Donkey Derby Days through the years

Danny Summers
Contributing Writer
Posted 6/16/11

The Cripple Creek District celebrates its rich mining history in many ways. But by far the most peculiar is with Donkey Derby Days. The 80th Annual …

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Donkey Derby Days through the years

Posted

The Cripple Creek District celebrates its rich mining history in many ways. But by far the most peculiar is with Donkey Derby Days.

The 80th Annual Donkey Derby Days are coming up June 25-26 with a concert kickoff on June 24.

The main aspect of Donkey Derby Days is a “professional” donkey race. The donkeys in the race must carry a saddle containing a pick, shovel and a gold pan, totaling at least 35 pounds. The racers job is to cajole their donkeys to finish the race.

Now in its 80th year, the race has taken on a life of its own and gained international fame in the process. But today’s event is much different from what the original organizers instituted.

It all began in 1931 when local businessman Charley Lehew, owner of the Cripple Creek Auto Company, and fellow businessman Bryan Jones, thought of a new way to attract customers to the area. By the late 1920s, gold production in the District had slowed and business owners were struggling.

Donkeys roamed the town freely at the time — and some still do. According to legend, a small herd would gather each evening in front of the Palace Drug Store to be fed by the owner, Mr. Lynch. As the story goes, Mr. Lynch made the remark that there were derbies held for all sorts of animals, so why not have a donkey derby? Lehew and Jones took notice.

The donkeys in Cripple Creek were thought to be direct descendents of the donkeys that had been used by the miners in the gold mines dating to 1891. The big-eared creatures played an important role in early Cripple Creek and its nearly two dozen towns.

During the gold rush, donkeys were used as pack animals. Their ability to traverse mountain environments while hauling heavy loads including equipment, tools, and other supplies made them perfect for the mines in Cripple Creek and Victor.

Lehew, Lynch and Jones formed the “Miles High Club” and busily worked at planning and marketing the event. They built a new race track at Union Park and arranged for concessions and entertainment.

Donkey Derby Days was born Aug. 15, 1931.

According to Melissa Trenary of the Two Mile High Club (formerly the Miles High Club) Colorado Governor William Adams was a featured guest and Grand Marshall of the first event. Adams kicked off the weekend with a tribute to donkeys and miners. Then the governor and his staff led the parade down Bennett Avenue riding donkeys.

The main event was the Grand Donkey Sweepstakes. Thirty-five donkeys from as far away as Pennsylvania were raced in that first derby. They had names like Sparkplug, Garlick and I’m A Ass. The only rule was the rider and donkey must cross the finish line together, with the rider still atop his donkey. The winner received a silver loving cup.

Trenary notes that there were other donkey events that first weekend in 1931, including a Boys Relay Race, a Girls Chariot Race and a Visitors Free-for-all. The winners of these races received $5 in gold. Also highlighting the weekend was a Tug-of-war between Cripple Creek and Victor businessmen, saddle horse races, stockcar races and a grueling 32-round boxing match called the “Miles High Smoker.”

Donkey Derby Days continued much the same until World War II when the celebration was suspended. In the years following the war, the Donkey Derby was run down Bennett Avenue to the Mollie Kathleen Mine and back. The annual event was expanded in the 1950s to include a carnival, rodeo and hard rock drilling competitions.

By 1964, however, interest in Donkey Derby Days had waned. So a new group of local businessmen came to the rescue to revive the event and restore Cripple Creek’s donkey herd. The businessmen included Paul Brown, Harold Hern, Bud Peiffer, Bill Robinson, Bob Schwab and Art Tremayne.

In the process the route of the race was again changed. Riders had to start in Victor, ride overland through Altman and Midway finishing up at 1st and Bennett in Cripple Creek. A contestant still had to cross the finish line atop their donkey.

It would be great to think that the donkeys used in today’s professional Donkey Derby race are decedents from the District’s glorious past, but that just wouldn’t be true. Specially trained donkeys are now brought in from Idaho Springs.

Two Mile High Club

In the 1960s, the Miles High Club changed its name to the “Two Mile High Club.” Members continue to care for the community’s free-roaming donkeys — there are 11  in the herd — by purchasing feed and veterinary services.

The club claims to be the oldest incorporated civic organization in the state and meets the second Wednesday of each month. Membership is open to all, individuals and companies, having interest in maintaining and promoting the health and welfare of the free-roaming donkey herd.

For more information on the Two Mile High Club or to get involved, call 719-689-3021.

Museum Exhibit

All this month and through the fall, the Cripple Creek District Museum has a special display on the history of Donkey Derby Days. The exhibit includes photographs, old T-shirts, brochures, curios, trophies and even stuffed donkeys. For more information call the museum at 719-689-2634.

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