By Jeffrey V. Smith
LINCOLN HILLS/GILPIN COUNTY
One of the most significant buildings of historical and cultural importance for African Americans is tucked away in small corner of Gilpin County. Winks Lodge was one of just a handful of resort hotels catering to African-Americans from about 1928 to 1965. The lodge, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, drew many of America’s most noted African-American creative luminaries to it before and after performances in Denver including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Thurston and Billy Eckstine.
February, Black History Month, is the perfect time to remember this unique and noteworthy era of Gilpin County and African-American history.
Obrey Wendall “Winks” Hamlet and his first wife Naomi began construction of Winks Lodge, also known as Winks Panorama, in 1925. The three-story, six-bedroom stone and wood-shingled lodge was on land he purchased within the newly-established Lincoln Hills development near Pinecliffe. Completed in 1928, it would become the first full service resort in the area. Winks Tavern, a honeymoon cabin, the orange cabin, tin house and a three-plex cabin were added later. Winks ran the lodge until his death in 1965 and his second wife, Melba, continued operations into the 1970s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, reduced the need for black-only resorts.
Lincoln Hills began in 1922 when the Lincoln Hills Development Company was formed by E.C. Regnier and Roger Ewalt of Denver. The two wanted to build a resort in the Rocky Mountains for middle class African-Americans. At the time, it was the only vacation resort west of the Mississippi River—and one of only three in the U.S.—owned by and catering to African-Americans. Lincoln Hills was the only one to have been conceived, planned and developed by an African-American-owned company.
Lincoln Hills was also home to Camp Nizhoni, a girl’s camp established with the Phillis Wheatley branch of the YMCA. African-American women and girls were prohibited from attending other YMCA girl’s camps, but were welcomed in Lincoln Hills. Each summer, for about 20 years, as many as 50 girls attended the camp and took part in hiking, swimming and learning about biology, astronomy and outdoor skills.
Denver artist Jess E. DuBois is the son of Wink’s second wife, Melba, and grew up in Lincoln Hills where he befriended many of the jazz greats who came to stay at Winks Lodge. Among other things, he began working on the Denver and Rio Grande railroad at 16, spent time as a Marine in the Korean War, knew Timothy Leary and was part of Boulder’s late-60s hippie scene before becoming a noted artist specializing in portraiture and landscapes. DuBois, a member of Art Institute of Denver’s first graduating class in 1957, is inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. He’s received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Denver Black Arts Festival and was commissioned by RTD to create a bronze of Denver’s first African-American doctor, Dr. Justina Ford at the Light Rail Station at 30th and Downing. In 2004, DuBois received the Denver Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
For 40 summers he worked in Estes Park where he operated a successful gallery until it closed in 1982 following a devastating flood.
“[Winks’] wife Naomi got sick and passed away at a young age. After that, he met my mother; they were friends and then fell in love and married,” DuBois said. “My mother and Winks together really made Lincoln Hills boom.” Melba was a noted cook and guests traveled long distances to get what was known as the “best barbecue” outside Kansas City.
“She was a great cook. She cooked in Boulder at the Chi Psi and Delta Upsilon fraternity houses, and cooked at all of these places,” DuBois explained. “My biological father, who passed away at a kind of young age too, was a recognized chef with the Denver and Rio Grand and my mother learned a lot from him.”
DuBois’ connection to the railroad allowed him to get a job several years before allowed. The wife of the president of the Denver and Rio Grande took DuBois under her wing. “She told me if I wanted to work on the railroad, I should go down and put an application in and she would make some calls,” he said. At only 16 years old, he went to the railroad and was told he had to be older because he would be serving drinks. “Then the door opened and a guy came out and said his boss told him that if Jess DuBois comes in here looking for a job, put him to work… I don’t give a damn how old he is.” He ended up working on the California Zephyr and other runs that passed near Lincoln Hills. “My mother and dad were always out waving at me,” he said. “I learned a lot about cooking, waiting tables and making money.”
