There is a little corner of Pueblo, Colorado, that also serves as a time machine of sorts. Step inside and you may feel like you were just transported to another time. In this case, somewhere around 1842 and right in the middle of the original El Pueblo Trading Post and surrounded by cowboys, trappers, scouts and, not surprisingly, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Native Americans. A place where English, Spanish, and various Native languages could be heard.
Welcome to the El Pueblo History Museum, whose location is as near as possible, the original site of one of Colorado’s first trading posts. There is not much about this historical gem that Deborah Espinosa does not know. She was its director until her retirement in 2014.The journey from her first day to her last at the museum, was nearly as interesting as the artifacts it holds.
The Grand Junction native moved to Pueblo with her husband, Juan, after attending the University Colorado in Boulder. She completed her undergraduate education at Colorado State University-Pueblo with degrees in History and Chicano History. She later earned a master’s degree in Nonprofit Management as a Colorado Trust Fellow from Regis University. But early on, there was little to no thought of a career in museums.
“I started volunteering as a docent,” Espinosa said. “It was just a small space…it was in an old airplane hangar,” and several miles from where it sits today. The present day museum is anchored in one of the Pueblo’s oldest sections at 301 N. Union Avenue.
The 2021 version of El Pueblo is a light year removed from its predecessor. For years, it occupied a space on Prairie Avenue in the southern part of the town, a place that once served as Pueblo’s airport. Back then, a visit was more an afterthought than a well-conceived plan.
As a workplace, Espinosa remembered, it was far from 21st century in more ways that might be worth counting. “I would stand by a wall heater just to stay warm. Remember, it was an airplane hangar.” There were a few other things that also served as constant reminders of the building’s age and amenities. Espinosa recalled it had “a 1930’s telephone,” one that didn’t even have a coiled phone cord. Also, instead of a cash register, “we had a money box…and we would tally visitors with chicken scratches,” on a note pad.
Today’s El Pueblo today reflects the town’s authentic roots, the indisputable fact that Pueblo was once a part of Mexico, and “the northern border of New Spain.” Also, said Espinosa, “Pueblo is different not because of steel making but because we’re on Mexican border land.”
For years, Pueblo’s earliest history, perhaps not surprisingly, was told through a revisionist lens---absent its true authenticity that included brightly colored strands of Mexican and Native American threads woven in. There was intermarriage, said Espinosa, with Mexican women…people spoke Spanish here.” The story told at El Pueblo today is both contextual and as accurate as it can be.
The museum is one of southern Colorado’s historical crown jewels, said its former director. Its metamorphosis was possible because of a community that deserved a better facility and city leadership that not only agreed but was willing to make the commitment. Espinosa also gives credit to the Colorado Historical Society for today’s El Pueblo as well as a lot of help from key faculty at the nearby university. Everyone was completely supportive.
Espinosa remembered making the pitch for change. “I invited City Council to the museum to have dinner. As they sat there inside the trading post,” she said, “I gave a presentation.” She wove a story that was a multi-faceted tapestry that included not only railroads and cowboys, but a story replete with the people who were just as essential---the Spanish, Mexicans, and Native Americans---to Pueblo’s early survival.
When the old El Pueblo Museum was abandoned and relocated to its present site, Espinosa recalled, “I got a bigger building…I didn’t get a bigger staff or budget.” Multi-tasking---welcoming visitors, working in the gift shop, teaching and more---was just what one did in those days. That, luckily, has all changed.
Today, the museum is fully staffed and serves the community the way it should. “The old museum wasn’t attractive, though good things happened there,” she said. “The new museum is full of light, beautiful and welcoming…a real presence in the Riverwalk area.”
Now retired as El Pueblo’s Director, Espinosa said she still finds time to drop in and visit or shop. She takes great pride in the contribution she made in turning it into what it is today but adding, “I won’t be able to sleep if I don’t say, I didn’t do it by myself. I have so many people that supported me and I’m proud I worked for History Colorado.”
El Pueblo became a reality, she said, through synergy. “I think I brought vision,” she said. “That doesn’t come without being a strong collaborator and hard work to make connections in the community.”
Like all museums, the pandemic has curtailed El Pueblo’s activities. But as things return to normal, it will again offer tours to school children and provide an array of exhibits that underscore the treasure Espinosa believes her town offers. “I tell people all the time that I believe Pueblo is the most historic town in Colorado.”
El Pueblo History Museum is opened from 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.