Humphrey Museum offers food, fun and fascination

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By Stephen Knapp

This Saturday, folks who like their local history served al fresco with something hot off the grill and a heaping side of old-time ambience can satisfy their appetites for all three at Evergreen’s most enchanting pioneer artifact, the Humphrey Memorial Park & Museum.

On June 7, the Humphrey kicks off its 2008 summer season in grand style with savory barbecue and soulful bluegrass under its new “Big Top” tent. From 2 p.m. till 6 p.m., hungry guests can enjoy flame-kissed chow and cool drinks while hip visitors stomp their feet to the down-home music of hometown combo No Longer Boys. Active types can throw a few horseshoes, inquiring minds can browse an outdoor bookshop and, for the inward-looking, an ace graphologist will be on hand to explain what those all but illegible signatures really mean. Nature lovers, of course, will appreciate the rustic mansion’s tidy English garden — virtually unchanged since the 1920s — and delight in its idyllic seclusion.

Speaking of fun for the whole family, the area’s four-footed population is invited to the party as well. All the way from Colorado’s territorial capital, the Table Mountain Animal Center’s mobile vet unit will be offering on-site vaccinations to keep puppy tails wagging and kittens purring smoothly.

Repeat visitors will notice a couple of value-added features that weren’t part of the museum’s original complement. One, a 1930 Model A Ford very similar to the one Lucius Humphrey used to drive down and up the Lariat Trail every weekday, was donated to the museum by generous Evergreen resident Stan Theide. The other, a shaded stone platform, displays a trio of 19th-century railroad bells rescued from the world-class collection of the late Winston Jones.

“Winston knew the Humphreys very well, and he even got some of his bells from the Humphrey’s collection,” says museum director Peggy Shaw. “We thought it would be very appropriate — and very nice for the community — to bring some of his bells back here.”

If the Humphrey’s Big Top bash promises to entertain and edify the mountain area public, it’s also a great opportunity for the handful of local citizens charged with the 130-year-old estate’s care.

“It’s a chance to show people that we’re here and what an amazing community asset this is,” says Shaw. “This is truly a hidden jewel.”

Indeed. Though just 10 minutes from downtown Evergreen, the Humphrey homestead’s low profile presents a mixed blessing. Located on South Soda Creek Road immediately north of Fillius Park, the sturdy log pile stands in tranquil isolation on 43 pristine acres of forest and meadow. Alas, the same natural and historic integrity that sets the Humphrey apart from other Western house museums also keeps it largely off the popular radar, which presents a serious challenge to Shaw and her colleagues as they struggle to preserve its cultural treasures.

“We receive no public funding whatsoever,” Shaw explains. “Jeffco Open Space took over the Hiwan Homestead Museum back in the ‘70s, but by the time the Humphrey mansion officially became a museum in 1997, Open Space said they didn’t want to be in the museum business anymore. For years it’s been getting harder and harder to get grants for capital improvements, and there are no grants for operating costs.

“This is part of Colorado’s heritage, America’s heritage, and people assume it’s well taken care of, but we’re really in need of money to keep it going. It would be a tragedy if future generations couldn’t come in here and see one of the only Colorado ranch houses still in existence.”

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Humphrey Museum also contains a fair piece of the world’s heritage, as well as a completely unique look into the lives of three of Evergreen’s most notable figures.

“When we tell the story of the museum, we often talk about three generations of women,” says Shaw, opening a cabinet full of antique cleaning products, “Mary Amaryllis Hammer, her daughter, Hazel Humphrey, and her granddaughter, Hazel Lou Humphrey.”

The daughter of Mary Amaryllis Hammer — a seamstress-turned-socialite and philanthropist — and the illustrious Judge D. Harry Hammer — one of Chicago’s leading citizens and one of the nation’s wealthiest men — Hazel married Denver newspaperman Lucius Humphrey in 1917 and, three years later, the couple purchased an already-ancient ranch in the Colorado foothills. Over the course of several decades, she and her mother gadded about the globe shopping for beautiful, rare or simply curious items to adorn Hazel’s rough mountain home. In the parlor, exquisite Japanese porcelain vies for attention with elegant European furnishings and rich Chinese silks and brocades. A stately rank of graceful Russian samovars hold court in the dining room, the Humphrey’s prized player piano can still pound out memorable Roaring ‘20s-era favorites like “Kicky Koo” and “Doo Wacka Doo,” and fine sculptures and art grace every wall and corner.

“People expect rustic ranch furniture,” Shaw laughs. “They’re always surprised at what they see here.”

Born to Lucius and Hazel in 1918 and raised amid both splendor and simplicity, Hazel Lou conceived an abiding interest in the Americas’ native cultures, and her passion left an indelible mark on the home’s décor. The Western Room abounds with Acoma pottery, Ute baskets, ceremonial drums and stunning beaded Indian clothing. Hazel Lou’s cherished Cayuse saddle — still bright and flawless a half-century later — easily rivals the one currently held by the Denver Art Museum.

Despite the grand cabin’s wealth of rare and costly furnishings, the museum’s most evocative features are entirely prosaic. According to Shaw, all three women shared a yen to collect.

“They collected everything you can imagine,” she says, opening a cabinet containing a gorgeous, hand-painted table set featuring a different English castle on every plate. “This is one of 23 sets of dishes they collected.”

Odd-looking antique tools, appliances and tins of ancient cleaning products line kitchen shelves, and a small “pie safe” in the pantry holds a small trove of party favors that Hazel Lou collected as young girl. It’s safe to say that the Humphrey home was a museum long before formally taking that title.

“We have their keys, their clothes, even their toothbrushes,” says Shaw proudly. “When Hazel Lou died in 1995, she asked us to leave everything in the house just as they lived with it. That’s what makes the Humphrey Museum so amazing. All of their personal items are here, and everything is exactly where they left them. And nothing’s behind glass. It’s truly unique, but we need to find new sources of funding if we’re going to keep it going.”

Which brings us back to Saturday’s Big Top blowout. In the past, the Humphrey’s summertime soirees have been limited by the area’s uncertain weather. On one hand, a stretch of rain could discourage attendance. On the other, renting a tent large enough to cover the museum’s stone-walled croquet court and stage effectively wiped out event proceeds. Last fall, thanks to local generosity, the museum’s board of directors was able to purchase its own tent, a mighty, open-sided umbrella that will keep festivities dry without soaking the Humphrey.

“We’re really looking forward to showing it off,” Shaw says. “We’ve always done quite a few weddings here in the summer, but now that we have our own tent, we’re hoping to attract a lot more private parties. This is an ideal spot for family gatherings, company picnics, whatever you want. It’s like a secret gem.”

To learn more about the Humphrey Memorial Park & Museum, visit www.hmpm.org. To arrange a tour, call 303-674-5429.