Gene Smith, Part 2
The Vrooman pool and other stories
The following is the concluding Part 2 of a taped interview with Gene Smith, who retired in May after leading the evolution of the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site for the past 32
The Vroomans, who developed Pleasant Valley, were also the last owners of the Orchard House, which Colorado Springs founder William Palmer had built in 1907, before the city bought the property in the late 1960s.
At the time the structure had been painted white since at least the 1940s. Because the three-story edifice was so visible from well-traveled 30th Street, the property had become known as White House Ranch. More on that in a moment.
The pool was located in front of the Orchard House, where the lawn is now. “It wasn't part of the period landscape, so we wanted to get rid of it,” Smith said. The simplest solution seemed to be just blowing it up. “We got the Police Department to come over and put detonation devices inside the swimming pool and cleared off a whole couple-block radius so people wouldn't be here, and we put matresses over the detonation devices and lit it.”
Boom! As the dust cleared, everyone went to look at the damage and… “It just made this tiny little mark,” Smith grinned ruefully. “The pool was three feet of concrete. We just ended up taking the top of it off and filling it in.”
So the pool is there under the sod? Smith was asked.
“Sure is. For many years you could see the ring there, but we ended up taking it down a little farther.”
Another remnant of the Vrooman pool layout lingered. That was the adjacent dressing room. “It was there for a long time, and those were our original restrooms,” Smith said.
Clearly, the property had a long way to go before becoming the restored historic site it is today. But it got off to a good start in 1978, Smith's first summer of programs. Based on a tally of 17,000 visitors, the community response had been “voracious,” Smith said. As a result, he went to his supervisor, Nancy Lewis and proposed expanding the offerings. “I said we could do school programs, we could do holiday programs, and a Christmas program,” he said. “I remember I had three different scenarios - one was the low end, one was the middle and then I had the probably-not category. And she looked at it, and I think there was just something about the probably-not, and she said, 'We'll go with that one.'”
And the attendance continued to grow. Admission was free for the first 10 years, yet even when the city began charging a fee, there was no tail-off. Last year's visitation was up to 70,000, Smith reported.
There was another pleasant surprise in that first year's attendance. “We had adults and kids from around the community - the kids would come here by the droves on their little Stingray bicycles, and we didn't know what to do with them because we were pretending we were in the 1800s,” Smith said, referring to the first-person historic format of the ranch's earliest years. “So out of that came what's now called the Junior Docent program, where we decided to put the kids in period clothing and give them the training necessary to be part of a working ranch situation. Certainly the Chambers [who built the Rock Ledge House in the 1880s] had children and they had friends, and the Glen Eyrie school was near here and Elsie Chambers was its first teacher, perhaps even with Queen Palmer. At any rate, the kids went back and told their parents, and the parents started volunteering.
“The first name for the Junior Docents was Wranglers and the adult docents were Ranch Hands, and that became what is now the Rock Ledge Ranch Living History Association (LHA), a group of volunteers dedicated to fundraising, assisting and preserving, restoring, maintaining and interpreting the ranch.”
As part of that, research was required to be sure the docent clothing was authentic for the time. An example was determining what blue jeans looked like in the 1800s. “They only had one pocket,” Smith revealed. “So we would have everybody buy new jeans and even before they were washed have them carefully take off one pocket. I think it's the right one. Then you added suspenders and you're good to go. The first year was not quite as authentic as I wish it was, but after that it changed. And that's been a great part, volunteers who've put in work on period clothing.”
The building restoration process began early in Smith's employment. A “historic structure report” was compiled first for the Orchard House, then Rock Ledge, with the entire location being declared a historic site on the State and National Registers in 1979.
“And based on that, we began this tiny, incremental restoration process,” Smith said. “For example, one year, on the southwest corner of the building, which was still green and white at that time, we took a big old chalk line and snapped one corner and painted it what the original colors were, which are the colors you see now.”
How did the city know what those colors were?
