Echoes of Parker's Past - The Changes: 1995-2014

Population boom defines last two decades

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What will Parker look like 150 years from now, and which stories, photographs and structures from the present time will live on?

It’s a difficult question to answer, and there is much at stake for those who remember nothing but bumpy dirt roads and vacant fields. While growth continues to be the dominant theme, there have been grassroots efforts to save the relics from the past, although not enough for some. Much of the work is due to volunteerism and funding from grants. But mostly, it’s a fondness for history and a prevailing sense of responsibility to preserve it.

While there is debate about the level of truth to some wild stories, others are well-documented, leaving little doubt as to their authenticity. There are historical archives held by Douglas County Libraries — old newspaper articles and pictures on microfilm, recollections by early settlers like Elizabeth Tallman — and many more records in the national archives in Washington, D.C., a place that historian Jeff Broome has visited many times over. Written accounts of what transpired during the area’s 150-year lifespan are sitting there, perhaps collecting dust, waiting to be read. The stories, too, are waiting to be heard so they can be retold to future generations. 

Before the Parker Area Historical Society was created in 1986, many of the tales were being lost to time, save for the few that were written down or endured in the minds of the adult children of history buffs.

Longtime resident Helen Bissett, 90, wrote down just about everything she could remember in a sizable narrative she calls "A Journey Down Memory Lane with Mom," which she published in 2011.

"My endeavor to bring a bit of the past 'to life' has led me down many roads of happiness, sadness, joy, laughter, tragedies and 'the good' and 'the bad' times of yesteryear," she wrote.

Engaging children by relating compelling stories, instead of simply reciting cumbersome facts, goes a long way toward building interest. Every year, the historical society partners with Douglas County Libraries, the Town of Parker and Council of Arts, Science and Culture to put on “Parker Quest,” a scavenger hunt-style game that combines local historical sites with adventure. Similarly, Arapahoe County regularly invites families for games and educational tours at the 17-Mile House, just north of the town’s boundary on South Parker Road.

Awareness about the importance of historic preservation has grown considerably, but there is more work to be done and a pressing need for new members with a desire to continue the educational mission of groups like the historical society.

Unlike the flesh-and-blood characters that make history, memories can live forever if they are handled with painstaking care.

 

History lives on

Sandy Whelchel has resided in Parker for all but four years of her life and now lives on the last-remaining 40 acres of her family’s original 10,500-acre empire. 

She is among a handful of people who believe enough in the importance of history to find ways to preserve it. Aside from compiling the book of photographs from Parker’s past, Whelchel gets involved in restoration projects on historical sites.

A human treasure trove of knowledge, Whelchel also acts as a tour guide for local schoolchildren. She leads them from the Hilltop School, down Hilltop Road along the old railroad alignment, then over to the Tallman-Newlin Cabin, before stopping by the Mainstreet Center, 20-Mile House and the Parker Cemetery.

“The kids think I have keys to the kingdom,” she said. “I have a key to the Hilltop School, I have a key to the Tallman Cabin and I have a key to the 20-Mile House, so I take them all in there, spider webs and all.”

Their parents, many of whom have moved here within the last 15-20 years, are consistently surprised by the rich history contained in Parker’s soil and dilapidated buildings. Word about the field trips has spread so much that Whelchel has had to limit the number of parents who come along.

"A lot of the parents will tell me 'I had no idea there was so much history here. It looks like a new town to me,'" said Whelchel, who once served for six years as president of the Parker Area Historical Society.

 

Preserving what’s left

Many of the homesteads and barns that remain from the Parker area’s earliest days are in their original spot, but a few historic structures have been moved to make way for new development or knocked down because the price tag for restoration was too large.

In the mid-2000s, the town closed roads to move the Hood House, a Victorian home built in 1911 by banker F.B. Hood, across town from its original spot on Pikes Peak Drive to an open space tract on the northern boundary of the Cottonwood subdivision. Town leaders planned to eventually open Preservation Park, a place where timeworn structures would showcase Parker’s history, but the idea has stalled due to a lack of funding and the Hood House and an old passenger railcar representing Parker’s railroad legacy sit in the vacant field without visitors.

