Learning about history is more fun when you experience it.
That’s why the metro area has a wide range of places to experience Colorado’s history firsthand. Museums, tourist attractions and more provide venues for adults and children to get hands-on learning about Colorado history from the Jurrasic age to the 1900s.
From dinosaurs to mining and railroad history to early home and school life — the metro area has plenty of locations where families can have fun and learn a bit in the process.
Living history museums enable visitors to experience the everyday home life of ordinary people who toiled on Colorado’s farms, ranches, factories, mines, smelters and more, according to Kevin Rucker, a senior lecturer in MSU Denver’s history department.
For example, “visitors are able to visualize and empathize with what it took for women to take care of a household and raise families,” he said.
Rucker pointed to the Four-Mile House, Golden Prospect Park, Littleton Heritage Museum, Black Western History Museum, Molly Brown House as a starting point for all of the living history locations in the area. Colorado Community Media takes a look at some of the places in the metro area that provide hands-on history.
Who doesn’t love dinosaurs?
Morrison is home to two spots where families can learn about dinosaurs — Dinosaur Ridge and the Morrison Natural History Museum.
Dinosaur Ridge has interpretive signs along two miles of trails that explain the local geology, fossils, and many other geologic and paleontological features. Visitors can check out the area themselves or with volunteers and geologists to learn about the dinosaurs that roamed the area. There’s a museum and gift shop at C-470 and Alameda Parkway, and Dinosaur Ridge has Dinosaur Days throughout the year.
Close by is the Morrison Natural History Museum on Highway 8 just south of downtown Morrison, where families can learn more about dinosaurs. The museum is also a research center, so in addition to visiting the museum, people can take archeological trips.
Stegosaurus Day is always fun for kids as they try their hands at peeling away rocks to find fossils.
Clear Creek County has several locations to learn more about Colorado’s mining history. At the Phoenix Gold Mine southwest of Idaho Springs, history comes alive as visitors go underground in a gold mine, pan for gold to try to strike it rich themselves and more.
Mine owner Dave Mosch, whose family has lived in Colorado since the 1860s, called the Phoenix Gold Mine fascinating for those who haven’t seen up close what mining was like, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He noted that the mining-support industry also brought people to Colorado — building houses, operating shops and providing personal aspects of life to miners.
“Colorado is a beautiful place, but what originally brought people here was the gold,” Mosch said. “The more you understand mining, the more you understand the growth of our state.”
He and all of Clear Creek County are proud that the Colorado gold rush began in 1859 in the county.
Trains and more trains
The founder of the Colorado Railroad Museum understood how big the railroads were to settling Colorado.
“Bob Richardson (the founder of the museum) realized that people needed to know how it all got started, how people traveled to Colorado and how hard it was,” Roni Kramer, director of education for the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, explained. “It is important to see every aspect of people’s beginnings and how they got here on the train. Honestly, it’s such an interesting story.”
While adults may be more interested in historical tidbits, children have the opportunity to check out all areas of different train cars. They ring bells, move through kitchen and bunk cars to see how people traveling by train ate and slept, and more.
And who wouldn’t love to have a birthday party in a caboose?
The railroad museum continues to get more interactive, Kramer said, with train rides, turntable demonstrations, art activities, a locomotive simulator and more — everything to please train lovers and train novices alike.
A farming life
Daily life on the plains in Colorado evolved between the 1860s and the 1890s, and the Littleton Museum has two working historical farms for visitors to learn about what life was like then. Historic interpreters in period clothing are happy to explain trades and skills of the time, plus they maintain the gardens, pumpkin fields and livestock.
According to the Littleton Museum, great care has been taken to ensure that plants and animals are historically accurate for the time period they represent.
The 1860s farm is a pioneer homestead during Littleton’s settlement period, a time before train travel, when oxen-drawn wagons were the main source of transportation. The schoolhouse at the farm, the first in Littleton, showed how residents were moving forward to establish a formal township. The 1860s farm also has an ice house, sheep shed and barn.
The 1890s farm, which has a barn, tool shed, and privy, also has a working blacksmith shop, which was important to farm communities.
The shop depicts blacksmithing in 1903, when electricity reached Littleton.
The importance of history
“History is important,” Kramer said, explaining that people need to learn to appreciate how difficult it was to settle Colorado.
Rucker added that farmers in the early settlement days of Colorado worked from dawn to dusk just to survive. In addition to farming and raising animals, families tended gardens, and women taught school, did laundry, took in boarders, and sewed and mended clothes to make extra money to buy necessities. It was a difficult way of life, something people should understand and appreciate.
“It was just the reality of the time,” Rucker said.