“They [historic specialists] do a paint analysis and are able to take it and put it under a microscope and they can actually determine how much the pigment has changed over the years,” Smith said. “They do the same thing with the interior of the building. So we've been much that way, like Tom Sawyer painting the fence. You know, 'Help us out. It looks kind of awkward just to have just one little corner of it painted.' We began fundraising for that and applied to the Colorado Historical Society, which has been steadfast in their support for our restoration efforts out there. The first grant was $10,000 to paint the exterior of the house. We did a similar thing inside - take one corner and paint it the original color.”
Color wasn't the issue with the Rock Ledge house. It was the stucco that had been slapped over its original stone exterior. “Nobody really knows the reason,” Smith said. “Some have hypothesized that rodents had been able to get in through the cracks and that sort of thing. So that was one of the very first things we did. It was very costly to take that stucco off and then repoint the existing plaster.”
A big cost help, Smith noted, has been the site's annual Folk Art Festival, started by Old Colorado City merchant Kathy Read 30 years ago, which donates proceeds each year (now totaling well over $100,000) to ranch improvements.
None of the original chairs, desks, couches etc. remained in either house. Using what's called a historic furnishings study, specialists were able to make educated guesses as to what would have been there. “And there were several things that were huge clues to that,” Smith said. “One was that the drawing room of the Orchard House was white-on-white and had wall-to-wall carpeting, which was very unusual for that time period, and kind of sets a standard for more of a mission-style, colonial revival type of furnishing, based on a photo that shows a table in the dining room. Of course, all the woodwork that you now see as woodwork had about half a dozen coats of lead-based paint that had to be painstakingly removed over time.
“So over the years that's been the story of the ranch,” he summarized. “If anybody had said at the time, 'It's going to cost X number of dollars to restore this place,' nobody [in city government] would have allowed it. Literally, these are million-dollar homes now, just from the restoration efforts.”
It wasn't hard for Smith to feel close to the project. He actually lived at the ranch (in a caretaker's cottage that's now the office), during his first several years on the job, and had his office at the ranch for different stretches totaling more than 10 years.
(For several other years, Smith's office was in the old Baldwin House/visitor center on Juniper Way Loop in the Garden of the Gods. That ended with the Garden revitalization effort, in which Smith and city staff worked with a citizens' committee on a plan that demolished the house and the Hidden Inn concession building and reduced vehicle traffic in the park interior in conjunction with Lyda Hill's private development of the current center/concession site at Gateway Road and 30th Street in 1995.)
The ranch's name change occurred in the '90s, with “Rock Ledge Ranch” matching what the Cham-bers family had called their home in the 19th century. “Initially it was a struggle to give it an identity as a historic site and not just as White House Ranch,” Smith said. “It was never formally called 'White House Ranch.' It was kind of an outgrowth of so many people saying 'that place over there with the white house.' And that was a tough decision because what do you do when there are no more white houses on the property? So changing the name was a tough decision as well.”
Also in the '90s, Smith introduced a fourth time period to the ranch's traditional three (Galloway cabin, 1860s; Rock Ledge House, 1880s; and Orchard House, early 1900s). That was the American Indian Area. “We got together in 1994 with elders of the known nations that had lived in this area,” Smith said. “And they gave us the initital guidance and freedom to interpret American Indian heritage with the stipulation that we only use American Indian people to tell their story the way they want it told. And we got a different group in at a later point in time and they decided what time period it would be. They picked 1775 to 1835, which was kind of the golden age of American Indian heritage in this area. So now we compare and contrast four time periods.”
Moving on with his own life, Smith, now in his late 50s, is considering careers with the Peace Corps or in foreign diplomacy.
But there is no question he retains strong ties to the place where he played such an influential part for so many years. “It's just been an amazing opportunity,” Smith said. “It's so unusual to work your way up in a career in the same organization for that period of time and do what I went to school to do.”
But he is concerned about Rock Ledge's future; his own job was eliminated because of city budget cuts this year. “Funding has always been a struggle and continues to be,” he said. “Hopefully, we'll survive this present situation where the quality-of-life aspects of our city are in peril. Fortunately the program at Rock Ledge has survived this round [of budget cuts] and I would think it would continue to do so, because it's an investment not just from a programmatic standpoint but in terms of preserving the heritage of the people of the Pikes Peak region. And you can truly lose yourself in the history of Colorado Springs there.”
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