The Cop, The C.A.V.E.man and The Benchwarmer
Aspens and Activism in America’s Highest City
Every corner along historic Harrison Avenue has its own story, and likely, more than one. So as the $5 million Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Highway 24 project continues, it’s been fascinating to see each intersection transformed. New red-brick, ADA compliant ramps along with concrete pieces-of-art emerge, as crumbling curbsides and weather-worn flowerbeds are demolished to make room for progress and a safer passageway along Leadville’s main drag.
However, some of those intersection memories are worth taking note of, especially if they involve an old-West style showdown! And so it goes for the corner of E. 7th and Harrison where the last significant street-corner upgrade happened in 1998. The event not only ended in a classic tree-hugging, hand-cuffing standoff between a barkeep and hotelier, but inspired one of the most infamous protest t-shirts in recent history. You can read the story of Carla’s Corner below, but first a word from CDOT.
Yesterday, July 29, CDOT provided an update regarding the US 24 Leadville Overlay & ADA Ramps project, along with some caution about pedestrian traffic. Please be careful when visiting downtown. The 10 block-area has been one BIG construction zone this summer with things becoming more congested each day as summer visitors continue to arrive in record numbers.
Down On The Corner: Carla’s Protest
By Kathy Bedell, Leadville Today
It was the late 1990s in America’s highest city and everyone was just trying to keep their heads above water and pay the bills. At this time, Leadville had not been completely saved, but there were plenty of well-intended folks arriving, ready to contribute to the first round of main-street gentrification. The Mayor-of-the-Day was a guy by the name of Chet Gaede, a retired Navy jet fighter, a transplant from Boulder who garnered Leadville’s top political honors for 8 years through 2003. Those days there was outright friction between the old guard, comprised of out-of-work miners and blue-collar stiffs, poised against the latest we-are-here-and-you’re-saved hopefuls.
Nowhere was that contention more pronounced than on the corner of E. 7th and Harrison, where Leadville’s crown jewel of lodging intersected one of the most notorious, bad-ass bars in the region. While the colder months kept the two establishments at bay, fostered by closed doors and lower occupancy rates, summertime was a different story. From parking spaces to loud music to bar brawls that tumbled out onto the corner directly below the hotel’s most expensive suites, it seemed that a Hatfields-and-McCoys showdown was ever-present. In 1998, the issue concerned a grove of mature aspen trees that used to grace the northeast corner directly in front of the Delaware Hotel. The area was considered a city easement therefore when the hotel wanted to “redesign the corner,” removing the trees (their healthy grow now impeding upon the business’ sign affixed to the building) to replace them with a flower garden and stone bench, they had to ask permission.
At this time, The Manhattan Bar was owned by Dave and Carla Cerise, the latter being a spitfire, mountain cat with a heart-of-gold but a temper that was known to level a loaded shotgun at her husband in a crowded bar after a domestic spat turned ugly. So when Carla caught wind that the historic hotel had been given permission to cut down a perfectly healthy grove of trees, to make room for a bench and flower garden, well, the gloves were off once again. For weeks, the spry bartender’s Happy Hour rants about arboreal injustice were endless, recanting the story of how a group of Leadville Boy Scouts had lovingly planted the aspens years ago.
“I can’t believe that Chet gave them permission to do that,” she would hiss the Leadville Mayor’s name as she poured the next round of shots, having to stand on her tippy-toes to reach across the bar. Of course, the rough-and-tumble regulars weren’t too fond of Leadville’s latest leader either so it didn’t take much to gaslight the beer-and-whiskey posse to commandeer a City Council meeting one night where a formal variance was eventually granted to The Delaware Hotel allowing them to remove the trees. That City Hall gathering is one not likely to ever be replicated again in a city where the west was once wild, as the somewhat-drunken angry crowd brought the hammer down on Mayor Gaede and his crew! In fact, the scene led to a quote from the city official in that week’s newspaper that inspired a Leadville classic: the C.A.V.E.man t-shirt.
You see, not only was Carla an activist but she was an enterprising gal as well. After reading the Mayor’s insult in the local newspaper, where Gaede referred to the tree-hugging protesters as having a “caveman” mentality, Carla marched right down the avenue to the Dee Hive which was printing t-shirts at the time. By the end of her bar shift, every Carhart-wearing, Coors-drinking regular was sporting one of those shirts, dutifully advocating for the cause: Chet Annoys Virtually Everyone (C.A.V.E. man).
