By Victor Block
Stepping off the train after a short ride from a modern metropolis, I entered a world that no longer exists. A smattering of houses, business establishments, churches and other buildings serve as reminders of small-town America during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
A tiny log home stands near a general store. Colorfully named establishments from the past include the Rough & Ready Flour Mill and the First and Last Chance Saloon.
That setting could be in western Maine, but isn’t. Instead, it greets passengers disembarking from commuter trains that connect Denver with aptly named Littleton, 20 minutes away in time but over a century removed in atmosphere. The experience is akin to entering a Norman Rockwell painting of life as it used to be — and, in ways, still is, in this time capsule of history.
A 40-foot-wide mural at the station greets people arriving in Littleton by train. The colorful folk art composition depicts more than 50 historic structures, some long gone and others still standing.
The seeds of the settlement portrayed in the painting were planted in 1859 when the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush attracted miners to the community, along with merchants and farmers who came to supply and feed them. Two years later, an engineer from New Hampshire named Richard Little arrived and laid out the plan for a town, which was given his name.
Since that modest birth, Littleton has expanded into an inviting suburban community. For visitors, the interest is centered around Main Street, which richly deserves its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
A walking tour is a good way to view the historic buildings and get a feel for the setting. The journey can begin at the light rail depot, a Victorian-style stone building constructed in 1875.
The Columbine Mill, built in 1901 as a grain elevator and storage facility, looks out over the town from its lofty height. The charming Louthan House (circa 1905), named for its builder, is occupied by the Café Terracotta, one of several outstanding local restaurants that make Littleton a mini-magnet for foodies.
Shopping also has a local focus, with an array of small stores that fill many a whim and fancy. Reinke Brothers is a Halloween and costume shop with a focus on ghosts, goblins and ghouls. Countless skulls, skeletons and other merchandise, ranging from fun to frightening, fills the tangle of narrow aisles. A supermarket meat counter is stocked with replicas of “lady fingers,” “rump roast” and other aptly named body parts.
A much sweeter experience awaits at Lola’s Sugar Rush, where more than 700 kinds of candy in every imaginable color, shape and flavor are on display. Treats that were popular from the 1940s to 1970s provide a touch of sugary nostalgia for anyone whose sweet tooth can recall that time
Walking in town also provides introductions to public art that transforms sidewalks, streets and other settings into an outdoor showcase. Some three dozen sculptures, paintings and other works of art adorn sidewalks, buildings and parks.
A different experience awaits visitors to the Littleton Museum. Exhibits trace the area’s history from the time when Native Americans passed through to the pioneer era to more recent days. Its two living history farms are but two reasons why it’s ranked among the most outstanding history museums in the country.
They recreate farm life in the 1860s and 1890s. The earlier spread represents a pioneer homestead during the area’s settlement period. Exploring a modest cabin and log barn, sitting at a desk in a one-room school house and chatting with a blacksmith as he toils at his trade, provide realistic touches of yesteryear.
A virtual zoo of farm animals, including oxen, sheep, chickens and the largest hog I’ve encountered anywhere, enhance the realistic setting. Also adding authenticity are livestock, crops and plants that were common during the time period represented.
A different setting awaits at the Hudson Gardens, with extensive plantings devoted to roses, herbs, fragrance and nearly two dozen other floral themes. Adding interest are some 20 bee hives that are maintained by locals who are happy to share their knowledge about those fascinating flying insects. I learned more than I thought possible about the lifestyle of bees, and found descriptions of their highly structured society intriguing.
If learning that there are nearly 20,000 species of bees isn’t your cup of honey, perhaps indulging your sugar craving at Lola’s offers a sweeter appeal. Maybe strolling through a town with its feet planted firmly in the past and reliving farm life from a bygone era will grab your attention. Whatever your interests, you probably can find enough to fulfill them only a short train ride from downtown Denver.
For more information about Littleton, Colorado, log onto littletongov.org or call 303-795-3700.