Those were the days (what days?) – the hazy origins of Old Town’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade
The bar that started the St. Patrick's Day Parade through Old Colorado City has been closed 10 years now, And memories have faded about what exactly happened
But it is certain that for one or more years before John and Carol O'Donnell took over the event - and long before this year, when they decided it was so big it had to move downtown - there was a parade a lot simpler and smaller that grew out of the old Westside.
Most fingers point to Mike Rogers, who was running Rogers Frontier Bar with his father Danny and sister Karen through the late '70s and up to 1981. Mike had been to the annual St. Pat's celebration in Denver. “I thought it would be a good idea for the Westside to have a parade,” he said in a recent interview. “St. Patty's kind of kicks off the year. And we have Irish roots. Our uncles helped build the railroads here around 1910.”
Starting a parade wasn't an easy accomplishment. Rogers, who now runs a Westside painting service, needed to show that the merchants were behind him before the city would close off the street. This didn't work out the first year he tried it. “I got mad,” he recalled. “I started driving my old beer truck up and down the avenue with drunks hanging off it, and some other people following me.”
The next year, Rogers obtained the necessary approvals, picked up sponsorship from the local Coors distributorship, and when St. Patrick's Day arrived, down the avenue came an enthusiastic retinue.
What year was that? How big a parade? That's when the memory questions start coming into play.
Jim Bloom Sr., who would go on to start Bloom's Mill Hill Tavern in 1983 (now owned by his son, Jim Jr.), was previously a part-time Rogers bartender who helped plan the initial parade. He insists that was no later than 1975. He distinctly remembers that his daughter Debbie, born in 1960, only had her learner's permit, but he let her drive a car (with no tags) in the parade anyway. A family photo album shows this. “I told her, 'Don't run into anything,'” Bloom chuckled.
On the opposite end of the possible time range is Carol O'Donnell. Her recollection is that the initial parade was 1984. “They had maybe 13 entries and 25 people watched it,” she said. “So the merchants group came to us and asked us to run it the next year.”
John O'Donnell, asked the same question at another time, didn't offer a date, but said he'd “heard there were two or three efforts” before he and his wife took the event on.
Mike Rogers himself is vague on the date of the first parade, but thinks it was in the later '70s. He gets some support on this time frame from his sister, Karen Frerichs-Rogers, now in Guffey, who ran the bar through the '80s and up to its closure in 1997. One reason she doesn't think it was '75, she said, was that she wasn't in town then. At the time she remembers it, “the first year there was a pickup truck with a band in back and a couple of cars,” she said. “We had girl bartenders dressed like leprechauns and their faces painted green, walking in front of the truck.”
She recalled it had been difficult convincing the other merchants. “A lot of the people didn't want a St. Patty's parade,” she said. “They said it was just a drunken brawl.”
Bloom doesn't argue that. “What really got the parade idea going was that so many people would come to Rogers Bar on St. Patrick's Day,” he said. “The bar got so full, the law got on them for people drinking on the sidewalk.”
Fritz Pfalmer, who (with his brother Bill) owned the local Coors distribution company during that era, pegs the first parade at either 1981 or '82. He recalls the idea being hatched during a lunch at Rogers one day with Mike and Karen, Pfalmer's brother Bill, and a former executive at Pikes Peak National Bank. “We were trying to think of something to help the Westside,” he said. “We wanted to pick something off-season (not already celebrated anywhere in town). Karen's being Irish, we landed on St. Patrick's Day.”
One of his memories of the first parade was his own Model A Ford being the lead car. “We had a good time,” he said. “We started up around 28th and went down to 18th or 19th streets. There were a lot of people watching - all locals - because it was new and different.”
Another vote for an earlier time frame came from lifelong Westside resident Dick Strauch. “It had to be in the mid- to late '70s,” he said. “When it started, it was like the Manitou parades, with only a couple of things in it.”
Lack of certainty also surrounds the continuity of the parade. Bloom, Rogers and others say the parade went on multiple years, while Carol O'Donnell believes the bar-generated version only occurred in '84. That's why the parade numbering shows this year's rendition as the 24th annual, although the O'Donnells didn't start running it until 1985, she explained.
Dave Hughes, who has been arguably the most active civic leader on the Westside for the past 30 years, thinks that the Rogers Bar group might have run it two years before the O'Donnells got involved.
Karen Rogers, on the other hand, remembers the parade going on several years before that, during which the number of her parade balloons increased and the pickup truck carrying a band the first year expanded to a tractor pulling a flatbed.
Bloom has the same recollection. “We did the parade every year,” he said. A vivid memory is what happened at the end of the parade. “We'd turn the truck (carrying the band) around and bring it back to Rogers,” Bloom said. “The street would still be closed, and the band would play on the flatbed, and people would be dancing right on the street. It was just an Irish event.”
After being contacted by the Westside Pioneer, Hughes said he spent an unsuccessful hour and a half looking through old files, in hopes of finding definitive photos, news clippings or other information on St. Patrick's Day Parade's origins in Old Town. He suggested that the Pioneer hold a contest, for “anybody sober enough to remember” the parade history more exactly.
Looking back, Bloom said, “We should have wrote it down, but we just took it for granted. I know it all went on at one time.”
Westside Pioneer article