Pioneer Profiles: Mabel Barbee Lee

This series, “Pioneer Profiles,” explores some of the interesting characters that define Colorado history. All the quotes from the following article are from Cripple Creek Days, by Mabel Barbee Lee.

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Mabel Barbee was born to Johnson and Kitty Barbee in 1884. Johnson Barbee was a prospector who spent his time looking for his mother lode, which he was sure was somewhere in Nevada. However, when he heard that Bob Womack had discovered gold in Cripple Creek in 1893, he decided to move his family there.

Mabel’s life in Cripple Creek was difficult. Getting anywhere required a climb up and down steep hills in any direction, and the winters were long and difficult. Johnson Barbee made his living as a dowser, using a metal rod to find gold the way others used one to find water. Johnson, or “Jonce” as he was known in his family, described his dowsing as magnetism. He would carry a metal rod around and point it at the ground. The metal in the ore would pull the rod toward it “like hooking a fish.” This method had limited results, though. Holding millionaire Winfield Scott Stratton up as the prime example of how to strike it rich, Mabel’s mother Kitty constantly harped on him: “You must be on the wrong track. If only you had taken Mr. Stratton’s advice about prospecting on Battle Mountain!”  “How do you know my turn isn’t coming next?” he replied, “And when it does, all those big jackpots on Battle Mountain are going to look like chicken feed!”

In April of 1896, Cripple Creek had two huge fires four days apart. From businesses and homes on Bennett Avenue to brothels and saloons on Myers Avenue, the fires did not discriminate. They burned everything. Stratton, Cripple Creek’s Gold King, sent up train load after train load of supplies from Colorado Springs. Tents, blankets, food—no expense was spared. While others were gathering donations, Stratton just filled the trains and had it all put on his bill. Mabel and her mother spent their days helping get the town back on its feet. Even those who were left destitute helped people less fortunate than themselves.

CC After the fire 1896

Cripple Creek after the April 1896 fires. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

When she was an adolescent, Mabel was obsessed with Pearl de Vere, The Madam of Myers Avenue. Pearl de Vere seemed bigger than life because she had a very effusive personality and everybody knew her. She ran a place called The Old Homestead, where the biggest, most lavish parties were thrown for the elite gentlemen of Cripple Creek. One Christmas she threw a giant party with champagne, Russian caviar, and crates of expensive booze. Two orchestras had been hired to play the latest dances. Gossip spread that Pearl de Vere would be wearing “an $800 ball gown of shell pink chiffon encrusted with sequins and seed pearls sent her directly from Paris.” It’s easy to see how this larger-than-life figure might intrigue a simple girl like Mabel Barbee. Later that night, Pearl de Vere was found dead of an overdose of laudanum. Over the next few days, Mabel became obsessed with the idea of seeing the madam’s beautiful face one last time. She snuck into the mortuary and crept up to the casket, daring to touch Pearl’s face. She got caught and chased out of the mortuary, but she never forgot the experience.

By the time she turned 17, Mabel began to feel that she would never leave Cripple Creek. Her father’s dowsing business had never panned out, and when he did have a little money he spent it much too freely. They were always on the edge of poverty. She wanted to go to school in Colorado Springs but she knew they couldn’t afford it, so she didn’t ask.

Jonce was extremely superstitious, claiming that tommyknockers were keeping him from finding his fortune in gold. He had built a reputation as a solid guy, one who followed through on his promises and paid his debts (eventually). One day he decided to dig someplace he had sort of written off. He hit a vein of gold ore worth $720 an ounce ($19,882 today)! Two guys showed up with an interest in his find and asked him to show them around. He did, and they blustered with talk like, “Well you know it’s going to take a lot of work to get all that ore out of there. Why don’t I pay you $10,000 and take it off your hands?” Then the second guy jumped in and said, “I’ll give you $12,000 and I’ll wipe out all your debts in town as well.” Barbee took the second offer, which he considered a fortune. Kitty was very angry because she figured he’d sold for $12,000 what might eventually be worth $12 million! Mabel was outfitted with new everything: clothes, shoes, petticoats and hats, and sent to the Cutler Academy in Colorado Springs for finishing school where she got her high school diploma.

Mabel’s mother died of pneumonia in 1902 while Mabel was away at school. Because her father had tuberculosis, Mabel had been prepared to face life without her father; it was something she and her mother had discussed often. Unfortunately it was her mother who passed first, leaving her to the care of her father who was constantly working at his new find, the Rosebud Mine. He didn’t look well, but Jonce told her to go back to school and focus on her studies.

Mabel began attending Colorado College and worked summers in a candy store. When Mabel came up to visit him between terms, Jonce looked worse and was significantly debilitated from when she had seen him last. In August, just before the start of her senior year, her father died. She went back up to Cripple Creek to settle his affairs, visiting all the local businesses and trying to pay his debts, which she knew were substantial. All the business owners said he didn’t owe anything, but she knew they were just forgiving his debts out of respect. Knowing her father had died penniless, she headed back to school with no way to pay her last year’s tuition.

The next month she received an anonymous money order for expenses, followed by one each month until she graduated. She never knew that the miners paid for her last year of college by donating to jars by the cash registers of Cripple Creek shops. Most of the miners didn’t even know her; they just wanted to pay Jonce some final respects.

By this time the population of nearby Victor had grown to 6,000 people, and Mabel took a job as a teacher there. “It had been 14 years since I entered the log cabin school in Cripple Creek’s Old Town. I was a child then in the fourth grade. It was a far cry from that dirt floor to the fine two-story Victor High School where I had come as a new teacher.” Her most notable student was Lowell Thomas, well known for originating the idea of the travelogue, or diary documentation by film. He also was a famous radio broadcaster, a magazine editor, and an author of over 60 books.

In 1908 she met and married Howard Lee. Later, she became dean of women at Colorado College and served as administrator at four other esteemed colleges across America. In the mid-50s she came back to Cripple Creek to chronicle her life there and found no old-timers who remembered Johnson Barbee, but who still held onto his dream of striking it rich. In 1959 she was featured on the television show, This is Your Life, surprising her former student Lowell Thomas with her appearance. She died in California in 1958 and is buried with her parents in the Mount Pisgah Cemetery.

Photo By: "Emery," original photographer. Photo from Ms. Lee's novel.