By: Lise Waring, Mary Duffy, Paul O’Rourke
We’ve all heard urban legends. You know, that kids have died from eating Pop Rocks and drinking Coca Cola, that kidneys have been stolen from drugged tourists in faraway lands or that some old lady tried to dry her poodle in the microwave. On a smaller scale, Telluride’s own gossip mills circulate stories of notoriety. Which are pure fabrications, iron-clad truth or somewhere in between?
The legend: Telluride’s population is highly educated. It’s likely that your bartender has a master’s degree or PhD.
As with any good legend, this one is tough to contest because there are no stipulations. Telluride’s population is highly educated in comparison to what? By the 2000 census numbers, neighboring Montrose or Norwood host a significantly lower percentage of college graduates than Telluride. But if we compare Telluride with mountain towns such as Aspen and Crested Butte, it is similar: a mid-40 percent hold bachelor’s degrees and around 15 percent have attained professional, master’s or doctorate degrees. The national average is lower: 15.5 percent with bachelor’s and 8.9 with anything higher.
The legend: Franchises cannot come to Telluride.
There is no law against franchises, says the Town of Telluride’s legal department. They would have to meet historic architecture and sign requirements, but there is nothing—aside from a small population and expensive real estate—inhibiting McDonald’s or Starbucks. In fact, Ace Hardware is already an institution.
The legend: Neon signs are illegal in Telluride.
Not only are neon signs prohibited in the land use code—“gas filled light tubes shall be allowed only when used for indirect illumination, in such a manner that light tubes are not exposed to public view”—any “signs with lights or illumination…are not allowed.” Television screens and computer displays are included in the contraband, but historic signs with lights are an exception.
The legend: At a certain elevation, deer change into elk.
Deer and elk are two different animals, but the foundation of this myth is not too farfetched: Their terrain often overlaps, but elk do prefer higher elevations—where the temperatures are cool and grazing meadows abundant—and deer browse on shrubs, twigs, brush and other plants usually found in the warmer lower elevations.
The legend: Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Wild Bunch robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank.
If there was ever a piece of Telluride history elevated to mythic heights, it is the robbery on the morning of June 24, 1889, at the San Miguel Valley Bank. While they were a wild bunch, the Telluride robbers weren’t the Wild Bunch; the real Wild Bunch, a different cast of characters, didn’t become known as such until the late 1890s. At the time of the Telluride robbery, Butch Cassidy was still answering to his given name, Robert “Bob” Leroy Parker. By most accounts, he was a minor player in this, his first bank robbery. Tom McCarty, a man reputed to have had some experience in the illicit expropriation of funds, was the ringleader responsible for recruiting his brother-in-law, Matt Warner, and Parker. Some historians claim a fourth robber participated in the holdup; some suggest that Harry Longabaugh—whose cousin owned a ranch not far from McCarty’s place near Mancos, Colorado—was that man. Most agree, however, that Longabaugh, who took the moniker “Sundance Kid” only after joining up with Cassidy in 1896, was nowhere near Telluride that day.
The legend: Someone broke into a furrier, stole fur coats, spray painted them and left them in the Free Box.
In January of 1988, someone did punch a hole through the side wall of a downtown furrier to steal nine fur coats, totaling approximately $27,000 in value. But the furs were never spray painted nor did they appear in the Free Box. In truth, an anonymous caller told Telluride dispatch that the authorities would “find what they’re looking for in a Hefty garbage bag next to an old…car in a yard at the end of North Aspen.” The police indeed found the furs in this location.
The legend: Tunnels were dug under Telluride’s main street in the early 1900s and during prohibition to transfer high-grade gold and bootleg liquor.
According to longtime local, miner and ski area developer Bill Mahoney, Senior, although high-grading and bootlegging were illegal, they were carried out in the open, without the need for tunnels or anything approaching the covert. Telluride was a town of mining, men, gaming and prostitution, and gold and liquor were mainstays of the economy that were seldom frowned upon. A tunnel was dug under a main-street business in the early 1980s in an attempt to rob the neighboring bank, but motion sensors triggered an alarm as the assailants tried to drill into the vault, and the robbery was foiled. Rumors lay claim that these bank thieves used existing tunnels, but all excavating in that case was their own.
The legend: The ratio of Telluride men to Telluride women is desperately skewed, and there are perhaps as many as two men to every woman.
According to the 2000 census, 1,224 men and 997 women live inside Telluride’s borders, which translates to a population of 55.1 percent men and 44.9 percent women. As of September, there were 19 Telluride men looking for love on www.match.com and three women; on yahoo personals, 31 Telluride men were listed in contrast to only two women. While none of these counts are scientific, it is safe only to say that there appears to be more men seeking dates than women.
The legend: Long ago, a young Ute shot a raccoon with his bow and arrow on the hill south of town. The wounded animal fled, leaving a trail of blood as it ran through the trees. When it died, it had returned back to the spot where it was shot, and the trail of blood from its frenzied flight outlined the shape of a giant coonskin stretched out on a board to dry and cure. Every fall, the aspens that were touched by its blood turn gold in the shape of the raccoon’s skin.
We have never seen the shape of a coonskin in the fall foliage, but it’s a good story.
The legend: The height of skunk cabbage is an indication of how deep the snow will be in winter.
Predicting snowfall has always been a sought-after ability, but there are two problems with this local lore. First, skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanum on the West Coast and Symplocarpus foetidus on the East Coast) does not grow in the southern San Juan Mountains. The plant that grows here is more appropriately known as corn husk lily or false hellebore. Secondly, the height of corn lily is more likely a reflection of how good the previous winter’s snowpack was and whether the spring and summer were wet or dry, rather than a prediction of future precipitation.
The legend: On July 4, 1903, presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech from a grandstand in front of the Sheridan.
A photograph of William Jennings Bryan orating in front of the New Sheridan Hotel in Telluride exists. The red, white and blue bunting suggests Independence Day, but where folks came up with 1903 is a mystery. Bryan was in Telluride, but it was the afternoon of October 27, 1902. The Daily Journal reported that “the Great Commoner arrived in Telluride at 3 o’clock…talked to a crowd [estimated at 1,500 or more] and departed at 4 o’clock.” While Bryan did discuss matters of monetary policy and, as the Journal stated, presented arguments “largely the same as he employed in his presidential campaigns,” he did not, apparently, reprise the famous (but by that time dated) Cross of Gold speech first delivered to the Democratic Party Convention on July 9, 1896.
The legend: Telluride is said to be the inspiration for Galt’s Gulch, the mythic mountain hideaway of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged.
In the 1950s, Telluride was a beleaguered mining town, reeling from post-war depression. It was still inspiring with its mythic Shangri-La-like setting, but, truth be told, in a letter to a friend, Ayn Rand said that neighboring Ouray, Colorado, was the influence for Galt’s Gulch. Regardless, those who follow the abstract principles that crafted Rand’s writings are commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Atlas Shrugged at the Objectivists Summer Conference in Telluride in July 2007.