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Cobbler’s Nook, Colorado

A mountain, a small town, and a big dream

 

A Novel

By Bob Schaller

 

(excerpted from Chapter 2)

 

            My employer at the time I met Janet, the Cobbler’s Nook Daily Herald, was located in downtown (a.k.a. “Old Town”), a row of primarily historic buildings winding for four city blocks north-south and eight blocks east-west, in the heart of the city of Cobbler’s Nook.

            Cobbler’s Nook is less than two hours south of Denver, one of a half dozen or so of Colorado’s “Front Range” cities (scores of smaller towns dot the landscape) nestled against the east face of the Rocky Mountains.

            The city is known for its geographical uniqueness: To the west less than a mile from downtown, is the base of the mountain, and 14,086 higher (it was 14,164 feet 20 years earlier) stands Cobbler’s Peak.

            The mountain was named in honor of Dolores “Peach” Cobbler, a renegade pioneer woman who was among the original settlers in the Upper Verde Valley of what, upon statehood years later, would be southern Colorado. Dolores was a colorful character, running a tavern downtown, all without the help of a man. Rumors of her lesbianism were rampant until she had a child out of wedlock, a baby girl. Everyone in town knew who the father was. When “Wild” Pete Lackey didn’t make an “honest woman” of Dolores, she became more detached. When she was “with child” again by Pete about two years later, he said he would marry her only if she gave birth to the son he’d always wanted.

            Birthday came for Emily Cobbler, and she was, obviously, not the son Pete had been awaiting. Dolores became more and more unstable, sold her business and moved just outside of town. Back then the town itself was referred to as “Southpoint,” but wasn’t an official city. Her mother and her sister (rumor has it there were two sisters) moved with Dolores to the small working ranch she was able to purchase.

            History and romanticism often combine to form folktales. But what records were kept of Dolores’s last few months and dramatic final hours, are sketchy, at best – fragmented history and wild tales never merge, only running parallel in the case of “Peach” Cobbler.

            Distraught more than ever one night, Dolores loaded a shoulder pack, rode into town (not side-saddle either, legend has it), and found Lackey getting drunk in her old bar. He was offering one-night’s fee to a local working girl for the very act he had committed, at least twice (we know that for sure) with Dolores, when none other than Dolores came walking in the door of the tavern. She proceeded to blacken one of Pete’s eyes, knee him in the groin so hard that Doc Lavern would pronounce his child-fathering days likely over the following week, and then headed home.

            At sunup the following morning, she packed a small meal and a full bottle of whiskey, then told only her sister that she was heading up the mountain, giving no reason. She was a tough woman, and by noon she had made it halfway up the mountain. Three quarters of the way up, she passed a Mormon expedition of 22 or 25 men and 15-20 women (and supposedly some children) who were headed over the Rocky Mountains, having heard that there was a southern route that was emerging, or at least marked, to the Mormon Trail. (There wasn’t, at least not where several of their bodies were found a decade later.) A couple of the women and men from the expedition followed Dolores the final 1,800 or so feet to the summit. They supposedly watched as she carved her initials, which would stay for more than a century, in the bluff – also called a “chimney” for its tall, thin appearance (later, before the lightning strikes, it was also referred to as “the smokestack”) – that gave the peak its final 90 feet of height. The women from the expedition were trying to get Dolores to either come with them or head back down the mountain. The men wanted their women to come back to their pack so they could keep heading west.

            Dolores shook free from the grip of a woman, went to the edge of the mountain and cursed Pete Lackey. She cursed him until the men from the expedition blushed, talking about the lack of his real manhood physically, and then mentally, for not marrying her.

            She either fell (the version Cobbler’s Nook officials espoused), jumped or was pushed by one of the men, who wanted to get back with the other settlers before the cold wind that had developed turned to rain. So Dolores “Peach” Cobbler took the plunge in honor of never taking the plunge – the walk down the aisle – landing on a rock shelf. A good part of her had to be removed with a shovel. “Peach Cobbler everywhere,” was how a great-uncle phrased it to me.

            That was the end of Dolores Cobbler.

            But it was the beginning of Cobbler’s Nook.

