Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Roots of Black Forest community undaunted by ravaging fire

By Garrison Wells Published: June 13, 2013 0

Black Forest was timberland when Colorado Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer bought 43,000 acres in 1870.

It was the primary source of wood - a blanket of ponderosa pines - that helped build early Denver and Colorado Springs.

Overcutting was clear by 1935, but the industry slowed. With help from the federal government, the trees recovered.

On Tuesday afternoon, many of those 70-year-old trees were fuel for a raging fire that by midday Wednesday had destroyed at least 100 homes, scorched more than 8,000 acres and sent thousands of residents to evacuation centers and friends' homes.

At 4 a.m. Wednesday, authorities began the arduous task of assessing properties street by street to determine the damage and look for residents who chose to stay with their homes.

Black Forest today

Once called the Pineries because of the preponderance of ponderosa pine, Black Forest evolved from a source of lumber sprinkled with sawmills that erased almost all of the trees to a mix of longtime residents and newer, younger families escaping the urban environment.

It takes up about 200,000 acres, according to a community website, and is made up mostly of 5-acre and larger lots.

It was named by a German immigrant who was reminded of the Black Forest in Germany by the hue of the ponderosa bark.

In 2011, the U.S. Census estimated that 13,595 residents lived in the rolling hills 1,700 feet above and north of Colorado Springs.

"It's a diverse group - county folks, ranchers, farmers who have lived their lives there and people who have moved in from the city, who prefer the life that tends to be a little more isolated in the sense of having more space and enjoying the trees," said Jeff Ader, who has lived in Black Forest for 13 years and is the scheduling manager for the Black Forest Community Center.

Overall, this is an educated, high-income group, commuters who are mostly professionals, according to the Census bureau.

Almost half of the area's residents hold at least a bachelor's degree, with 18 percent holding graduate degrees.

The median household income in 2011 was pegged at $104,747. In Colorado Springs that year, the median household income was $57,685.

Homes are expensive in this part of El Paso County.

The median home value in Black Forest is $423,800. But 31 percent of the homes top $500,000 in value and almost 4 percent were valued at more than $1 million, the Census says.

The Community Center

As of about 9 a.m. Wednesday, the Black Forest Community Center, a social and historical centerpiece, was standing, according to Eddie Bracken, president of the Black Forest Community Club. The center on Black Forest Road just north of Shoup Road is home for the club, which has 134 families as members.

"The club and the old log school didn't get burned," Bracken said.

The fact that it was standing, said the retired Air Force major general, was one of the few positives of a disastrous fire that continued its dance among the trees Wednesday night.

The center is a place for families, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, yoga classes, choirs and Black Rose Acoustic Society concerts.

At a recent meeting, the club held a spaghetti dinner. Members created their own sauces.

The club "cooked the noodles and garlic bread and made the salad," Bracken said. "We shared the sauce.

"It attracts people of all ages, children and even old gophers like myself."

Losing the club, which faced renewed danger Wednesday afternoon as the fire flared up, "would be a huge loss," Ader said.

"I think obviously more than the physical structure itself, would be the loss of a community meeting ground and a community focus where people could get together, no matter what their politics are or whatever tends to divide us as human beings. It's a place that brings us together."

The center was built in the 1920s "by community members, like an old-fashioned barn raising, and built from locally cut trees and timber," Ader said. "It's been an icon in the community ever since."

Black Forest then

Early on, these rolling hills were Ute and Comanche territory, according to the Black Forest Preservation Plan.

In the early 1800s, it was taken over by the Kiowa, who were later forced out by the Arapahoe and Cheyenne, the last Native Americans to live in the area.

The first white settlers trickled into Black Forest in the 1850s and lumber became king, driven by the growth of the fledgling cow towns of Denver and Colorado Springs and the growing demand for railroad ties.

By the 1880s, lumber depleted, farming and ranching took over, with potatoes the prime product.

Farming was killed by drought in the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s, according to the plan, and the area was taken over by large ranch spreads. Some are still there.

Towns came and went.

Eastonville was created in the early 1880s as a stop on the C&S Railroad. Population climaxed in 1910 at 400. The railroad died in 1935, taking the town with it.

Today, it's remembered by Eastonville Road.

Also in the 1920s, Brentwood Country Club was built. Too upscale for the time, it didn't flourish. But it started a trend of summer homes in the area.

In the 1950s, though, people looked at moving to Black Forest and around 1965, zoning for the 5-acre lots was established.

The preservation plan in 1974 designated the area for mostly rural-residential development with a little mixed use including retail and commercial.

The plan also helped the area hang onto its history.

What's next?

Even as the smoke covers Black Forest like a shroud, thoughts of the future live.

The Black Rose Acoustic Society, which has 90 percent of its equipment sitting inside a closet in the community center, likely will do a fundraiser for the community.

The group has moved one show that was set for the center to Ivywild School, canceled another, and a third show set for June 28 featuring Steve Smith & Hard Road Trio is still up in the air, said Jeff Smith, society vice president.

But they're thinking ahead about the Black Forest area and what it will need. "We've talked about it," he said. "Most of our discussion has evolved around what are we going to do about this Friday's show and next Friday, but I have thought about the fact of doing a fundraiser. We will probably do something and it might have something to do with the BFCC. I have a strong feeling that everything is going to be OK with the BFCC."

Bracken is also looking past the haze. He was one of the lucky ones, spared from early evacuation. His car and fifth wheel are packed just in case.

Bracken said he expects the club will hold its annual Black Forest Festival in August, but it won't be the same.

The festival, sponsored each year by the club, is set for Aug. 17.

"I hope so," he said. "We ought to start thinking about what we can do, maybe make a theme for the people who were affected by the fire."

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Contact Garrison Wells: 636-0198

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