A scrapbook shows girls at Camp Nizhoni in Lincoln Hills in 1932. (DPL Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library by Marie L. Greenwood)

Part of our shared history in Boulder is the fact that racism excluded people of color from opportunities and experiences.

Today we think of the great outdoors as open to everyone, but in the Jim Crow era, African Americans were not welcome at resorts and other places of recreation.

Carol Taylor Boulder County History

In an oral history transcript held at the Carnegie Library for Local History, the late African American resident Ruth Cave Flowers remembered that black people could not even buy an ice cream cone in the 1910s and ’20s.  She and her friends would play on the swings at Chautauqua if there were no white people around. But Flowers noted, “Usually we didn’t stop in the Chautauqua, because of the ugly looks that we got.”

Nevertheless, “the mountains were free and we loved them,” Flowers recalled.

Yes, the mountains were free, but the establishments for lodging and food were neither free nor welcoming to African Americans.

Colorado African Americans claimed their own space for summer leisure just over the border of Boulder County at Pinecliffe. Lincoln Hills in Gilpin County was the only African American mountain resort in the western United States, sources claim.

Two businessmen from Boulder County planned the development after purchasing land, part of it from prominent mining surveyor Hal Sayre in the 1920s. Sayre’s wife wrote about it in her diary: “Rob’t called this morning to have us sign some papers giving title to land to be used as a Country Club for darkies,” according to the book “High Country Summers,” by Melanie Shellenbarger, who referenced the Hal Sayre Papers in the University of Colorado Boulder archives.

Lincoln Hills included a central club building and cottages. African American vacationers rode the train from Denver to Rollinsville or traveled by car. Free from harassment, they stayed for several weeks or just for the day to enjoy hiking, picnics, fishing in South Boulder Creek, swimming and other activities.

Obrey Wendell Hamlet, nicknamed “Wink” (some sources say Winks), spent several years building a lodge within the Lincoln Hills development including a restaurant and several cabins. Winks Panorama Lodge opened in 1928 with a view of the Indian Peaks.

Hamlet typed a letter to the Lincoln Hills developers in 1928 stating, “My own cottage, built by my own hands, painted orange and trimmed in brown, nestled amid the evergreen trees, away from the smoke, noise and confusion of the city, and where the air and the water are always pure, fulfills my every desire for rest and recreation.”

The lodge thrived for several decades as a social and cultural hub with reports of visits from notable jazz musicians and literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1930, a summer camp for African American girls was added at Lincoln Hills, run by the Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the Denver YWCA. Named Camp Nizhoni, for the Navajo word “beautiful,” African American girls from all over Colorado spent a week or two at camp enjoying organized outdoor adventures that were denied them elsewhere.

Camp Nizhoni closed in 1945, when the YWCA became integrated at its primary Camp Lookout.

Although over 1,000 lots were sold, only a few dozen cabins were built at Lincoln Hills. The Great Depression affected the development substantially as buyers were not able to keep up with payments on their lots. As society at large became less segregated, many African American resorts including Lincoln Hills and Winks Lodge lost business and were forced to close.

Wink died in 1965 and afterward his widow, Melba, lived in Boulder. She worked as a fraternity house cook and lived in a bungalow at 985 Pleasant St. until her death in 1974.

Winks Panorama Lodge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, an important reminder of a safe haven for African Americans in the mountains west of Boulder.

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