchise, the Colorado Rockies. Additionally, construction of a new, modern airport was started during his tenure. Peña’s work drew national attention, and after he stepped down, he was tapped to serve in the Clinton Administration as Secretary of Transportation.

He was succeeded by Wellington Webb in 1991, who would be the first African-American mayor of Denver. Webb would continue Peña’s work, seeing to the completion of the airport, making further investments in cultural amenities like museums, and overseeing the redevelopment of formerly blighted industrial areas into parkland. His efforts at broadening the city’s economic base increased employment and dramatically reduced crime. Like Peña, Webb would achieve a national profile, and served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of Black Mayors.

Both Peña and Webb were in the unusual position of being non-white mayors of a mostly white city, so their electoral success spoke to the presence of a diverse progressive governing coalition. Both of them came from activist backgrounds. Peña initially came to Colorado from Texas to work for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), an organization associated with the Chicano movement. Webb likewise worked as a community organizer in Denver’s relatively small (~10% of the population) but very politically active African-American community, primarily on housing issues. Upon entering politics, both were able to find broad support in the larger community, which tends to imply a political dynamic that is hard to find in other places.

Though it may be better in this regard than some cities, this should not be taken as a sign that Denver is some kind of paradise of racial harmony. The activist culture that started the careers of Peña and Webb and was the basis of their political coalitions was born out of strife. Denver had historically been hostile to African-Americans, even becoming a nexus for Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s and 30s. The African-American community organized and formed partnerships with sympathetic whites to fight discrimination, and this tradition of activism would remain in the community, continuing into the 1960s and 70s. Webb’s own activism seems is part of this legacy. 

Denver’s Mexican-American community also historically faced discrimination, relegated to the impoverished East Side Barrio and consigned to segregated and underfunded schools. The city had become an important center for the Chicano movement in the 1960s as the home for Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales’ Crusade for Justice. Likewise, MALDEF, where Peña had his first job in Colorado, was in Denver to support the movement for better housing and schools for Mexican-Americans.

Ironically, perhaps, considering this background, the city was criticized for who did not get included in its progress. The airport project, along with controversies regarding jurisdictional disputes, cost overruns and planning process failures, was also called out for failing to grant
more contracts to women and minority-owned businesses. Likewise, transit expansion and other economic development projects threatened minority neighborhoods like the historically African-American Five Points neighborhood with gentrification. All of this tends to show that mere representation is not always enough to assure equity.

Nonetheless, Denver in this period blossomed and embodied a unique political culture which embraced its diversity in a way that most cities did not. This continues today, though it remains to be seen if more recent leadership will achieve the sort of sweeping change and national prominence that came to fruition during the terms of these two mayors.

-Tom Prezelski, Resident Historian

Things that might inspire follow-up:

https://www.historycolorado.org/story/colorado-voices/2019/02/26/two-men-who-helped-pave-way-african-american-activists-denver

https://www.npr.org/2011/06/30/137529484/the-chicano-movements-denver-roots-run-deep

https://www.coloradovirtuallibrary.org/digital-colorado/colorado-histories/20th-century/federico-pena-mayor-of-denver/

http://www.essexfg.com/uploads/2015-07-21-crej-downtownoffice.pdf

5 – Pueblo, CO

Episode 5: To Learn, Understand, Grow and Be Able to Share That With Others with Michael Diaz

Michael Diaz describes a Great America where education is important so we can learn, understand, grow and be able to share that with others.

He is a father of four who enjoys playing with his kids in the park. He has been working in the IT industry or over 20 years.

With his and his wife’s diverse backgrounds and fond memories of family traditions, which range from Saint Patrick’s Day to making Christmas tamales, he makes sure to pass them down to his own kids. His Great America is about opportunity, dedication and inspiring others.

Pueblo, CO: The Great America of 1915-1942

The era between 1915 and 1942 were boom years for Pueblo, Colorado, a time when the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), which at one point employed twenty thousand people, made the city the industrial center of the Rockies. The steel mills not only provided economic security, but attracted the most ethnically diverse population in the Intermountain West, and Pueblo in many ways seemed to have much in common with cities in the East.

The diversity that made Pueblo special was driven by the potential of employment at the CF&I steelworks, which attracted a substantial population of African-Americans and immigrants from places like Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia and Eastern Europe. By one estimate, forty languages were spoken in the city and over two dozen foreign language newspapers were in circulation. Ethnic communities coalesced in enclaves that were comparable the neighborhoods of Chicago or Manhattan and organized festivals, cultural organizations and mutual-aid societies like the Order of Sons of Italy and the American Slovenian Catholic Union.

Situated on the Arkansas River where the Great Plains rise into the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, Pueblo had a history as a trading post and an agricultural center until the 1880s, when entrepreneurs, taking advantage of access to iron, coal, limestone, water and the railroad, founded what would become the CF&I steelworks, which eventually attracted investment from John D. Rockefeller. Following years of labor unrest and violence associated with CF&I’s operations (though largely not in Pueblo itself), public outrage and the company’s need to restore peace forced a series of reforms known as the Colorado Industrial Plan in 1915. The era that followed was one of relative stability. Though not without labor unrest, the outright warfare of the past was largely over.

Pueblo was a company town. CF&I took measures against liquor and prostitution and invested in health care, housing and schools. These efforts at social uplift were not motivated by altruism, but aimed at asserting the company’s control of the town and stifling potential union organizing. CF&I dominated the community and even the daily lives of its people. All the men in town either worked for the company or one of its contractors and, and most local families lived in company housing, shopped in company stores, and were cared for in the company hospital.

Even during this era of apparent stability tensions between labor and management would continue despite CF&I’s best efforts. Even though Pueblo itself was spared the worst of things, memory of events like the Colorado Labor War (1903-1904), and the Ludlow Massacre (1914), in which attempts at labor organizing were violently suppressed, cast a pall over relationships between the company and its employees. CF&I was initially successful at stifling union organizing, both through its investments in the community and the Industrial Plan of 1915, which established a so-called “company union” controlled by management. Strikes in 1919 and 1927 failed, but in 1933, with the growing influence of Mexican workers, who were excluded from the “company union,” management’s hold was broken and CF&I’s employees were organized under the United Mine Workers of America. The Industrial Plan was finally found illegal in 1942. The steelworks continued to dominate the economy, but the era of total company control was over.

The steel industry would leave a persistent and troubling legacy for Pueblo. The city acquired the derisive nickname of “Pee-yew-blow” for the sometimes foul smell of CF&I’s operations. At the height of production, families some neighborhoods could not hang laundry outside lest it be stained red by metallic dust from the mills. Decades later, officials are still dealing with lead and asbestos left behind by the steelworks.

The steel industry collapsed nationwide in 1982. What followed in Pueblo was an economic crash and years of labor strife, a situation similar to what was faced in the so-called “Rust Belt” cities of the industrial East and Midwest. CF&I went bankrupt in 1990 and was sold to foreign investors who cut the workforce and pared down operations. In contrast to Pueblo’s “Steel City” heyday, the mills now employ less than a thousand people.

Local leadership has focused in recent years on diversifying the economy, with mixed results including some notable successes in alternative energy, tourism and tech, however Pueblo is not the economic powerhouse that it once was. Though the city still celebrates its ethnic diversity, its status as “Melting Pot of the West” is largely a legacy of bygone days. Without the industry that once drew immigrants from all over the world, the cultural dynamism of the mid-twentieth century has been lost.

-Tom Prezelski, Resident Historian