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