by Greta Hanson Maurer and Laura Lee Amman
Beulah resident Jim Cook begrudgingly admits he was born on April 6, 1941 in Borger, Texas, but that’s just because he is such a proud Coloradoan. His parents Pat and Leona (Harder) Cook were located in the panhandle of Texas, where his dad broke horses for one of the big Thatcher ranches. The family moved to Pueblo County when he and his identical twin brother, Tommy were three years old; alongside his older sister, Jean and a younger sister, Mary. Several years later, the family moved to Beulah for a short time, where they lived in the old ‘Townsend’ home. His father passed from cancer when he was 10 years old, and his mother moved the family back to Pueblo.
Jim proudly calls himself ornery, “like his dad”. Recalling “the only good class I ever had in school was ‘Library Class’, I read every Western I could get my hands on.” He overheard teachers saying “How can he get into so much trouble, at the same time be the best library student in the school?” Jim was 16 years old the year he got kicked out of school seven times, and then told not to come back. Jim explains that many of his life’s adversities have resulted in the best advantages, “I was shipped to my uncle’s place in Parker, Arizona on the Colorado River, and I spent the entire summer water skiing!”
Jim seems to have been born with a penchant for adventure, and learning through experience. For example, bull riding. His friend, Randy Hoosier would go down to the sale barn, and purchase four or five bulls for a single nights’ ride. They would meet up in Colorado City at midnight, where they would cycle the bulls for hours of entertainment. Jim thought it was a great idea, easily answering the question of why with a giggle, and a twinkle in his eye, “I wanted to know what it was like.” The following day, the bulls would be loaded up, brought back to the sale barn, and re-sold. After the cattle were sold, the inevitable loss would be split among the cowboys— the price of a wild night out.
Jim married Suzy Westby in the 1960s, and their family grew with two children, a daughter Vickie, and a son, Ray. Jim worked as a journeyman meat cutter (serving an apprenticeship in California with the best in the business). He sold insurance, and was good at it, but “flat couldn’t take wearing a suit.” Next, he moved to the Yukon in Alaska for three years where he worked on the railroad, hunted Grizzly bear, living simply by camping and eating fish. He layered clothing from head to bunny boots as an employee of the the railroad where he switched tracks, and moved empty cars around in weather that went as low as minus78 degrees. Jim observed that the railroad was just happy to have anyone showing up in those conditions. During this time, he and Suzy parted ways.
He moved back to the Rye area, where he would cut firewood for over 30 years, only retiring in the last three years when he returned to Beulah to live. But the word ‘retirement’ can only be referenced loosely, because for the past 15 years, Jim has been the finder, keeper, collector, voice and creator of the Colorado State Fair Museum, a permanent display on the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo, CO celebrating the fairs 147 year old history.
Jim started collecting shortly after graduating High School, when he wandered into the one-room ‘Antique Gun Store’ in Pueblo—prior to that encounter, he knew nothing about ‘collecting.’ He became lifetime friend with the owner, a man Jim calls the ‘ultimate trader,’ recalling one deal that included a Ford F150 (“not a scratch on it”) for a large western poster that now resides in the Roy Rogers’ Museum. “I knew at least three times this guy traded his HOUSE!” Every collector and trader is unique, in their passion, their budget and their style of trade.
“Ideally, you see something you really want, and you try to trade for it without putting out any money. And you like to trade for stuff you want to get rid of!” Cook is drawn to all cowboy memorabilia, always with an eye for the Colorado State Fair, although he has rarely found any at shows. His close-knit group of collector friends keep an eye out for him, too. He also gathers things he knows he can make future trades on. On average, Cook traveled to five or six big shows each year, now he makes a point of getting to the Denver and Amarillo, TX shows. He particularly enjoys the conversation with his buddies after the shows. “We all know each other so well—I do 90% of business with the same guys.”
He once traded a vintage R. T. Frazier Saddlery catalog worth about $150 for a handmade Chuck Wagon miniature, filled with equally scaled handcrafted accessories. The following week he took it to a show in Texas (known for loving Chuck Wagons) and sold it for $2,000.
Jim’s fascination with collecting and sharing his interest in cowboy history, stories, and memorabilia eventually led him to establish the Pueblo Saddlemakers Museum, eventually purchased by the Pueblo County Historical Society—portions of the exhibit are still available for viewing.
Jim’s reputation for putting together extraordinary, and complete exhibits, resulted in the Colorado State Fair asking him to create a display that told the story of the 146 year old event. The exhibit is now on permanent display, but only available 10 days out of the year. The exhibit is housed in an over-sized Tough-Shed, filled to the rafters. The items have been painstakingly located one at a time, now gathered they tell a more complete story—the photos, a saddle from the first Rodeo queen, a state fair cookbook from 1906, a massive silver trophy, buckles, tickets, ribbons and so much more!
“Whenever I meet anyone, I let them know I curate the Colorado State Fair Museum,” says Cook, and sometimes things come out of the woodwork. Like the liquor store attendant he met one evening who told him, “I used to live next to a rodeo clown,” which led Cook to an original clown barrel (no hole in the bottom, as the ‘walking barrel’ was not invented) owned by Tommy Gordon. Gordon eagerly gave it to him once he learned what Jim was doing, and eventually sent him a photo of the barrel in action.
Jim talks, and he listens; and he tracks down every lead, no matter how small, or indirect. He loves the thrill of the hunt, and the unknown rewards. For instance, his findings and research confirm that in 1937 the Colorado State Fair featured the first Rodeo (and fair queen), alongside the well known Wild West Show.
According to Cook, “the display gets better every year.” He has visitors who make a point of visiting his exhibit, saying the museum is the first stop in their visit every year. They are impressed by the caliber of items and the extensive nature of the collection. He has not pursued grants or donations, because he likes being accountable to only himself.
For 10 days during the state fair, he’ll start his days on site at 10am, and go until midnight. He puts the time in because he loves the conversation around all the items; and he doesn’t trust anyone else to care for it the way he does. The effort gives him energy, stating, “How do you put a value on doing something you enjoy so much, and then do it your entire life?”
Visit the Colorado State Fair Museum this year, and make a point of saying “Hello’ to Jim Cook, you’ll walk away with some rich history and great stories.