            The town literally lies in the shadow of the mountain, in what is called a 14-mile wide “valley,” though it is nearly (another point of contention) the same elevation as Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, other Front Range communities. Romantics and other dreamers perceive the valley as being “hugged” by the mountain because two lines of narrow foothills run northeast (on the north side of the valley) and southwest (south side). The northern “arm” runs long and straight, and at the end, rock formations on a bluff really do appear to be a sort of hand. However, the south “arm” is just barely half as long as the north arm, sort of a battlefield amputation at the forearm, the hill suddenly ending.

            The town was incorporated in 1896 and experienced minor growth for decades, the threat of becoming a bedroom community to the bigger towns north and south always looming. In the 1950s, with military bases springing up to the north and south, developers built single family homes, which attracted enlisted men and junior officers who wanted to buy a home but couldn’t afford the more costly houses in Colorado Springs to the north and Pueblo to the south. More homes were built when junior engineers, employed by the aerospace industry in Colorado Springs, wanted to buy an affordable house and didn’t mind the commute – that’s how my parents ended up here in 1958.

            Growth of the city was at a crawl during my childhood. With no main pass cutting through to the mountain towns (such passes existed only to the north and south), tourism was mainly for the name of the town itself. And each year during “Cobbler’s Days” in July, a steady stream of tourists came to sample cobbler, tell stories, buy Cobbler’s Nook T-shirts and caps, watch a parade, read poetry and attend a carnival. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, a long lost descendent, a grandson of Emily Peterson-Cobbler (who did get hitched, was made honest, and moved to California) came back to town.

            Glenn Cobbler-Johnson (guys in bars are still having fun with that one) brought a lawyer, called a press conference and was planning to sue for licensing royalties for everything sold bearing his great-grandmother’s name, though, he announced, he was open to settlement offers.

            None was forthcoming, and when he finally sued for $10 million, the city rallied and counter-sued, winning when he didn’t show up for the trial. Everyone thought that was the last we’d hear of the Cobbler family.

            But in my senior year of high school, Cobbler’s Peak made national news, several times, over the course of a particularly slow news month. First, lightning struck at least twice over the course of several days of storms at the peak, knocking an incredible 78 feet off the 90-foot rock bluff “chimney.” Geologists would point out in the week that followed that the bluff was so badly fractured near its base that “Mother Nature just chose this week to do her dirty work” in removing the bluff to a paltry 12 feet, hardly visible from the town or the interstate, even with binoculars. (“The so-called ‘Chimney,’” proclaimed a Colorado Springs radio personality, “is down to just a fireplace.”)

            The U.S. Geographical Survey moved to lower the official height of the peak. That 78 feet proved crucial, as Cobbler’s Peak dropped out of the top 50 highest peaks in the United States – a somewhat faint claim to fame that made the city’s official literature distributed to businesses who endlessly flirted (but up to that point, at least, never took the plunge) with Cobbler’s Nook as far as locating a business here, outdated. Cobbler’s Nook officials also felt being dropped from the top 50 would end their long, so far unsuccessful bid to get the peak declared a national park, national monument or at the very least, a state historical site, something they saw as critical to increase tourist flow not to mention a vaster display in atlases and on state maps. Worst than being the 61st highest peak in the U.S., Cobbler’s Peak was now behind the state’s most visited Front Range mountain, Pikes Peak, which at 14,110 feet ranked 58th nationally, a number unimpressive until Cobbler’s Peak slid three spots behind it. “F-ing Pikes Peak” was how it was always referred to when I heard the Colorado Springs-mountain area mentioned.

            Thinking the mountain designation was more important than it perhaps was, the city’s leaders fought tooth and nail for those 25 feet needed to pass Pikes Peak by a foot. Scientists and geologists from state universities were consulted on what it would take to rebuild the rock. Talk even extended to removing part of the “hand” from the north arm and taking it, by helicopter, to the top. But the people who made decisions about which mountains were the highest would have none of it (the Colorado Springs and Denver media had a field day with that, calling it, among other things, the “First Brain Transplant” in which “a part of the hand is sacrificed”). At a press conference, the U.S. Geologists announced that as of 1982, the mountain would drop out of the top 50, all the way to number 61 among American mountains. And, to perhaps spite the town officials for the negative publicity (and threatening letters, almost all of them with Cobbler’s Nook postmarks) they had attracted, they would monitor the remaining structure to see if the height would have to be dropped further, as what little was left of the “chimney” was fractured and unstable. News reports noted something else: Cobbler’s Peak was only 38 feet from dropping out of the top 50 peaks in the lowly contiguous 48 states – though reporters didn’t mention that losing anything more than 12 feet was quite unlikely – further irritating town officials.

