Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Story & Photos by Lincoln Rogers
Parker, Colo.
The Pioneers Museum in Colorado Springs, which is housed in a beautiful and historic turn-of-the-century structure was originally built as a courthouse when completed in 1903.

The Pikes Peak region is full of beauty and rich history, and you can find both housed within a gorgeous 110-year-old architectural marvel that used to be a courthouse but is now the Pioneers Museum located in the middle of downtown Colorado Springs. All you have to do is feed a parking meter outside before gaining free admittance to step back in time and immerse yourself in the history of the area, its people and their stories of life from two centuries in the past.

The first thing you notice are soaring halls, faux marble pillars and works of art that adorn the walls, stand in displays or even surround you; like the Otis Birdcage elevator — a cast iron masterpiece that carries you from one floor to next — or even the full courtroom that is faithfully cared for and used nearly every day for educational purposes, films, concerts and/or other programming events. The building itself is worth the trip.

“I make a point every morning I walk in to appreciate that I get to work in this building,” said museum director Matt Mayberry. “It really is a building that came into being because of the wealth coming out of the Cripple Creek gold mine. The gold flowed downhill into Colorado Springs and helped produce this building. But I think the thing that may sometimes get lost about this building, for Colorado Springs and really for the Pikes Peak region, this was the first historic preservation save for our community,” he continued. “We were tearing down some of our finest buildings during the 1960s and 1970s, and this building was the first one identified by the community as kind of the point where we are no longer going to do that, we are going to start saving our history. What better place for the museum to be?”

And what better place to display important items to the region, like a letter of introduction for General William Jackson Palmer (founder of Colorado Springs) signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 or even the Army commission of Zebulon Pike (for whom Pikes Peak is named) signed by President James Madison in 1810? Asked about how nice it was to have those items in their collection, Mayberry’s reply was enthusiastic.

“You have to understand, I am a history geek,” he shared with a laugh. “One of the highlights of my career is to be able to hold a Lincoln letter, for instance. I probably won’t be able to express what it means to me, but it is just an incredibly powerful thing and that is why history museums can be so powerful.”

When discussing the Zebulon Pike commission, Mayberry continued with passion.

“There are lots of Lincoln letters, quite frankly, in collections, and we are delighted to have one that is relevant to our region here,” he started on the topic. “But there are very few Pike documents that exist. His home was burned after his death (and) much of the Pike legacy is lost to us. So to have one of the few authentic objects from his life is really important, and because of his role in this region, it makes it all the more important.”

While items and artifacts featuring prominent citizens are sprinkled throughout the building, the Pioneers Museum also makes a point to highlight ordinary citizens and their lives during the region’s formation and growth. In one display, you could see a handwritten Locoweed Register, which detailed payments for dried tonnage of the weed toxic to cattle, or you could find another display containing a handwritten weather register that detailed the temperature, wind speeds and any other meteorological phenomena occurring during each day of life in old Colorado.

“For me, what is so important about museums is the chance to see the real thing and how times have changed,” shared Mayberry about those items that reveal ordinary life for past citizens. “History really is the study of change over time. You get a chance to see the weed register, for example, to see just what concerns were at a different time in our region’s history. So often in history museums, you read about the famous and the well born. We also try to document the common man. We think of museums as a mirror and we want people to see themselves reflected in that mirror.”

While the lives of prominent and common settlers were displayed, there was also a room containing beautiful artifacts, photos and accessories related to American Indians.

“Over 30 nations are represented in that gallery,” Mayberry revealed. “We have a very deep, rich collection of American Indian materials. We work closely with the American Indian community in how we talk about and display those items.”

A standout in the exhibit was an ornate Sioux beadwork dress that weighed 50 pounds and was at one time owned by a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

“Isn’t that amazing?” declared Mayberry about its beauty. “It talks a little bit about how Colorado Springs was a destination for people who were collectors and who had these kinds of items. And the museum in particular has been a place that is entrusted with those objects. Our collection is so rich because we have done such a good job of protecting, preserving and exhibiting them over the years. The Sioux dress is really one of the highlights of our collection.”

Asked what he would like people to know about the Pioneers Museum, Mayberry provided an articulate summary.

“Our mission is to engage the public and to build a lasting connection to the Pikes Peak region,” he described. “We want people to understand what this place is and how it is unique from the rest of Colorado and how it is connected to the larger sweep of American history. As a historian, this is such a rich place to get to tell stories because there is not a major theme of the American West that we can’t tell through our own history here. People may hear our name and that may create an image in their mind of what we are, but we are very different,” he continued about the museum itself. “We do talk about our pioneer legacy, but we are also set to open a new exhibit about the Waldo Canyon fire, which is all of a year old, now. It is a very broad palette that we get to try to paint in every day and it is a lot of fun.” ❖