Our float in 2017 Harvest Festival Parade illustrates three local legends: The Hackberry Tree, Mrs. Benjamin’s Gold Nugget, and Big Chief Rain-in-the-Face. Below is the full story behind each of these local legends.
Legends of the Hackberry Tree
When the first settlers arrived, there was a lone Hackberry tree standing at the top of a high hill. Trees were few in this arid land, and the shade of this tree was prized by the people. The tree had been there a long time – it was recorded by a botanist with the 1843 Fremont expedition. When the settlers established a road to serve the farmers to the north, it curved to the east around the Hackberry tree at the crest of the hill.
Hackberry trees are not native to Colorado, and there is a mystery as to how the tree began to grow there. There are a few stories passed down from local Native Americans, as well as numerous theories. Here are two legends from the native people.
- A great Chief was killed in battle along Clear Creek. In reverence to his spirit, the tribe carried him to the top of the highest hill. Here he was buried, in full Indian regalia, along with a pouch of Hackberry seeds. One of those seeds sprouted and grew to maturity, providing shady relief to weary travelers.
- White Thunder, a great medicine man among the Sioux, planted Hackberry trees at the tops of high hills as he traveled throughout the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado. These trees were altars to the Great Spirit, and White Thunder warned that no one must destroy them.
Over the years, the road was named Wadsworth and became a state highway. In 1936, the highway department decided to straighten the road as a WPA project, which meant cutting down the tree, then standing about the middle of today’s Wadsworth at W. 72nd. Hundreds of people protested the destruction of this treasured landmark. The leaders of the protest later organized the Arvada Garden Club.
In response to the protests, the highway department agreed to move the tree. A large trench was dug to assure a healthy rootball, but before the tree could be moved, vandals sawed it down in early 1937. The remains were taken to a warehouse under the Water Tower, and citizens were invited to take a piece of the tree as a memento.
A cross-cut from the tree was analyzed by a dendrochronologist (professional tree-ring reader), who determined that the tree began to grow in 1807, shortly after the Lewis & Clark expedition returned from exploring the newly-purchased Louisiana Territory.
Sources: “More Than Gold: A History of Arvada Colorado, During the Period 1870-1904″, pp. 206-207; “History of Arvada: A Photo Journey”, p. 52; “Arvada Just Between You and Me: A History of Arvada Colorado, During the Period 1904-1941″; Personal reminiscences of Beverly (Nolte) Shirley.
Mrs. Benjamin’s Gold Nugget
In the summer of 1925, Eugene E. Benjamin began to dig out the foundation of his new flour mill. The weather was hot and dry, and he had difficulty finding anyone willing to take on the dusty work.
Then one day, Mrs. Benjamin came flying down Grand View, from their home at 5621 Zephyr, yelling “I found gold! I found gold!”. She had just cut off the head of a chicken to prepare it for the evening meal. In the chicken’s craw, she found a small gold nugget, hence leading to her excitement.
The next morning, a huge crowd arrived with picks and shovels, all seeking the gold that Mrs. Benjamin had announced. Arvada was then a small town of fewer that 500 residents, and everyone in town had heard about the latest “gold strike”. They came to the Mill diggings to seek their fortune.
Progress was made in digging the foundation, but interest soon faded when no additional gold was found. It is rumored that Mr. Benjamin then seeded the site with a few small gold nuggets, all being found – and loudly announced – by a fellow conspirator. Folks would again show up and dig for gold. Once the foundation pit was completed, rumors of gold there ceased.
So how did the gold nugget get in the craw of the chicken? We can only speculate. It was common for chicken yards to contain substantial amounts of gravel, which aids the chickens’ digestion. It is probable that gravel in the Benjamin’s chicken yard came from Ralston Creek and contained that small gold nugget washed down from the mountains above.
Source: Local oral legend; confirmed by Jim Meyer, grandson of Eugene Emory Benjamin
Big Chief Rain-the-Face
Many Arvadans have long-admired “Big Chief Rain-in-the Face”, the outline of an Indian chief with his feathered headdress formed by Ralston Buttes. Here is the legend, as told by Billie Barton, a native Arvadan and great-granddaughter of early Arvada settler John Juchem.
There was once a young Indian brave who lived in this beautiful land of the Arapahoe, where the blue foothills, rising from the vast open spaces of the plains, meet the mountains, setting off the white shining peaks where the sun sets at eventide. The Great Spirit certainly smiled on this land. The young brave could often be found lying in the tall grass in a summer shower and letting the rain fall on his face. Because of his bravery in war, his ability as a hunter, and his great knowledge, he was made a chief and was known as Big Chief Rain-in-the-Face. He loved this land of mountains and plains, and often climbed high on a hill to look over his land.
The Chief grew old, always serving his people well. But the time arrived when the Great Spirit came for him. He asked to be allowed to climb the hill once more to look at his beloved land. The Great Spirit saw how much he loved the land, so he told the Chief, “Because you love this land so much, you shall remain here on this hill forever.”
If you stand in the 7600 block of Indiana Street and look directly west to the hills, you can see the old Chief lying there, still keeping guard over his beloved land.
Sources: quoted from “More Than Gold: A History of Arvada Colorado, During the Period 1870-1904″, pp. 207-208; additional notes from “History of Arvada: A Photo Journey”, pp. 48-49