South Park Burros
Loveable donkeys run wild in Colorado's high country.
(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
PROSPECTING FOR GOLD and other minerals was a tough life. There were no roads and no clear path to riches in the mountains around South Park, Colorado.
For the prospector of the 1800s, the lowly burro was often his only friend and companion. The beast of burden carried everything the gold-seeker needed during the lonely months spent searching for the mother lode. There was dangerous freight like dynamite and necessary freight like whiskey.
Even when the narrow-gauge railroads began servicing the mountains here, the burros remained trusted partners in the labor of the land.
South Park has always loved its burros, and today you can find them all over – in wild herds and in close companionship with local families. Burros are even running partners in summertime foot races.
With such an important role to play through history and modern times, many of these burros have earned a high place alongside the human heroes of Colorado’s high country.
The most famous South Park burro of them all was Prunes. Rupe Sherman paid two retired prospectors $10 for Prunes in 1889. It was money well spent for the animal that became Sherman’s companion. Sherman would pin a shopping list to Prunes’ pack and send him to town for supplies. Storekeepers filled Sherman’s order and sent Prunes up the trail to the mining camp.
When Prunes became too old to work, he roamed the town of Fairplay. In the winter of 1930, a blizzard struck town and Prunes became trapped in a shed where he retreated to escape the storm. The locals tried to nurse him back to health, but he never recovered. He died that spring at age 63. Locals built a monument near the Hand Hotel to honor this faithful servant and friend. The monument contains shadow boxes with a collar, shoes and other mementos from Prunes’ life.
Another legendary Fairplay burro was Shorty. This burro’s companion was not a man, but a stray dog named Bum. The two wandered town together and played the part of dual beggars. They made their rounds every day, stopping where they knew they could get handouts.
Shorty eventually went blind, and his loyal mutt sidekick continued to help him around town. When Shorty was struck down by a car and died in 1951 at age 45, Bum was so grief-stricken, he lay down by Shorty’s body and wouldn’t budge. Locals were so touched by the relationship of the pair that they cremated Shorty, erected a granite monument and buried his ashes nearby. Bum died four months after Shorty, and the pooch was laid to rest alongside his companion. Their graveside monument forever embodies the relationship of Shorty and his “beloved pal.”
Not all burros were fortunate to have good masters or good lives. When mining operations ceased during the harsh winters, many prospectors simply abandoned their hardworking animals and let them fend for themselves.
By the beginning of the 1900s, freed burros were commonly seen wandering the hills and plains of South Park. Many wound up in the South Park towns of Fairplay and Alma. They ate garden plants, pulled laundry off of lines and committed other such crimes to earn them a reputation of town nuisance. For the most part, the free-ranging burros were accepted, fed and loved, especially by the children. Feral burros outside of the towns did not fare as well. Many were rounded up for pet food or shot for sport.
MOST BURROS In South Park these days are kept on ranches and as pets. Some horse ranches include burros in the herd because they have a calming effect on horses and will attack coyotes, foxes and other predators that threaten livestock.
Fairplay honors its beloved four-hooved friends in another way: a famous burro race held each year in the last weekend of July. The contest started in 1949 and continues today with a race that covers 29 miles from Fairplay, up to the 13,186-foot Mosquito Pass Summit and back again to Fairplay’s Front Street.
Legend has it the race reenacts an event of more than a hundred years ago when two prospectors ran beside their packed burros to be first to file their gold claims. The Annual Pack Burro Championship is steeped in history and honors the role of the burro in mining days of old.
The rules are simple: Contestants must walk or run next to their burros, and the burros must carry a pack – including a pick, shovel and gold pan – weighing at least 33 pounds. More than 10,000 people participate in festivities that include llama races on Saturday and the burro race on Sunday. There is a parade, an arts and crafts show, local musical entertainment and more.
Ralph Herzog, a South Park resident from Fairplay, has run in the burro race since 1982, and he still tells the story of one race in the early 1980s.
Deep snow drifts plagued the Mosquito Pass trail. He was running with a man from Leadville, whose burro got off the track and sunk up to its belly in snow.
