Now and Then: The African-American Community in Cañon City 1902-1937

By Loretta (Stevens) Bailey

Now: In searching RGRM&HC’s family files, subject files, property files, city directories, donor files, and archival photographs, I found this research fascinating.  I also found my own knowledge of these residents was very limited and sketchy.

In this blog you will find demographics, occupations, residences, places of business, churches, schools, and some human interest histories of the men, women, and children who lived in Fremont County.

Three girls playing near East Cañon , ca. 1905; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center
Three girls playing near East Cañon , ca. 1905; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

African-American Community in Cañon City Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Then: Shoe-shine men, actors, dressmakers, prison guards, coal miners, and U.S Army Soldiers; Cañon City in the late 19th early 20th centuries had a vibrant African-American community.

Demographics for Cañon City Limits (Totals do not include children)

Years Male Females Totals
1902 30 14 44
1903 25 20 45
1905 23 22 45
1906 30 22 52
1908 21 12 23
1916 24 18 42
1918 26 40 46
1923 30 26 56
1925 43 24 67
1927/28 23 15 38
1929 22 19 41
1930/31 20 17 37
1937 13 8 21
Totals 330 219 549

Types of Occupations

Actors Hod Carriers Ranchers
Barbers Horse-Trainers Smelter Workers
Boot-Blacks Houseworkers Slaughter House
Cooks Janitors Teamsters
Carpenters Laundresses U.S. Army
Carpet-Layers Livery Stables Zinc Mill Workers
Dress-Makers Miners (Coal) D&RG Railroad
Express Men Nurses Penitentiary Guards
Fruit-Growers Porters

Business Names

Barber Shops Drug Stores Individual Businesses Post Office
Harris Hunter Palmer Crystal Ice River Smelter & Ref. Company
Sanitary Palace Drugs Canon City Club Shoe Shine Parlor
Schuler’s Barbers Hotels Elks Club U.S. Army
Walt’s Canon Diegel Restaurant Shoe Shine Parlor
Wykott’s Royal Gorge Fremont Cigar Store U.S. Smelter
Coal Mines St. Cloud Graves Hospital Wright & Morgan
Chandler Mine St. James Gibson’s Lumber
Victor American Strathmore Jim’s Stand
Livery Stables Eclipse Manning & Sappington Saloon

Map of Cañon City showing city limits, 1928; Map Collection Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

Map of Cañon City showing city limits, 1928; Map Collection Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

Noted Community Members

Leonedas H. Haley and husband H.H. Haley came to Cañon City in 1916. The Haley’s and their son Anthony lived in the 300 Block of Rudd.  In 1953, Leonedas Haley shared her story with local historian Ruth Stinemeyer. Ruth complied Mrs. Haley’s words along with information about the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in a paper. According to Mrs. Haley:

“When we came to Cañon City in 1916 the congregation supported a full-time minister, Rev. Eloth.  The Rev J.W. Prowell was the pastor in 1918 and served for several years.  The last full-time minister came in 1922, Mr. Welford Hall. A white man served as pastor in the early 1940’s. We had a fine organization in those days.  Not only were our services successful but our social affairs were too.  We had a membership of 100 regional residents. There was a thriving Sunday School with an enrollment of fifty.  Many the time I have seen the church filled to capacity.”

Ruth Stinemeyer continued on with further information:

As Cañon City’s Colored population began to dwindle, so did the church membership. In 1943 the church building was moved from Fifth and Water Street location to 2nd and Harrison.  The late H.H. Haley, former school teacher and veteran prison guard, was largely instrumental in having it moved and repaired.  He borrowed $250.00 from the late Grant Atkinson for this purpose.  Mr. Haley was on the last board of directors of the Church, the other members being Jim Pate, and Jim Yieser.  Mr. Haley had long served as Sunday School Superintendent and conducted services when no pastor was available.

Mrs. Haley was an active member of the church and struggled to keep it going.  She trudged to the building each Sunday to teach a class of six members.  When this number grew smaller Mrs. Haley reluctantly closed the Sunday School and the church. When she realized the church must close, she presented the American Flag and the Altar to the Four Square Gospel Church.  The pews were sold for five dollars. The church building was sold for three hundred dollars and the money was placed in a fund to help with the education of Dorothy Prowell, a former Sunday School student of Mrs. Haley.