Living in Lincoln Hills as Wink’s step-son allowed him to meet and make friends with some of the most prominent African-Americans of the time. “I am a musician because I played with a lot of those people, like Billy Holiday, Johnny Otis, Sunnyland Slim [Luandrew]… and Mongo Santamaria,” DuBois said. “I got to know these people, so when they came to Lincoln Hills they were like ‘he can go, can’t he?’ Johnny Otis, all these people were really good friends of mine, and they all came to Lincoln Hills and stayed because that was they only place they could stay. For many, many years I’ve carried my instruments with me. If someone ever wants to hear me play them, then I can do it.”
Sunnyland Slim was also DuBois’ roommate in Chicago where he met Slim’s good friend Muddy Waters. “When he played in Boulder, DuBois said, “they would call me from Tulagi to come and take him home because the women were after him, and everything. He would say, ‘look, I’m an old man, all I’m interested in is playing my music.’”
When DuBois returned from the Marine Corp and Korea “and all that,” he spent time in Boulder because his mother was cooking in the town. “That’s when they had a big influx of the hippy movement and they had the STP Family,” he explained. DuBois could relate to hippies as they were discriminated against in regular society just like his people were. “They had a sign in the window in Nederland, in that corner grocery store, that said, ‘Only One Hippie At A Time Allowed In Store,’” he said. “I got to thinking, that’s the same thing black people went through, you know.”
“All those people called me STP Mickey, I had real long hair and big bell bottom trousers. All of those people were my friends,” he said. DuBois, armed with a recipe for hot tamales from a friend in Louisiana, applied for The Hill’s first vendors license. “Right on the corner by the Flatirons Theater I opened my tamale stand,” he said. “A lot of the STP people and a lot of the hippies would come to me and if they didn’t have any money I give them a tamale, it didn’t make any difference to me, it was all a good time, you know. Clancy [Sheehy] had the book shop in Boulder [Clancy’s Upstairs Bookstore] and we’d go up there and they’d recite poetry, whatever they felt like doing as entertainment.”
When Hamlet passed in 1965, Melba and Jess continued running Winks Lodge although it was in decline. “After my step-dad passed away, my mother didn’t know how she was going to keep this thing going,” DuBois said. “So, I said lets have a party and advertise it by word-of-mouth to the STP Family and people all over. The word spread all over the country and the day of the party the highways were full and the place was full. Hundreds of people came to the first one. I made big pots of stew and chili and all kinds of stuff like that. But, it turned into money. People would pay if they had a big bowl of stew or whatever. It just grew and she made money and was able to keep the place going because of the STP Family.”
DuBois is now well-known for his portraits and landscapes in charcoal and pastel. He is particularly noted for his work with Native American subjects. “In the winter, I would go to Arizona and I went to the Indians who let me travel with them and paint,” he said. “I’d then have them come to Estes Park, for free, and paint in my shop.” One day, a man came in to his Estes Park studio asking him to do a portrait of his friend. “You probably known him,” the man said, but DuBois was sure he didn’t. It became clear when the man revealed he was Clayton Moore, the actor who played the Lone Ranger on television, and his friend was Jay Silverheals who played Tonto. “[Clayton] became my friend and everyone was like, ‘wow, he’s got Clayton Moore hanging out in his shop.’ He only visited a couple of times a year… but that didn’t matter.”
The artist has had a gallery and workshop in Denver’s Five Points for years but the building was first hit by a busted water pipe and mold and has now been sold to a developer, so he will have to close. He has, however, created an ad-hoc studio in the lobby of the Ramada Inn on East Colfax in Denver. A charcoal pencil, an easel, and few clip lights in all he needs.
DuBois was featured on the February 21, 2013 Lincoln Hills episode of The Colorado Experience on PBS Channel 6.1 Denver. To contact DuBois with questions regarding art sales, call 720-422-7569.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of the MMAC Monthly