City girls ride horses, re­vive spirit of camp

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Joella Bau­mann

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.

Fa­mous guests

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.”

Gabriel Scar­lett, The Den­ver Post

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.

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