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Colorful Colorado: The value of Victor and its timeless beauty

April 15, 2017 Updated: June 29, 2017 at 4:43 pm
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Downtown Victor is pictured on Wednesday, February 8, 2017. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

VICTOR - Much has come and gone here, but one thing that remains is the sporting goods store on 3rd Street. Gus Conley is still here, slumped behind the wooden counter surrounded by fishing and hunting trinkets and other nostalgic nicknacks, like lanterns and clocks.

Gus, 81, has been running the place for 26 years.

"Can you believe that?" he says to me, a stranger he calls partner, his voice grainy and fading. "The good Lord provides."

Gus is a staple for the 400 or so who've stuck around this once bustling gold camp, nestled 9,700 feet in the hills spotted with skeletons of mining shafts. Most of Victor's brick buildings from the 1890s are like those wooden frames: gaunt and abandoned.

But here at Gus', the pot of Folgers is always hot. The candy bowl is always full. Checkers sit neatly on a barrel. And neighbors stop by to swap stories of old or simply say hello.

"I just wanted to see how you're doing, Gus," says an elderly lady turning back to the door. "OK, Gus, I love ya."

"I love ya, Gus," says a white-bearded man who wouldn't take handwarmers for free as Gus offered, instead putting down $10. "You're a good buddy and a friend forever, and I love ya."

Downtown Victor is pictured on Wednesday, February 8, 2017. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

In walks a mustachioed Jerry McGinty to deliver some oxygen bags to his short-of-breath pal. "Oh, thank you, Jerry," Gus says. "Jerry, would you like a candy bar?"

Gus and Jerry go way back, both of them natives of the treasure-filled valley. Gus' grandparents homesteaded in Cripple Creek, the mining epicenter-turned-casino-town "down the hill," as people here say - down the winding road past leach pads and wasted mountainsides.

Gus started work in the mines as soon as he could to support the family; he was a teen when his old man came to the end of a fast, hard-drinking life.

Like many before him who bent their backs toiling in the company-controlled fields, Gus never got rich. He's not meant for money, he knows.

"Tell him how to make a fortune in Victor, Gus," Jerry says.

Gus lets out a wheezy chuckle. "Start out with a large one."

He came up to Victor as Cripple Creek and two other dying Colorado mining towns devised a survival plan: to draw tourists with unrestricted gambling. The state constitution was amended for those towns in 1991.

Victor decided against joining them. The town would stay right here in its timeless picture frame.

No regrets for some

The day is sunny and clear, the main avenue empty, the only sound the flapping of American flags. And it's days such as this that some wonder what could've been with casinos. Others have no regrets, like Ruth Zalewski, a resident of 30 years who directs the town's museum.

"People didn't want to see Victor commercialized," she says. "We wanted to keep the history, to keep the buildings the way they were."

The problem is filling those buildings. A committee of townspeople is "dealing with a chicken and egg question," says Becky Frank, a lifelong resident and manager of Victor's program under Colorado Main Street, the nonprofit assisting local governments with downtown restoration. Victor's committee wonders: What comes first, businesses or tourists? And how to attract either?

In the past five years, Frank says, some modern aspects have joined the historic scene: sidewalks, light posts, a sprinkler system at the kids park. A little lot off Victor Avenue is now a plaza with a stage.

What doesn't seem likely to change is the town's steadfastness in its unchanged qualities. The Victorian buildings are the ones seen in 100-year-old photos. Many of their windows have signs reading "CLOSED" or "FOR SALE." One, the old Western Federation of Miners Union Hall, had recently been purchased before a 2014 lightning bolt destroyed the building - clear evidence, some say, of the town's curse.

The Fortune Club in Victor is pictured on Wednesday, February 8, 2017. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

Some businesses persist

Among lasting businesses is a broom-making shop, a laundromat, a bakery and, most prominently, the Fortune Club. The hotel is upstairs where there used to be a brothel. The bar is downstairs beside the diner where Frank's grandmother once jerked soda.

"Hey!" Lorrita the parrot says to me as I step in. The bird's owner, Lindsay Schmitt, drives to work here from her home 70 miles away in Fairplay.

"A little bit of everybody comes here," she says. "It's an awesome community. Definitely some unique characters."

She hears the stories often: There's one about a mob of miners greeting Teddy Roosevelt with tar and feathers. Others are about famed boxer Jack Dempsey's rowdiness during his mining days; his name is inscribed on the wall of a jail cell at the town hall.

"There's a story there," Jerry says inside Gus' store, pointing to a rattlesnake floating in a jar of formaldehyde, on the shelf near my seat. "A cranky old feller used to sit there so we had to put the rattler right there. A cranky old sucker he was! Mean as a rattler!"

And, no, the rattler is not for sale. After all, money can't buy times like these, where friends burst into laughter over those memories gone by.

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