Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Big Bert," Santa, Stampede, pocket full of cash

When Woodland Park's legendary figure "Big Bert" Bergstrom died on March 12, 1986, more than 500 people filed past his casket a few days later at Woodland Park Saddle Club Arena in the center of town.
A fitting tribute for the founder and main benefactor of the Woodland Park Santa Claus Club, the man who donated the ground for the Saddle Club itself, and the owner of several area gambling dens and houses of ill repute.
Even today, stories swirl around in the thin mountain air about the "big Swede" with heart of gold and a community conscience, along with the far-reaching illegal operations to help finance them.
In July of 1950, the local newspaper, Woodland Park View, reported a “Large Parade” and “Exciting Rodeo” for the three-year-old saddle club.
An earlier article outlined how the club came into existence.
“Organized under a large pine tree in the south corner of the ball park, in August, 1947, twelve charter members were present: Mr. and Mrs. Ira Hollingsworth, Mr. and Mrs. Bob White, Mr. and Mrs. Ed Bean, Mr. and Mrs. Tom Atwell, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Maximoff, George Klumph, and sister Catherine, Carl Silbaugh, and Jack Willis. Ed Bean was elected the first president, with Herb Lyons succeeding him,” according to the View, which itself was only in it second volume and year. It was undergoing some changes as well.
“In true editorial fashion the Woodland Park View is going from the old to the new this weekend. Moving from Mrs. Whitmore’s Antique Shoppe where it has been comfortably located for more than two months, the View will make its new home in the very modern United Gas Co. building. We welcome you, your news and your patronage,” noted a front page box in the same issue as the story on the successful Ute Trail Stampede.
“Through the generosity of Bert Bergstrom, new rodeo grounds were made available in the fall of ’49. The new grounds are located in the center of town, south of the business section. With the co-operation of the people of the county and active members of the Saddle Club, the new grounds are being completed with a race track and a grand stand to be built later,” reported the View.
A few years ago, in a conversation with Oscar Lindholm, who was 93 at the time, Bert Bergstrom was remembered as a “big, rough, tough Swede, saloonkeeper at the Ute Inn, 231 pounds, that could drink quite lot of beer.”
Oscar acknowledged, at the time, he could go through a fair amount of beer himself. But Big Bert and Oscar were not alone, especially when the Stampede was in town.
“… With the casino blaring away, all the local night spots lit up (and others?) and the square dance at the school ‘fillin’ up the floor’, Everybody had a GOOD TIME,” according the 1950’ article in the paper.
Cowboys and spectator alike agreed, “It is the best arena in the state and so beautifully situated with Pikes Peak and the breath-taking mountain scenery in the background,” reported the View.
The paper itself, published by Kenneth and Margaret Geddes, with Maurine Johnson as the city editor, only operated under that name for about five years, said Ken Geddes, Jr. the son of the former publishers and an attorney in Colorado Springs. He said when his parents sold the Cripple Creek Times to Blevins Davis, (who renamed it the Gold Rush) the View was discontinued.
“But that is the reason my mother call it ‘The View,’ I think, Woodland Park has that great view of the Peak,” said Ken Geddes, Jr. in a conversation years ago.
It was said that Bergstrom did all of his banking out of his shirt pocket.
"He lived for his elk hunts," reported Liza Marron, at the time of his death in the Ute Pass Courier. "Terry Morse, (then) current saldleclub president, can vouch for his generosity."
Morse went elk hunting with Bergstrom on the Dolores River, near Durango. "When  we got ready to get in the motorhome, Clara (Bergstrom's wife) tapped he shirt pocket and Bert nodded," Morse said.
Gabe Brock, longtime owner of the Crystola Inn, remembered the elk hunting trips on the Dolores River as well. According to Brock, as reported by Marron, he had been going to the same spot for 38 years and his reputation preceded him. People from Maine to Texas would show up at his camp just because they knew he was there.
"He would bring all the food, beer and four or five cases of whiskey. He had a big tent and he was the host. Anyone who came would get fed. A lot people sponged off him but Bert was one who didn't mind. As long as he was having a good time. He called them all friends," Brock was quoted in 1986.
Brock verified gambling in Woodland Park in the late 1940s and the early 1950s.
"He had 75 slot machines and I had 75 slot machines. We pooled them and put them out all over the county. We had sanction from Teller County Sheriff. We went along there for about four years without any trouble. We would rake a little off each week and with that we build the Woodland Park Community Church. The VFW was in trouble,  and Bert bought them a building behind the Ute Inn," remembered Brock, as quoted by Marron of the Courier.
The Eldorado Club, which later became Preschool in the Pines, was also one of Bert's gambling clubs, Brock told the paper.
"The proceeds from gambling built a lot of Woodland Park," he said, but it all ended in 1952 when a new mayor closed things down, according to Brock.
Bergstrom is buried in Woodland Park Cemetery.
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Photo Info: Out buildings were once part of the vast Thunderhead Ranch, one of the largest in Teller County. Though the farmhouse burnt in 1927, the barn, built in 1886, and the ice house survived and became part of the folklore surrounding nearby Thunderhead Inn. The Inn was reportedly a gambling and prostitution den built in 1935.

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