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Desert Rattling: Confronting Cañon City’s past

Posted: Thursday, Feb 14th, 2013

The official visitor’s guide to Cañon City promised me that I’d be taking a step back in time when I set foot in the historic community.

It certainly felt that way, although I wasn’t expecting to find myself thrust into an era when casually racist statements went by unnoticed.

My grand introduction to the town began soon after I rounded the final bend in the road between Salida and downtown Cañon City.

One of the first things I saw— aside from tons of sewage sloshing around in a translucent truck container — was a bumper sticker.

It said, simply: “WORK IT’S THE WHITE THING TO DO.”

At first, I didn’t even notice the lack of punctuation. I did, however, instantly connect it with the sight of all that sewage.

But it seemed so out of place in a tourist town that’s renowned for its nearby whitewater rafting expeditions and zip lines along the Royal Gorge. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to find buried along the bottom of the dammed-up Cahulawassee River — not along the banks of the Arkansas River.

Initially, I assumed that whoever affixed the offending bumper sticker to his vehicle must have been passing through town, like me.

But as I later caught up on the troubling history of Cañon City, a terrible thought entered my mind: “that guy’s a local.”

I based my still-unfounded conclusions on a 2003 graduate school essay by LaDonna Gunn, which delved into the town’s past as a haven for the Ku Klux Klan.

In those days, according to Gunn, the respectable, moral and prominent Protestant residents of Cañon City practically fell over themselves in the rush to join the KKK. They made a show of supporting the local Red Cross and the YMCA, and they belonged to the Chamber of Commerce, as well as many of the era’s leading fraternal organizations.

Their ranks included a high school Bible teacher, a sheriff, a mayor, a doctor, a school board member, an assistant high school principal and the owner of the local J.C. Penney’s. Between them, they owned a dairy, a mercantile, a bakery, a drug store that sold “Kold Koca Kola” and one of the town’s most famous historic buildings, the St. Cloud Hotel.

They even had their own newspaper, which once proclaimed: “Impressive Ceremonies Held When the Grand Dragon Delivers the Charter and Names Us Canon City Klan No. 21.”

When they weren’t out stirring up prejudice against Catholics, Italians and southern Europeans in general, the hooded Klansman apparently spent their free time as anyone might have. In this truly eerie picture, for instance, you can see a group of them frolicking on a merry-go-round: http://www.flickr.com/photos/35393854@N00/369225968/.

The movement began to take shape in 1923, right around the time that the Roman Catholic Church announced its plans to build the Holy Cross Abbey in Cañon City.

The hundreds upon hundreds of people who joined the town’s Klan were driven by nativist fears that Italian and Slovenian immigrants threatened the American way of life.

For one thing, they believed that the continuing wave of immigrants from southern Europe took its orders directly from the Vatican.

The teetotalers in their ranks were also aghast that many immigrants drank wine.

Cañon City’s Prohibition-era sheriff soon stepped in to fix that problem, and in doing so, he may have appealed to the law-and-order crowd, swelling the Klan’s size even further.

The KKK took credit for other initiatives, according to Gunn, including a successful school bond measure that had been defeated on two prior occasions.

By 1924, she notes that the Klan had grown into a major social and political force in Cañon City and nearby Florence.

That July, it gained control of the local Republican apparatus. Two days later, it took over the Fremont County Democratic Party.

The phenomenon wasn’t unique to Fremont County. At one time in the 1920s, the state of Colorado had the largest Klan following west of the Mississippi River.

But then, something happened. Something that should make Alamosa proud.

A group of state senators coalesced around a local-boy-made-good named Billy Adams, who successfully kept the Klan’s legislative priorities from becoming realities.

From that point onward, it was pretty much downhill for the group as a statewide entity.

Surprisingly, though, Salida writer Ed Quillen reported that Klan activity in Cañon City continued into the 1960s.

While the KKK is no longer around today, some disgruntled residents believe that racism is still a problem in the town.

One online commentator expressed shock and dismay that a downtown Cañon City business owner recently posted this sign for all to see: “Are you ready for Barack Obama? Do you have guns, do you have your ammunition?”

I’m sure that person is not speaking for most people there, and I’m not suggesting that racism in Cañon City is widespread. But sooner or later, the community as a whole needs to stand up to these hateful ideas, or else these people will give the town an even bigger black eye.

So the next time I pass through Fremont County, I might sport a bumper sticker of my own. It will probably say something like this:


After all, Cañon City, we’re living in the 21st Century. I don’t want to go back in time.

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