City girls ride horses, revive spirit of camp
As the girls lugged saddles and bridles from the tack shed to the hitching rail outside the corral, confidently preparing their horses for the hour-long trail ride ahead, the only giveaway that these were city kids was their tennis shoes.
Neither the nuisance of biting flies nor the smell of fresh manure, amplified by the sweltering heat, fazed them in the least. After six weeks of coming to the Lincoln Hills Cares Equestrian Center, they had shifted into cowgirl mode.
Tucked in the foothills near Nederland, the Nizhoni Summer Equestrian Program provides young women the chance to care for and ride horses every Tuesday from June to August. They also have the chance to explore everything from water conservation to gold panning to the rich cultural history of Lincoln Hills.
The pastoral landscape that today beckons groups of day campers of many different backgrounds was the lure that drew black Denver families to the mountains during the 1920s. But for people living in the era of Jim Crow segregation, Lincoln Hills was more than just a place for black families to experience nature’s calm. It was a reprieve from discrimination and racism. At the time the resort was founded, the Ku Klux Klan was a formidable force in Colorado, marching the streets in white robes and hoods.
Complementing its all-white summer camp on Lookout Mountain, the YWCA in 1925 launched the Nizhoni Summer Camp for black girls on the Lincoln Hills land. Each summer they exited the train onto campgrounds where they enjoyed campfires and singing under the stars, exploring nature and facing adolescent fears.
“Here I didn’t know nobody, but I talked to people and made friends,” said Allisa Caddell, 13, a current Nizhoni girl. “At home I’m just like an inside person and I’m kind of shy.”
Pamela Dudley has been the program manager for the last four years and said her own childhood was vastly different from most others in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood where she grew up. She was exposed to myriad outdoor experiences that led her to a lifetime of interac-
tion with horses.
“My parents kept me very busy outdoors,” she said. “I had a very active summer life with summer day camps, and I went through an equestrian program myself.”
Dudley spends most of the work week managing her small construction-site cleanup business, but on Tuesdays in the summer, she hauls girls up to Lincoln Hills Cares. The hour-long drive up the mountain gives her the chance to talk with the girls about challenges in their lives and finding their place in the world.
“When you’re young,” she said, “you’re starting to grow up and things are happening to you and you have nowhere to vent.”
In the past, Dudley has worked with girls heading into high school through their senior year, but decided that reaching girls at a younger age was even more beneficial. She’s a firm believer that their interactions with the horses will impact how the girls handle situations at home.
“Power you didn’t know you had”
“When you come here and you’re dealing with these horses, you have to be in charge,” Dudley said. “You have to have authority over your horse because if you don’t then you lose control and it’s chaos. It shows you a power you didn’t know you had — and at 10, that’s big.”
Even at 104 years old, Marie Greenwood has a sharp memory filled with lessons from Nizhoni. She speaks about her experiences there as though she can see the camp all around her.
“It was 1928, I was 15 years old and thrilled. It was absolutely the first time I had any experiences in the mountains,” Greenwood said. “It was a brand-new experience — hiking, singing and camping — but nature became my main interest. It opened up my eyes to all the beauty God had created around me and really gave me a place in the world.”
For Greenwood and the other Nizhoni girls of that era, the camp was a reprieve from the realities of discrimination and racism. While she didn’t experience the extreme prejudice in Denver that many saw in the South, she nonetheless felt she was regarded as a second-class citizen.
“The Klan had parades and we couldn’t eat in any restaurants downtown, not even Woolworth,” Greenwood said. “If we went to the theater, a little bell would ring and an usher right away would be there and make sure you were taken up to the balcony. Even if they had seats galore, we couldn’t sit down there.”
Greenwood, who in 1935 became Denver’s first black teacher when she took a job at Whittier Elementary, said Nizhoni gave her a sense of ownership in the world. But Lincoln Hills fell largely out of use in the 1950s and ’60s as segregation receded and the demand for allblack spaces diminished.
In 2006, Denver philanthropist and avid fly-fisherman Matthew Burkett purchased the resort and created the private Lincoln Hills Fly Fishing Club. Two years later, Burkett partnered with Denver investor Robert Smith to found Lincoln Hills Cares, a charitable organization that aims to preserve the history of the area, and the Nizhoni Equestrian Program was relaunched.
Managing director J.R. Lapierre joined Burkett in March 2015 to expand the program from a parttime summer program to a yearround operation, growing it from an average of 200 participants per summer to 2,200 per year. This year that number expanded to 8,000 kids, most of whom have never had experiences in the outdoors or with horses. About 10,000 are projected to participate next year.
Renewing its purpose
By hosting inner-city kids — black, white, Latino — whose access to similar programs is limited by their social or economic circumstances, the camp revives the original purpose and historical significance of Lincoln Hills.
In the 1920s, Denver had a growing, vibrant African-American community in the now historic Five Points neighborhood. As it became larger and more prosperous, Denver’s black community faced increasing hostility in the form of racially restrictive housing covenants and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan that included prominent local and state officials.
Affluence and animus collided, and the idea for Lincoln Hills was born. The goal was to create a place that blacks from Denver and elsewhere in the country could consider a haven from racism and as an alternative to racially segregated resorts, which were most times their only other option.
The only black resort west of the Mississippi River came to be in 1922, when E.C. Regnier and Roger E. Ewalt purchased the land and founded Lincoln Hills Inc. Frances “Mozetta” Currin, one of the early campers at Nizhoni, recalled that the Klan burned a cross into the Denver front yard of the white man who previously owned the property.
Key to the long-term popularity of Lincoln Hills was Winks Lodge, which opened in 1928. Obrey Wendell Hamlet, who went by the nickname “Winks,” built the lodge and adjacent tavern, which became a hub for black tourists and famous musicians each summer and fall.
Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lena Horne and others often stayed at Winks Lodge before or after playing clubs in Denver, and Hamlet also organized readings when writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston visited on their way to the West Coast. In 2014, the lodge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Denver County Court Judge Gary Jackson, whose family runs six generations deep in Colorado, still visits the cabin that his greatgrandfather built in Lincoln Hills in 1926. Filled with memories of shooting his Red Ryder BB gun and skipping rocks, Jackson said the oppressive racial attitudes of the 1920s and ’30s were not what brought him there.
“There was not a concern about prejudice and discrimination for me as a child or teenager,” he said. “It was not a flight to get away from anything bad in Denver, but to have a good time.”
Now, after a blazing July afternoon along the West Magnolia Trailhead, the girls returned the horses and ate sandwiches at the fishing clubhouse. Yazmine Chavez, 11, in her second year with the equestrian program, cultivates her own memories as she learns to fly-fish, doing archery and shooting a BB gun.
But for her, it’s mostly about the horses.
“To learn to feel comfortable and not to be scared,” she said, citing her most enduring lesson. “To know that you’re in control of the horse, they’re not in control of you.”
Girls enjoy a horseback trail ride provided by the Nizhoni Summer Equestrian Program in the foothills near Nederland. The program gives girls a chance to care for and ride horses every week from June to August.