My Own Mini Deadwood

With the return of HBO’s ‘Deadwood’ movie, it had me thinking about why I connected with the series in the first place. The real Deadwood was a lawless town in South Dakota — the discovery of gold in the southern Black Hills in 1874 set off one of the great gold rushes in America. In 1876, miners moved into the northern Black Hills. That’s where they came across a gulch full of dead trees and a creek full of gold and Deadwood was born. As it turns out, I too descend from people who ran a Wild West town — Cripple Creek, Colorado-which saw thousands of prospectors flock to the region between 1890 and 1910 making it the “World’s Greatest Gold Camp.” More than 22,400,000 ounces of gold was extracted from more than 500 mines in the Cripple Creek and Victor region. This amounted to $11.2 billion (in today’s dollars) in gold. Like many other mining towns of the Old West, Cripple Creek is also said to be “extremely haunted” given its rich history, complete with mining accidents, floods, fires, lawlessness, and bloody battles between mine owners and labor unions. It’s basically ripe for its own show — HBO are you listening?

“You’re like a local celebrity!”

I am the Great-Granddaughter of Vernon & Carrie Peiffer, and Grandaughter of their son Harry. One born in Pennsylvania, the other New York (& my namesake), they met and came west to a very wild Colorado. Of all places, they decided to settle into the mining mountain town of Cripple Creek in 1893. They went on to build multiple businesses and a community, selling everything from ice cream to bottles to real estate, and eventually, Vernon went into politics, as the local Postmaster and State Senator (D).

Vernon L. Peiffer and Carrie Lear Peiffer homesteaded in Cripple Creek after their marriage in Salida, CO, 1893. Vernon, having a team of horses and a wagon, made the trip down Shelf Road to bring supplies to Cripple Creek for the miners and businessmen. Shelf Road was, at that time, a toll road. Realizing the opportunity of a bustling town, at age 18 he decided to open his own business that he named “The Cripple Creek Bottling Works.” This business manufactured ice cream, among other things. He continued this business until approximately 1940. He and Carrie raised 4 boys and 1 girl, (who tragically died of Whooping Cough). Vernon was active in the city’s government as well as many fraternal organizations. He was elected County Senator in 1928 and served until 1932. In 1936 he was appointed Postmaster in Cripple Creek. He retired in 1950.

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This brings me to the present. It took me years to realize all the parallels I had to them. A fellow serial entrepreneur, someone with both deep American & Canadian roots, someone who lived in NY for years but was drawn back to the wild west, a woman with an adventurous spirit who was born exactly 100 years apart (1877 vs 1977), and on and on and on. I had been told stories as a child, as we all have about ancestors that were just distant tales easily forgotten. Yet as I continued to research my family roots and stories, I kept coming back to this small town in the Colorado mountains, population 1200, now full of roaming wild donkeys and gambling machines stuffed into 19th century themed buildings. I had not been back there since childhood (even though I routinely visit Denver & Boulder) to pay respects to my many family members buried in those hills, yet I suddenly felt compelled to. I even posted a haughty reply to some distant relative on Ancestry.com complaining how Vernon was a Democrat. Well hello, I am a raging Democrat from NY & LA & (gasp) Canada, as was his entire immediate family, so boo to you, Sir. Have you done anything to help your community or Country? No, you haven’t, I checked, but I digress….

At extended families urging, I finally went to visit the local museum that I saw had been promoting a ‘Peiffer Family Exhibit’. I mean…what? I had to go. After convincing my Aunt to take the road trip back up through the winding roads with me circa 2016, I arrived at a distant relative’s house, who also acted as the gatekeeper to our family history and somehow has the bulk of the family records. I admit to feeling a twinge of jealousy over this, as I had when I read random stories pop up in Colorado publications about ‘family lineage’ or Peiffer History by people so far off the family line I could have fallen through the gap. However, I was coming to this so late, who do I think I am to question? As I walked up to the house at the top of Main Street, I came to the local museum where a gentleman was relaxed in his chair, hat over his face, not a person in sight, as it was off season and the town was eerily silent. Like a scene from a Western movie, I sauntered up to the counter, the man's boots leisurely up on the counter, a tin can for entrance fees on the desk, when I spoke up in my overly-direct-been-in-NYC-too-long-voice, “Excuse me, Sir, I am the Peiffer’s Great-Grandaughter and I was told I must come to see the exhibit”. Like a bolt of lightning, the man perked up, smiled and said: “Well hell, you’re like a local celebrity, come right in!” While I respect the town, it's history, and occupants, I couldn’t help but smile at ‘celebrity’ as I looked back at the dusty street, tumbleweeds literally rolling by, and a random donkey strolling about. I’ll take it.

As I walked through the exhibits and saw the impact people I have never met made on this town, it made me proud. And also, encouraged. As I mentioned in my past story “Reconnecting With My Southwest Roots: A Coming Home Story”, I had spent years chasing my own destiny, leaving my own suburban trap in Canada for the action of New York City, and later Los Angeles, only to later realize all I wanted was to be around nature and wild open spaces. This lead me to endless road trips to reclaim my connection to the Southwest and my family roots, which it turns out to have been in Colorado (& New Mexico) for a long, long, long time. Sometimes you can’t outrun your past, and why would you want to? It’s part of you and all of the people that came before have their own story of survival that will ultimately empower your own. As I continue to work on public affairs initiatives from California to Colorado, who’s to say more of the past won’t factor into my future? Stay tuned.