COBWEB CORNERS: Farewell to the story-teller
By Mel McFarland
In 1881 a man left this area, and people still hear his fantastic stories to this day, partly thanks to me. I have told several of his tall tales on these pages. He was one of the soldiers stationed at the Army weather station at the top of Pike's Peak. I am not sure how often the troops up there were rotated out, but it looks as though Sergeant John O'Keefe was there about three years. He was reassigned to an unnamed post in early 1881, leaving his creative inspiration behind. He lived most of the rest of his life in Colorado and tried various other trades.
Most of O'Keefe's early life is a mystery, but he certainly became well known in the Pike's Peak Region. Of the men stationed at the summit of the big mountain, one would regularly come down for supplies in Colorado City, except for the dead of the winter. One of their usual activities was to regale the public with stories of the mountain. This was O'Keefe's best talent! I still get asked about the soldier whose child was eaten by the rats.
When O'Keefe found that he would be moving, the city hosted a dinner at the Colorado Springs Opera House to say goodbye. It was filled to capacity. Once the meal was finished, the tables were cleared and samples of Manitou mineral water were supplied. (Remember, in 1881 no alcoholic drinks were allowed in Colorado Springs!) The first speaker rose and offered a toast: "O'Keefe, one of the greatest prevaricators, equaled by few, excelled by none." Following his remarks, O'Keefe stood and spoke some words of thanks. The audience was then treated to each guest at the table standing and commenting upon his story-telling talent. A few quoted memorable portions of his yarns. At the end, O'Keefe said farewell to the community and the audience, and then he left.
Several of O'Keefe's tales had seen worldwide distribution, and the city was happy for the rather unusual publicity. He visited the area after leaving the Army, but never regained the fame he'd attained when talking about that big white mountain.
No, there was never a child, nor a wife; indeed, not even any mountain rats. Those were friendly marmots.