Then one day, the work crews arrived. It was early, before most corner bars would be open, even the ‘Hat waits until a respectable 9 a.m. before flipping on its famous neon sign. But if the hotels’ strategy was to be the early bird, they may have miscalculated those magical, pre-dawn hours where the night owls and the sunrise worm-catchers share the same view. Carla had been tipped off and the corner of E. 7th and Harrison Avenue was about to get WOK!
It was quite the scene as hotel workers cowered in the entrance along with the tree-removal crew. Across the way, the Manhattan regulars lined up, leaning against the bar’s sun-splashed exterior wall enjoying their morning “coffee,” waiting for the showdown to begin. By now, Carla had handcuffed herself to several of the aspens, sitting criss-cross in the middle of the grove, her small stature playing to her advantage as the tree trunks encased their last hope for survival. Carla’s screeches in protest were like rapid shotgun blasts hurled at the crown jewel’s royalty, condemning everything from their disrespect for the Boy Scouts of America to Leadville’s “Tree-City USA” status to the Victorian hoytie toytie-ness of it all.
And then, the cops showed up. Well, a cop showed up and not just any cop. First on the scene was Leadville Police officer Jody Martinez. It is not uncommon for old school chums or related-by-marriage kin to find themselves on opposite ends of just such encounters. It’s part of small-town living. The two that met under the aspens that day back in 1998 were members of two well-established Leadville families with deep roots and strong branches. And while there may have been entanglements over the years, the two clans co-existed peaceably. In fact, it’s exactly in times like these when small-town relationships are crucial. These were not two strangers meeting in a contentious situation. The two were friends.
“Carla,” the officer stated firmly. “You need to get yourself out of there and let these guys do their work.” The conversation went back and forth for some time as the crowd grew with bystanders picking sides. Fortunately, before the situation accelerated, Officer Martinez offered one final plea.
“Carla,” he addressed her softly for the last time, “I’m going to have to arrest you if you don’t get yourself out of there and let these guys do their work.”
Now for many present-day political protesters, jail-time on behalf of a good cause might be considered a worthy endeavor. However, when you’re a barkeep on historic Harrison Avenue, you understand the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the cops. So Carla acquiesced and freed herself from among the quaking beauties, but not before having the last word.
“If you cut down these trees and replace them with a bench,” Carla screeched at the group still hovering in the hotel’s doorway, “I want you to know, that I’m going to put Jamie’s lunch underneath it every day. He’ll be enjoying his lunch – every day – on your new bench. Let’s see how your hotel guests like that!”
It was a bold statement, one that was met with bawks and thunderous cheers as the C.A.V.E.men filed back into their beer-laden grotto. After all, they knew Jamie-from-Stumptown (alas, a story for another time). And for the sake of this report, it’s important to note that Carla did follow through with her threat, each morning placing a brown paper sack under the new stone bench which replaced the living trees. For weeks, you could see the benchwarmer enjoying the afternoon sun from his new stone perch, snacking on the daily meal prepared by his former classmate. This went on for some time until the weather grew cold and Jamie-from-Stumptown stopped coming into town so often, no longer able to be a political billboard for his friend.
After that, the seasons changed and the years ticked by. The Delaware/Manhattan feud has certainly mellowed over the years. Some say it was a broken ice machine in the summer of ’05 that finally presented the olive branch between the two establishments. Today, it’s a friendly relationship with hotel guests often frequenting (when it’s open!) the not-so-much-of-a badass-bar no-more as part of their Leadville experience.
Downtown Leadville is changing, but then again, it has been from the day it was founded. It’s nice to know that peace reigns again on the corner of E. 7th Street and Harrison Avenue. As CDOT crews finish this corner’s construction, the new design slowly begins to emerge. Will new trees be planted? Will residents see the return of the infamous stone bench?
These days, it’s challenging to know what’s actually happening down on the corner; very little information regarding intersection designs or the eventual re-striping of Harrison Avenue (scheduled for September) has been made public. LT was asked to see the new parking and crosswalk configurations; the city reps say talk to the contractor and the contractor says talk to Sarah Dallas at the city. With that in mind, it sounds like another showdown could be brewing on historic Harrison Avenue. Might be time to dig out that old C.A.V.E.man t-shirt! You in?
Colorado Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, LLC, a media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com.
Another Classic From The Archives.
If you enjoyed this story about Carla Cerise, you may also enjoy reading this story about her husband (RIP) Dave Cerise who inadvertently saved the political career of Colorado Senator Cory Gardner one day on the same corner at 7th Street and historic Harrison Avenue in Leadville Today. Click on the link below to read this one from the archives.