The competitors worked together for an hour, attempting to dig out the poor animal.
“His eyes were rolled back in his head,” Herzog said. “We thought he was dead.”
Then a spectator had a bright idea. She opened a Snickers bar and waved it at the donkey. The burro picked up its head and began to take interest.
She fed him half the Snickers and waited.
That’s all it took. The burro mustered its energy, pulled itself from the drift and finished the race, albeit a little late.
Karen Thorpe of Salida calls burro racing a “crazy addiction.”
“It’s like a disease that takes hold of you,” she said.
Thorpe has competed for 10 years, and in 2011 was the first woman to win the long race with a time of 5 hours, 41 minutes.
She gives credit for her success to her friend and mentor Barb Dolan of Buena Vista, another longtime race participant and 10-time Triple Crown winner (Fairplay, Leadville and Buena Vista burro races).
Fairplay residents for years have tried to get burro racing recognized as an official sport in the state of Colorado. Finally, legislation last year designated pack burro racing as our state’s “summer heritage sport.”
One burro owner and enthusiast in South Park is Susie Jones, who operates the South Park Mercantile in Hartsel. She is proud of her herd of seven burros. Her first burro, Eeyore, now is 25 years old and head of the group.
Eeyore is quite sociable, and if anyone drives close by with an auto window open, the burro is likely to stick his head inside. One summer day, Jones found Eeyore tossing and playing with a fine leather glove with a fur lining. She never found the owner and assumes Eeyore, who loves the steal things, probably took the glove from a parked car with the window down.
Another member of Jones’ herd is Tin Cup. Jones once heard Tin Cup braying as loudly as he could, so she hurried outside to find the cause of the commotion. Tin Cup had taken a string from a hay bale and swung it over Eeyore’s neck, tugging one end to try to lead Eeyore as he had seen Jones and others do. Tin Cup tried the maneuver numerous times in an attempt to get Eeyore to move. Because the burro was unable to tie a knot, the string simply fell to the ground.
“BURROS ARE SMARTER than humans,” said Jay Hutcheson, Hartsel’s fire chief, as he began a story about his own burro, Beans, who was Eeyore’s father.
Hutcheson was working near the Hartsel Ranch, toting his two-way radio in a holster on his belt. Beans grabbed the radio by the antenna and ran off with it. He chased the animal all over the pasture until finally, sweating and out of breath, he gave up.
Their little game over, Beans came back and dropped the radio at Hutcheson’s feet before taking off again.
“Beans was my first burro, and I guess when you have one, everyone thinks you need another,” Hutcheson said. “I soon had nine burros.”
Colorado burros are believed to be direct descendants of North African burros, Equus africanus asinus, that gradually spread around the Mediterranean Sea and then into southern Europe. Christopher Columbus brought burros to the West Indies in 1492. In more recent times, burros that were used in mining operations in Mexico were brought into Colorado when the gold rush started here in 1859.
Besides those kept as pets, farm animals and trained racing animals, there are still free-roaming burros in South Park. East of Hartsel, between Spinney Reservoir and Eleven Mile Reservoir, there is a small but growing healthy herd of 50 wild burros that roams the hills and open range. These handsome burros come in colors from black to light brown, and some are even white and spotted.
Every year, newborns are added to the herd. They are a delight to see. The furry little ones, looking quite like teddy bears, keep close to their mothers and peer around with a cautious eye if anyone approaches.
Once in a while, a few burros from the herd will cross the road and approach cars. They are friendly and curious around humans.
On a trip around Eleven Mile Reservoir last year, we spotted the herd about 300 yards away. We crept closer on foot, and soon the inquisitive burros were trotting and crossing a small ravine to reach us. We were soon surrounded by burros, and one even nudged me in the belly as a sign of affection. I was able to caress their soft noses and admire them eye-to-eye. The animals finally lost interest, turned around and went back to their routines.
Wherever they roam on the fertile plains of South Park, may the burros live long and free. They have earned the right to live as they choose after contributing so much to the history and livelihood of the high country in Colorado.
(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)