            That wasn’t the first run-in Cobbler’s Nook had, as a town, with the government. Decades earlier, Cobbler’s Nook bore the government’s wrath over the altitude of the city. Denver already had “Mile High City” distinction, but even the Cobbler’s Nook town officials back then thought they saw a marketing opportunity to piggyback onto Denver. Cobbler’s Nook had been listed at 5,291 feet, but that was pared down to 5,277 feet – a crucial three feet less than a mile (which is 5,280 feet), all that kept Cobbler’s Nook from mile-high status, and it gave the town officials a fit. They lobbied and even begged for those 36 inches, hoping to be “Denver South” or some sort of “Mile High Sibling” to Denver for tourism and economic development promotion. Yet the surveyors not only balked, they took offense at the little town’s spirited defense of its “height.” Cobbler’s Nook officials finally threw in the towel after getting pummeled publicly by the Denver and Colorado Springs newspapers (“Southern Colorado Town has Short-Man’s Syndrome” and “Yard Work in Cobbler’s Nook: Pair of feet plus one needed to ride Denver’s Mile-High coattails”). The town decided just to remove the word “Elevation” from the city limit signs north and south of town on the interstate, but when the state got word, the Colorado Department of Transportation decreed that for “safety reasons all incorporated towns and cities must list elevation on signs denoting city limits.” While “thin air” was listed as the “health concern” behind listing elevation, Cobbler’s Nook was again taken to task statewide for “civic hot air.”

            No matter how many mountains the “Nookians” (coined by a Colorado Springs newspaper columnist) climbed, no matter how many hoops they jumped through, the town was and always would be: 5,277 feet above sea level.

            But the lightning strike that took away the mountain’s lofty (some said exaggerated) “status” wasn’t insurmountable in terms of public relations because good fortune smiled on Cobbler’s Nook that day at the press conference to announce that the top 50 Highest Peaks in the United States list would no longer include Cobbler’s Peak. A woman wearing sandals, a long, frayed burlap skirt, no makeup and a long ponytail went to the podium. The mayor grabbed her arm, she whispered something in his ear, and he backed up.

            “I’m Amber Mosely-Cobbler,” she said. “I’ve come with a group of my friends from the desert of southern Arizona. I want to honor my great-great-grandmamma.”

            She was, she explained, the great-granddaughter of Dolores’ first child. She provided, much to the chagrin of the local media, no details of what she knew about either her grandmother or great-grandmother. She was dubbed “Lola Granola, the Nookian Princess” by a Colorado Springs radio talk show host. To honor “Peach” Cobbler, she planned to put a “hemp” plant on the mountain. No one back then – or at least in our area – knew what hemp was.

            That is until she was halfway up the mountain. Once informed, the mayor sent a detachment of climbers to “formally withdraw” city support for the climb. Amber Mosely-Cobbler and her clan of three hippies decided they would not turn back after a lengthy discussion and prodding from the mayor’s climbers (a city planner, a councilman and the city weed superintendent – the Colorado Springs newspaper noted the irony in the city’s “weed guy” being sent after the “hemp clan”) to end her bid to plant hemp.

  Our photographer and reporter stayed with the group, as did a local TV station. We were a tiny TV market, yet we had a local network affiliate. Since we were 108th in market size, we got mostly just-out-of-college aspiring broadcasters, which made the evening news a nightly blooper show – and we all watched, of course.

            The wind was blowing by the time the now-shortened expedition reached the summit (there was now a clear path, and while tiring, the climb had been done by thousands ranging in age from 6 to 86). Though they started at 4 a.m., by the time they reached the peak, it was nearing darkness. And the “expedition” had thinned considerably. The TV crew had turned around 1,800 feet from the summit, something the reporter and photographer told “Nightline” two nights later that they would “regret the rest of their careers” which, honestly, were only a month or two old at that point. The newspaper’s photographer gave it up 1,500 feet from the summit, the weather threatening like it hadn’t in weeks.

