Town Story: Trinidad

As you walk down Main street in Trinidad, nestled along the Front Range 12 miles north of the New Mexico line, there’s no mistaking it for any other place in Colorado.

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Trinidad native Arthur Roy Mitchell was an artist here before being an artist was cool. Mitchell grew up working on local cattle ranches, then became one of the premier Western artists of the 20th century. He was called “King of the Pulp Magazine Covers” for his action-packed, pulp-fiction paintings. Step into the namesake A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art, and it’s easy to see why – each of his pictures tells far more than the proverbial thousand words. In one, a red-shirted cowboy crouches behind a sandstone boulder, peering around the edge to see if the shot from his smoking six-gun has hit its target; unbeknownst to him, an outlaw is climbing over the rock, dagger raised to plunge into the cowboy’s back.

Mitchell made his name in New York City, but when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1944, he returned to his beloved Trinidad to die – or so he thought. In fact, he lived another three decades. In his second life in his hometown, he fought to save the historic Baca house and joined the art faculty of Trinidad State Junior College.

The Mitchell Museum is housed in the grand building that once was Jamieson’s department store. Down the street, another former turn-of-the-century Main Street store – this one an exJ.C. Penney – is the new home of the Southern Colorado Repertory Theatre. One of the troupe’s biggest hits was “Trinidad: Our Stories,” a collection of vignettes about the city’s real-life characters. Harriet Vaugeois, who co-founded the theater with husband, Fred, wrote the script after interviewing dozens of residents, such as restaurateur Manuel Bueno.

Now in his late 80s, Bueno dropped out of school in fourth grade before starting a grocery store, then a sandwich stand, then three well-loved restaurants. In interviewing Bueno, Vaugeois was fascinated by his delivery. “When something was emotionally important, he would very slowly and thoughtfully say, ‘Yeah … yeah ….” So she incorporated that idiosyncrasy into the scene she wrote about him.

When opening night came, Vaugeois didn’t watch the actors (she already knew what they were going to do) – she watched the audience. When the actor playing Bueno came to the emotional climax of his story, ending with, “Yeah … yeah …,” members of the audience elbowed each other, turning to their friends, amazed that the characters of their hometown had been captured in such minute detail.

Art might be Trinidad’s future, but it’s also keeping alive the memory of its past.

(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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