Shortly after leaving office, former mayor and town councilmember Gary Lasater said one of his missions was to develop Preservation Park, “where our historic buildings can be saved instead of falling to the wrecking ball.”

Likewise, there is more than enough material to open a museum dedicated to Parker’s heritage, but the nonprofit historical society does not have the money to maintain such a facility. Instead it has the items in two full storage units and a handful of barns owned by members.

“It breaks my heart to think that all of that stuff is going to just sit there forever,” she said. “And I’m not sure if we’re going to end up doing anything or not.”

However, Parker’s first neighborhood — the Victorian-themed homes built mostly in the 1910s along what is now Pikes Peak Drive — have largely been untouched. Several have been refurbished, repurposed and given a designation that denotes their historical significance. The bones of old buildings are still underneath some of the modern-looking facades of buildings along Mainstreet in downtown Parker.

The first K-12 school in Parker — now the Mainstreet Center — is undergoing a yearlong, $1 million rehabilitation. And smaller groups, like the 15-member Hilltop Social Club that took charge of maintaining the Hilltop School, pitch in where they can and raise money to keep the buildings standing.

Other structures blend in with the surroundings, like the Fonder School, which was built out of rhyolite from Castle Rock in 1884-85. It was restored in the 1970s but is now on Old Schoolhouse Road west of The Pinery among a cluster of buildings owned by the Pinery Water and Wastewater District.

“It’s hard to see that old building in there,” Whelchel said.

 

Looking forward

The change from rural community to sprawling suburb has brought people from afar, and Parker has emerged as a top Colorado town. It is occasionally named in national rankings for “best place to live” or “best place to raise a family,” and the attention paid to local commerce by Parker Mayor Mike Waid and town council earned the town a mention in a December 2014 article in Forbes Magazine about celebrating small businesses.

But Parker is not just about families with young children anymore. The demographic is quickly shifting because people enjoy living in Parker (and Douglas County) so much that they “age in place,” as many of the local experts have testified. By the year 2030, seniors are expected to make up 20 percent of the county’s population.

Though some are upset by all of the change, many longtime residents say population growth and the inherent changes were inevitable. Parker is still home.

“I’ve seen it little and seen it big and I’ve grown with all of it,” said lifelong resident Jean Martin.

Her words resonated during a gathering of longtime residents at Ruth Memorial Chapel, a 101-year-old church in downtown Parker that proves history still has a place within the trappings of modern society.

Population explosion

Only 285 people lived in Parker when it was incorporated in 1981. By 1990, the population had grown to more than 6,000 and nearly tripled to 23,000 by 2000. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Douglas County increased 62.4 percent, which made it the fastest-growing county in Colorado and the 16th fastest-growing county in the nation during that period. Planned residential and commercial projects were put on hold in 2007 and 2008 due to the economic recession, causing the population figures to plateau.

 

By the numbers

Town population in the 1930s: approx. 100

Town population in 1981: 285

Town population in 1990: approx. 6,000

Town’s current population: approx. 48,000

Town population growth between 2000 and 2013: 103 percent

Estimated population at build-out: 101,500

Percentage of seniors in county by 2030: 20 percent

Current town size: 21 square miles

 

Acknowledgements

Special thanks go to: the Parker Area Historical Society and its dedicated members, including but not limited to Larry T. Smith, Mike Mulligan, Sandy Whelchel, LeiOma Koestner, Jean Martin and the late Frank McLaughlin, who helped assemble stories from the past into the historical society’s guides; Franklin Harn and his daughter, Janette Wilkins; ACC professor and historian Jeff Broome and Dietemann relative Linda Vannostrand; former Colorado State Historian David Halaas, Ph.D.; Helen Bissett; Keene Daiss; Town of Parker; Douglas County; and former mayor/councilman Gary Lasater.

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