            Bless their hearts, the small group of hippies and the local reporter made it to the summit. After standing on a pile of the recently lightning-stricken rocks to have her picture taken alongside her great-grandmother’s initials (which had survived the rockslide, being only five feet up on the bluff – it was more remarkable that it had survived attempts by vandals to “erase” her signature through the decades), Amber Mosley-Cobbler had to dig for 30 minutes (the ground was hard and cold) to the closest spot that she thought marked her “great-grandmamma’s” plunge to death.

            She said something about “reintroducing hemp to its natural breeding area” and talked about the contribution her great-grandmother had made to “this town of Cobbler’s Nook, where the people, while well meaning, are very misguided in their abandonment of socialist values to continue their search for the almighty dollar,” according to our reporter’s story, which would win every journalistic award available at the end of the year, except the Pulitzer. (“Lacked detail on subject’s background, and history behind Dolores Cobbler,” the judges had written.)

            With hopes that the little plant would “do all it can to fight off what possibly drove her great-grandmamma to her death” (which I thought, reading the story in later years on microfiche, was the best line in the whole story), Mosely-Cobbler went to stand behind the plant to have her picture taken by a guy in her group who was, it turned out, her boyfriend. She took one step back too many and started to teeter on the edge. Her boyfriend put down the camera, went rushing toward her – just as she regained her balance – and slipped in the dirt, knocking her over the edge. Distraught, he jumped to join/save her. Both died (the Colorado Springs’ newspaper had a field day, including the next morning’s headline: “Mothership calls Nookian namesake home” while a Denver newspaper swung mightily and missed with, “Hemp today, gone tomorrow”).

            Her lost life, and that of her boyfriend’s, probably saved several others. The other two from her clan, plus our reporter, hadn’t thought this climb out too clearly, and would’ve had to descend in the dark had Amber Mosely-Cobbler not fallen a very mother-like thousand plus feet, catching our photographer’s attention enough to make him rush down the mountain and alert search and rescue. The shivering survivors, including the reporter, were plucked off the mountain at 1:30 a.m., several thousand feet from the summit in a clearing where, ironically, artifacts from the Mormon expedition had been found about a century earlier.

            What started as a nightmare for the PR conscious Cobbler’s Nook town officials turned into an economic bonanza – the kind of story the press dreams about, but only happens occasionally. The media came, en force, and minivans from NBC and ABC, among a dozen of others, dotted the base of the mountain. The story, some of it almost accurate, was broadcast nationwide. My favorite was on a Denver station, which broadcast an “artist’s rendition” of both Dolores “Peach” Cobbler’s plunge and Amber’s. We still have that broadcast on Beta at my mother’s house.

            One of those watching, reading or listening a time zone away was Gill Bates, founder and CEO of “SunWest Systems,” one of the world’s dominant forces in computer software. He saw the story, called and asked the city about tax breaks, liked what he heard and built his first non-Pacific Northwest branch in Cobbler’s Nook. The company that liked to think of itself as SunWest’s major competitor, “Aragog Computers,” followed suit and built a branch factory/office. The town experienced growth like never before. More than 8,000 jobs were offered almost right away, with thousands more to follow. The county, as part of the deal to lure SunWest – and I suppose, Aragog – took our dirt strip “county” airport and added runways for private airplanes and commercial jets. A motion was made and passed to annex the land just east of Interstate 25 so that the airport could be part of the town.

            At the time of most of this growth, I was in college. But I knew Cobbler’s Nook had “arrived” when Wal-Mart planted a Super Center by the interstate. My friends, both in college and at my newspaper jobs before I moved back “home” (to a place that had become something I’d never known), always wanted Cobbler’s Nook T-shirts. Instead of buying one in “Old Town” from “Charlene’s Americana Nook” for $19.99, I bought three for $12 at Wal-Mart during Christmas vacation of my senior year in college.

            Other businesses came. The town’s population exploded, going from just under 15,000 in 1970 to 84,000 by the year 2000, drawing feature stories from Newsweek and a mention in Time about “The Expanding Frontier." I returned home. To a place I'd have to get to know again.