We were recently visited by one of Denver's more eclectic collectors who had recently paid a visit to the wonderful Colfax Museum at 6851 West Colfax Avenue. While visiting with famed curator and Elvis impersonator Jonny Barber, he was shown an interesting postcard.
The postcard, seen above, depicts an "alligator garden" (wrestling included), a "snake stockade" and a classic "parrot jungle." While such magical, mid-century attractions were common in places like Louisiana, Florida and even Texas, Colorado was not exactly a paradise for tropical creatures. This is why it seemed so strange to see the East Colfax address on the card.
Clearly, the address had been handwritten on the card and not printed, but why would someone put a fake location on a postcard? Obviously our Western History senses were tingling, and it was imperative to help our patron get to the bottom of this scaly mystery. We tried the old directories for both Denver and Aurora with no luck. We even tried a national directory search online. Predictably, such roadside attractions only showed up in more humid, reptile-friendly states.
We did, however, find a strange history of these creatures in our region. The oldest report we found was of an alligator being promoted in the 1883 Rocky Mountain News as a free attraction by Mr. H. Tuggy, a shoe dealer, at 270 Fifteenth. There was no charge, but Mr. Tuggy recommended wearing boots and gloves. By 1901, Elitch Gardens was advertising its own alligator along with several baby lions. Things got really wild in the '60s though.
In 1963, a plumbing contractor tried to start an alligator farm at his home in Jefferson County. The County turned him down, but our intrepid gator farmer was undaunted. He bought another site at 12345 W 38th Avenue, brought his 200 reptiles and applied for the required permits and zoning changes. For some odd reason, the visit to the property by the planning director and building inspector went poorly. The unpermitted buildings, unsafe well, unsanitary snack bar and inadequate sewage disposal system led them to deny the plans for the future theme park. The story gets even sadder when one learns that this visionary also planned a high plains habitat for porpoises and sea lions. True brilliance is often misunderstood, but c'est la vie.
While the urban alligator farm was unable to get off the ground, the Woolworth's store in downtown Denver had an even loftier idea. In 1965, they started selling alligators...as pets...to children. Of course, the store did display a sense of responsibility and would ask the children if their parents approved of the pet before making the sale. Woolworth's even included feeding instructions for these cuddly carnivores. They were to be administered—by hand, and in a dark room—hamburger, horse meat or earthworms. It's not clear exactly how long this went on, but 1,700 of these lovable lizards were sold in an 18-month period. It was also explained in the Denver Post that these were not technically alligators, but caiman—the alligator's somewhat smaller, but more aggressive, Amazonian cousin.
In the end, we were unable to find any corroboration for the existence of a Colfax Alligator Gardens, but we had the pleasure of delving into some high weirdness that should be shared and appreciated. We would also ask that anyone who recognizes the postcard or has information regarding a Colfax gator farm, please be in touch. Even more importantly, keep it weird, Colorado.