Searching for Home in Colorado

By Marilyn Lindenbaum

Searching for Home, which opens on November 7, invites visitors to experience the bigger picture of homelessness and how it affects all of us through the lens of our state’s boom-and-bust economic and social history.

This month, Searching for Home: Homelessness in Colorado History opens at the History Colorado Center. The new exhibit features artifacts like Baby Doe Tabor’s dress, a former Miss Colorado’s pageant sash, and a panhandler’s makeshift cardboard sign. What do these objects have in common? These and other seemingly disparate artifacts are woven together in an unusual and timely exhibit demonstrating the many faces of homelessness. 

Artifacts from the lives of Coloradans tell the personal stories of individuals who have experienced homelessness and how those stories fit into the larger picture of Colorado history. Colorado’s repeated cycle of rags to riches and riches to rags underscores a social reality: homelessness can happen to anyone.

Panhandler sign: (History Colorado object number 2014.1.15) Americans are now used to seeing people on street corners asking for money or food. Most of them are homeless. But, many more people experiencing homelessness never panhandle or “fly signs.”Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor was married to silver king Horace Tabor. At one time, the Tabors were among the richest citizens in the state. Horace built a large office building downtown, a beautiful mansion, and even a grand opera house. But after the Silver Crash of 1893, Tabor’s fortune, like the fortunes of many others, vanished. 

Baby Doe dress: (History Colorado object number 73.61.1) Dress that belonged to Elizabeth Bonduel “Baby Doe” Tabor purchased at the Daniels & Fisher Store circa 1902. The Tabors had to sell off their properties and most of their belongings. Tabor went from mining tycoon to postmaster and died six years after the crash. Baby Doe Tabor moved back to Leadville and lived in a supply shack near the mine that had made her rich. She died there of exposure in 1935, penniless and alone. 

Blair Griffith: Pictured in the tiara and sash she has loaned for the exhibit. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons after being crowned Miss Colorado USA 2011, Coloradan Blair Griffith revealed that she and her mother were homeless. Insurance coverage for Griffith’s mother’s heart attack and surgery was refused because of claims that she had a pre-existing condition. Her medications also cost hundreds of dollars each week. 

Salvation Army Cherry Tree Home: (Courtesy History Colorado, 10028556) The Salvation Army’s Amity Colony was started in 1898, in southeastern Colorado. It was one of several colonies meant to convert underprivileged urban workers and slum dwellers into healthy and happy rural landowners. They opened the Cherry Tree Home in Amity in 1902, for orphans and children from delinquent families. The 60 children who lived there got farming and technical training.Unable to pay medical debts and expenses, Griffith and her mother were forced to move out of their home. They struggled to find shelter, sometimes sleeping at a friend or relative’s house. At one point, all of Griffith’s belongings, including her pageant crown, were kept in a single trash bag. Today, she works with, a grassroots campaign to end youth homelessness.

Huey & Gladys: (Photograph by James S. Peterson, Boulder, July 4th, 2014) A pet can be a life-saver for someone experiencing homelessness, but the fear of losing a pet often deters homeless individuals from seeking shelter.And that cardboard sign? It might have belonged to someone you saw on a street corner. Searching for Home encourages museumgoers to wonder about the stories behind cardboard signs.

“We have attempted to expose many of the stereotypes people unfamiliar with homelessness associate with those in our community who struggle to find their place in society,” said James Peterson, assistant curator for artifacts at History Colorado. “Hopefully, visitors will recognize how vulnerable all of us are to uncertainty and acknowledge our shared humanity.”

Leadville miners illustration (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Supplement June 7, 1879): Leadville boomed so fast in 1877, that miners far outnumbered beds. People slept under bars and in hollows dug in hillsides. Entrepreneurs cashed in with huge tents sleeping up to 800 at a time. Eight hours in a tent cost up to 50 cents—or about $11 today.A community advisory committee was instrumental in the development of this exhibit. People from various service organizations met for over a year to help Peterson shape the narrative of the exhibit. 

Hands-on interactive stations throughout Searching for Home personalize issues relating to homelessness so that visitors can understand the difficult choices and consequences that have to be made every day on the streets. Many of us take shelter, health, safety, and relationships for granted, but these become complex and dangerous challenges for those who are not housed.

Silver Crash of 1893: (Courtesy History Colorado, Harry H. Buckwalter, March 1894, 20030902) Unemployed miners flooded into Denver after the Silver Crash of 1893. City authorities set up a temporary camp and provided lumber so miners could build boats and leave town. A river exit didn’t really work. Searching for Home is organized around a question and answer format to connect visitors’ curiosity about the issues of homelessness with meaningful answers. It begins a narrative wherein visitors are challenged to think about their own role, reactions, and responsibilities toward various aspects of homelessness.

The narrative of Searching for Home provides good language for parents to talk about these difficult topics. The exhibit is designed for families with children in middle school and high school and for people involved in issues related to homelessness. It is intended to provide an encouraging and safe space to ask questions and get real answers.

Holy Ghost Catholic Church: (Courtesy Regis University) When a blizzard hit Denver in 1982, Father Charles “Woody” Woodrich opened the Holy Ghost Catholic Church to people without homes. On the coldest nights he fed more than 400 people, and as many as 60 slept in the chapel.The exhibit exit gallery recaps what has been done about homelessness in our state and what else can be done. Two takeaway sheets will be available—one for people who are looking for opportunities to help and one with resources for people who are experiencing homelessness.


Exhibit Information 

The exhibit is an original creation of History Colorado and will be on display for nine to twelve months. Its opening coincides with National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Month. 

On opening day, November 7, the exhibit and museum will be free from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. 

The event is part of Denver’s “Night at the Museums,” when many of the city’s museums will be open and free between those hours. Free shuttles will be available to take museumgoers to all venues.  

The list of participating museums, shuttle maps, and other visitor details for the event can be found on the city’s website.