Old Stuff Brings New Life To Florence



Joshua Hardin

THE NOONTIME SIREN still echoes through Florence every weekday, a signal to the coal miners that it’s time to break for lunch. The tradition dates back more than a century. The main difference between then and now is that there are no coal miners anymore. These days, Florence isn’t a coal town or an oil town – it’s an antiques town.

With two dozen antiques stores filling the two central blocks of Main Street and spilling over onto neighboring avenues, antiques hunters have ample quarry.

Need a gilded Victorian toilet? Head to Salvage Antiques Vintage, Etc. (“I’ve never seen anybody so excited about a toilet before,” shop employee Erin Sauer said about the purchaser of an 1894 plumbing fixture.)

In the market for a crystal chandelier or a Gothic, stained-glass church window? Willie’s Antiques is your best bet.

Got to have a bayonet from World War II? The shop known as Mantiques has you covered.

Some Colorado antiques collectors take it on faith that if you can’t find what you’re looking for in Florence, it probably never existed in the first place. And the only reason there aren’t more antiques stores in Florence is that they simply can’t squeeze in any more.

“I have a list of people who want to move into buildings here,” said Florence Mayor Keith Ore, who owns three of the town’s antiques stores with his wife, Elsie. “They call me con­stantly asking me if there are any for lease.”

This Fremont County town, in the mountains just down the Arkansas River from Cañon City, had the opposite prob­lem in the 1990s.

“The town was like a ghost town in those days,” Ore said. Main Street storefronts were largely boarded up, the result of a decades-long slide from prosperity to economic doldrums.

FLORENCE BOOMED IN the 19th century, but it wasn’t one of Colorado’s innumerable gold- and silver-mining boom­towns – black gold was the specialty here. Florence had the first oil well drilled west of the Mississippi River, and the local oilfield was just the second in the nation to be commercially developed. Alexander M. Cassidy, who kicked off Florence’s oil industry in 1862, went on to found a company that evolved into Conoco.

By the 1890s, oil was king in Florence: The city cranked out as much as 824,000 barrels of oil annually; the daily newspaper was called The Florence Oil Refiner. Coal was just as import­ant, with productive mines honeycombed throughout the surrounding hills. But things slowed down after World War I, when a changing economy stilled the churning oil pumps and silenced all but the lunchtime whistle at the coal mines.

People in Florence thought the town’s fortunes might turn around in 1994 when a massive federal prison complex opened up on the edge of town, right next to the local golf course. The complex includes four separate penitentiaries, but it is most famous, or infamous, for including the nation’s highest-secu­rity prison – the United States Penitentiary ADX-Florence.

Better known as the Supermax or “The Alcatraz of the Rockies,” the prison is now home to the worst of the worst criminals and terrorists, such as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, whose partner in terror, Timothy McVeigh, was imprisoned there until shortly before his exe­cution. Florence’s four federal prisons joined the seven state facilities in neighboring Cañon City, earning the region the nickname Prison Valley.

The influx of prisoners didn’t bring the hoped-for influx of prison workers to Florence. Most penitentiary employ­ees ended up commuting from Pueblo or other communi­ties. Though people didn’t realize it then, it was the debut of Patty and Dean Dixon’s antiques mall on Main Street – the same year as the prison and to considerably less fanfare – that planted the seed of a new beginning for the city.

 

For the rest of the story see the May/June 2018 issue of Colorado Life.

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