Denver to 1908 DNC convention: ‘We’re not a cowtown’

It was 1908 and delegates to Denver’s Democratic National Convention were welcomed to the city with great fanfare. Lakeside Amusement Park, the "Coney Island of the West," had opened just in time for the convention. A group of Apache American Indians were set up as a spectacle in City Park. And the Moffat Railroad transported carloads of snow into the city from the Western Slope so that the delegates could have a snowball fight.


And yet, Denver’s leaders were adamant about making sure that the city didn’t look like hickville to the 50,000 visitors who came to the convention.


"It’s this idea that we are not a cowtown. We can compete with the East Coast. It’s still the same today," says Gregorio Alcaro, a self-described "activist historian" who, along with his cousin Trini Gonzalez, is planning a two-day exhibition next month to commemorate the 1908 Convention through their new non-profit, Auraria Casa Mayan Heritage Inc. The event, called Celebrate 1908, will include theatrical performances and discussions of civil society and politics at the turn of the century. Alcaro and other historians have dug up a wealth of information about the 1908 Convention, and much of it reveals how the political process and Denver at large has changed — or not — in the past 100 years.

Denver’s ongoing struggle to break from its "cowtown" shackles was especially apparent in light of the 1908 Convention. The city competed with Chicago, St. Paul, Atlantic City, and Louisville, Kentucky, to snatch the Democratic National Convention and even showed interest in the Republican National Convention. The city erected the Denver Arena Auditorium, now the site of the Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre, in anticipation of the convention and offered it up free of charge for the convention. And then city leaders pitched in $100,000–today’s equivalent of $1 million–to clinch the event.


"Denver will go down as the city of conventions," read a Democratic National Convention guidebook printed by Union Pacific Railroad and passed out to delegates at the July 7-10 event. "The city of national conventions, and of world conventions."


"It was a thriving, really prosperous community, with a dozen really good hotels, a huge theater district along 14th street, and good transportation," says John Steinle, an administrator with the Hiwan Homestead Museum in Evergreen who has researched the 1908 Convention. "We had five major railroad lines coming in and a wonderful streetcar system. It was an extremely well-developed community, and it had no problem hosting 50,000 people for the convention. It ran more smoothly in 1908 than today." Steinle says the city’s hotel accommodations were better 100 years ago.


Denver was also lauded for its public areas and its proximity to the mountains. Then-mayor Robert Speer had built city parks meant to mimic Europe’s open spaces. "For advantages of climate, Denver has no peer among the cities of the country as an agreeable place of residence, while statistics prove it to be the most healthful city in the United States," read the booklet.


Like today, the Democrats had chosen their presidential candidate beforehand. William Jennings Bryan, a former Nebraska Congressman and two-time presidential hopeful, was again asked to sign onto the Democratic ticket. William Howard Taft, who later won the presidency, was handpicked to succeed the incumbent Republican President Teddy Roosevelt. Unlike today, however, the candidates did not typically attend their party’s conventions. Bryan stayed at his Nebraska farmhouse, cutting alfalfa in the field, while the delegates hashed out the party’s platform in Denver. He stayed in close contact with the proceedings; Alcaro says Bryan received 1,200 telegraphs in the three-day span.


Yet Bryan would not accept the nomination until his party had firmed up its platform. Each state presented a topic to add to the platform, eventually coming up with a list of objectives, which included stopping imperialism, creating free trade, seeking peace through diplomacy, reforming campaigns and elections, ending child sweatshops and slave labor, protecting land and independent farms, and breaking up monopolies in communication companies.


"The platform was serious," says Alcaro. "Now it is personality driven."


Monopolies were the most important issue at the convention. The 1908 slogan was "Shall The People Rule?" Former California Congressman Theodore Bell gave the opening address at the convention, saying, "Foremost among the great evils that afflict the country at the present time is the abuse of corporate power."


"In the Democratic party and among some of the Republicans there was the feeling that the ordinary person was being treated kind of like a second-class citizen by these different combinations of companies," says Steinle. "It is the attitude that people have today toward Wal-Mart or the natural gas or oil companies."


There were also no protests at the convention. The women’s suffrage movement was quickly accelerating, but no one picketed the event. In fact, Denver’s convention hosted the first five female delegates.


Yet the event was still rowdy. At one point a speaker mentioned Bryan and the crowd went wild, holding the longest indoor political parade at a convention up to that time. For an hour and a half, the delegates yelled for Bryan and sang, as a brass band led them around the auditorium floor. A 96-year-old woman stood up and refused to leave the hall until Bryan was nominated.


The Celebrate 1908 event will run from July 25-26 at the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria campus. In addition to theatrical performances, the event will feature $3,000 worth of artifacts from the 1908 convention, including old magazines, newspapers, pins, and buttons from the era.

Slide show by Bob Spencer.  

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Naomi Zeveloff

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