Fred Span at Mt. Olive Baptists Church, ca. 1920; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center
Fred Span at Mt. Olive Baptists Church, ca. 1920; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

According to the Fremont County Leader of Dec. 12, 1912, Mr. J. L. Haley purchased the Royal Gorge Hotel & Restaurant located at 816 Water Street.  Mr. Haley previously worked as a telegraph operator for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.

In 1908 Frank P. Smith owned 808 and 816 Water Street.  After the purchase of the hotel by Mr. Haley, Mr. Smith remained the owner of 808, which was a wholesale house for produce and implements. Mr. Haley sold the hotel in 1916 to R.H. Fought.

Jim Caldwell’s shoeshine-black boot stands were fixtures in Cañon City for 35 years.  Caldwell was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and as a young man, he served as a racehorse trainer.

He came to Cañon City just before the turn of the century. He and his wife Lucinda lived in the 500 Block on Water Street. Jim opened his first stand on South Fifth Street called the Shoe Shine Parlor. Lucinda worked as a cook.  He then moved to South Sixth Street just behind First National Bank. Jim then moved his shoe-shine stand beside his and Lucinda’s residence in 1923.

According to an article in the Cañon City Daily Record in an “A Look Back Into History” article on February 21, 1973, he charged a dime for his shine, which were described as “works of art with high gloss.”  He was said to be friendly, wholesome, and honest. He reportedly had a great sense of humor and a deep laugh that “shook not only him but his stand.”

For many years, he had served as treasurer of the Colored Burial Association, which provided burial services to members of the African-American community.

Caldwell died at his home in August 1933, after suffering a stroke as he sat at his shoe-shine stand.

Fred Span was another well recognized and very much respected member of the Cañon City community. Span gained respect from all the communities he was employed by and was known best for his strong work ethic and fairness to all.

Span was raised in Cañon City by his mother and step-father, Mr. and Mrs. Yeiser. Span attended classes at the (old) Washington Elementary School, which was not segregated. (See photos at the end of this section) Fred graduated from Cañon City High School and his photo is in the 1913 high school annual.

Fred spent most of his career as a janitor and custodian for many Main Street businesses. In 1911 and 1912 Fred was hired by one of the two silent movie companies, Selig Polyscope Company, which produced silent films in Fremont County. Fred had a few bit parts in movies filmed with actor Tom Mix, who was an authentic flamboyant cowboy. Fred appeared to be at ease with the professionals in the silent film industries. Later Fred worked for Ohio Zinc in 1918 and Chandler Coal Mine in 1923.

Now:  My memory of Fred Span was in 1946.  At that time, I was taking tap dancing lessons upstairs of the Annex building, the Woolsworth Dime Store, 509-513 Main Street.  Mr. Span would be sitting on the stairway smiling and greeting people passing by and using the stairs.  He made room for my mother and myself to pass by him, standing up and smiling.

In the middle 1950’s, Fred was seen at the Robinson Mansion on First and Riverside Drive, doing gardening work and landscaping around the mansion and carriage house.  Residents of the city remember as young boys walking to Madison Elementary School and stopping for a chat with Fred. One of the boys, George Stevens said, “he was always wearing overalls’ and would ask them, how’s school going for you boys?”

Fred died in 1960 at the age of 66 after a short illness.  In an article dated November 25, 1960 in the Cañon City Daily Record, the community was notified of his death. The reporter said, “significant to how well-known Fred was, a bouquet of flowers and a basket of fruit going to his hospital room shortly after he was taken there last week.  The card read, ‘From the fifth-grade children of Washington School.’”

Now:  Pat (Johnson) McFarland remembered Fred when she was a child in the middle 1950’s.  “My mother Mary Ann Johnson, worked at Ott’s Candy Store and took me with her. Fred was a janitor there. We became well acquainted with Fred along with most of the Johnson family.  He became a good friend and part of our family. After Fred passed away we would put flowers on his grave every year. My grandchildren know about Fred and where he is buried, close by the Johnson family plot.”

Several years after Fred’s death, Mary Ann’s three sisters wanted to get a gravestone to replace the small metal stake at Lakeside Cemetery. They were able to gain enough money for the gravestone.

Now: For further research on this blog there are many more stories, photographs and newspaper articles in the files available at the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.  You won’t be disappointed when you see the vast amount of information that is open to public.

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