Curious sights around Denver metro area tell historic tales

From Native life to a giant cowboy, the story behind landmarks and locations worth exploring

Ellis Arnold
earnold@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 9/22/20

With many Coloradans still avoiding large crowds with the continued risk of COVID-19, some may be taking a better look at what’s in their neighborhood — or even driving around with no particular …

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Curious sights around Denver metro area tell historic tales

From Native life to a giant cowboy, the story behind landmarks and locations worth exploring

Posted

With many Coloradans still avoiding large crowds with the continued risk of COVID-19, some may be taking a better look at what’s in their neighborhood — or even driving around with no particular place to go.

Wandering eyes may pick up on odd or unusual sights in the Denver metro area — such as a Native American tipi near an upscale suburban neighborhood or, say, a 30-foot cowboy statue overlooking a busy city road.

Here’s the story behind some sights that may inspire curiosity around the Denver metro area.

A cowboy on Federal

Those who have driven north of Denver on North Federal Boulevard may have been struck with the sight of a giant cowboy looming over the traffic.

“I have people who pull over and want to take pictures of him, especially with tourists,” said Jeffry Cook, park manager at Rustic Ranch Mobile Home and RV Park.

The park just south of Interstate 76 is home to the detailed cowboy statue, which was originally intended as part of an amusement park that never materialized, according to an old news article clipping Cook has. But it ended up as part of the mobile home park instead.

Built in the 1950s by Colorado artist John Sutton, the cowboy has become something of a local landmark. Cook, 54, remembers seeing the statue as a child.

“A fun fact for you is that the ‘American Pickers’ came to this park,” Cook said, referring to the show on the History Channel. The show tried to buy the cowboy several years ago, according to Cook.

In the mobile home park’s 106 units, most residents have lived at the park for at least 20 to 25 years, Cook estimates. He hopes the cowboy carries some sentimental meaning for those who call the place home.

“I guarantee you that if the cowboy wasn’t there tomorrow, everybody would be knocking on my door asking where the cowboy went,” Cook said.

The park sits just outside northwest Denver in unincorporated Adams County, near Arvada and Westminster.

Tipi along the prairie

Along Aurora’s east edge, not far from east Centennial, stands a large gate that bears the word “Plains.”

It’s the entrance to Plains Conservation Center, a nature preserve and educational center that houses replicas of a Native American tipi camp and homestead village, showcasing life on the plains in the late 1800s, according to the City of Aurora’s website.

The center encompasses more than 1,100 acres of short-grass prairie with views of the Rocky Mountains, located at 21901 E. Hampden Ave., west of toll highway E-470. 

In June 1950, the land was deeded to what became the West Arapahoe Conservation District, and the land was formally christened the Plains Conservation Center, according to the center’s website.

In 1997, 1,100 acres were sold to the City of Aurora to remain as passive-use open space, with the center continuing to manage the land and offer programs, the site says.

Adams City?

North metro residents may be familiar with Adams City High School, which sits along North Quebec Parkway near East 72nd Avenue.

But the name Adams City doesn’t denote an actual city — the school sits in Commerce City.

The Adams City name dates back to an area that was laid out around 1902 with developers hoping that Adams County’s seat — the city or town that serves as a county’s governmental center — would be established there, according to the Commerce City Historical Society.

But Brighton was elected as the county seat in November 1904. Adams City never became a town and was vacated by 1922, the historical society’s website says.

The South Adams County Volunteer Fire Department was founded in 1942, and Adams City was beginning to redevelop with new houses being built. In 1946-47, Adams County School District 14 was formed from surrounding schools, with the first official class from Adams City High School graduating in 1949, according to the website. That school took the place of Union High School, the region’s earlier school, according to an unofficial website for Adams City High alumni and a timeline by the historical society.

The South Adams County Water and Sanitation District was formed in 1951 at the same time Denver was considering annexing, or taking control of, the south Adams area. A plan to incorporate all of southern Adams County — meaning to declare the area as its own city or town — was developed, according to the historical society. In July 1952, a group of about 300 residents voted for incorporation of Commerce Town, comprising neighborhoods such as Rose Hill, Adams City, Dupont and Irondale.

Commerce Town annexed part of the Derby area in 1962, increasing the population fourfold. That was enough for the town to gain status as a city, and its name was then changed to Commerce City, according to the historical society.

At least one business — Adams City Liquor — still carries the area’s old name along with Adams City Middle School.

Four Mile, 17 Mile, 20 Mile

Drivers who frequent South Parker Road may recall a large barn a short drive south of East Arapahoe Road.

Located just south of Centennial, the 17 Mile House is one of several inns that emerged along Cherry Creek for travelers and freighters when the 1859-60 gold rush caused large-scale settlement of the state, according to the Arapahoe County website.

The property is an Arapahoe County park that sits at 8181 S. Parker Road, just north of the Town of Parker.

The “mile houses” sat every two to three miles along the Cherokee/Smoky Hill wagon trails from Kansas, named based on their distance to the intersection of Colfax Avenue and North Broadway in Denver, according to the website. Out of the original six mile houses, only 17 Mile House and Four Mile House exist in their entirety today, the website says. The buildings also included Seven Mile House, Nine Mile House, 12 Mile House and 20 Mile House, according to the National Register of Historic Places.

At mile houses, travelers could get a meal, spend the night, rest their animals and have minor repairs made to coaches or wagons, according to the Arapahoe County website.

The 17 Mile barn was constructed in the late 1870s, according to a county news release.

Construction likely began on what was to become the 20 Mile House around the mid-to-late 1860s, according to the Parker Area Historical Society.

The old 20 Mile House property continued to be a working farm until the mid-1990s, when the property was acquired by developers. Eventually, the cinderblock portion was torn down and the small plot of land on which the 20 Mile House structure was built was donated to the Town of Parker. With the help of the historical society, the original post office portion was restored and surrounded by a small park, according to the historical society’s website.

The 20 Mile Post Office sits on Mainstreet, a short drive west of Parker Road — and close to Twenty Mile Road.

Four Mile Historic Park sits in Denver, a short drive from South Colorado Boulevard and Leetsdale Drive.

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