By Stephanie Earls
Updated: December 2, 2017 at 5:14 pm • Published: December 1, 2017
The struggle between teetotaling ideals and a taste for alcohol is a major theme in Colorado Springs history.
From the early days of the city's founding in 1871, by vice-averse William Jackson Palmer, alcohol was an unwelcome, yet readily available and widely enjoyed, indulgence.
Unless you had a prescription and sought your "medicine" from a druggist, which plenty of people did, the consumption and sale of potent potables became illegal with enactment of the U.S. Volstead Act in January 1920. But dry times reigned in the Springs almost half a century before Colorado's own pre-emptive prohibition officially put the kibosh on things in 1916.
For those who lived in Palmer's project Eden at the base of America's Mountain, a temperate lifestyle - or, at least, the appearance thereof - was codified.
"Many of the downtown microbreweries are probably in buildings that originally had a deed restriction that prohibited the production, sale and consumption of alcohol," said Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum Director Matt Mayberry. "Every property in the historic portion of Colorado Springs would have had that deed restriction."
Outside municipal limits, though, was another story.
In what is now Garden of the Gods, the suds flowed freely. Beginning in the decades before the turn of the 20th century, the park was home to operations selling souvenirs and adult refreshments primarily to tourists. Among the more colorful of those early entrepreneurs was Edwin "Fatty" Rice, who ran a biergarten east of Kissing Camels in a platted area known as Garden City.
As one might expect, Fatty was not a diminutive fellow, topping out at about 300 pounds before his death at age 50. If Fatty was sensitive about his weight, he didn't let feelings get in the way of a good gimmick.
"A sign in the front window of his 1890s establishment read: 'Stop and See the Fat Man,'" wrote free-lance author and historian Richard Gehling in "The Historical Garden of the Gods."
Michigan transplants Fatty and his wife, Phoebe, ran a home bakery and meat market along West Colorado Avenue before jumping at the chance to own a choice cut of land in the new, planned town in the shadow of Gateway Rocks. There, the couple bought four lots and built "a rambling wooden structure that contained a curio shop in the front and a beer hall in the rear," Gehlind wrote.
Fatty's Place didn't just serve drinks; it screamed them. Advertisements were on the south roof ("Drink Zang's Pure Malt Tonic"), on the west roof ("Patronize Home Industry. Drink the P.H. Zang Brewing Co's Lager Beer. On Draught Here"), and, of course, out front: "Native Stones. Precious Gems. Specimens. Ice Lemonade. Ice Milk. Buttermilk. Popcorn Machine," wrote Gehling.
Fatty died in 1902. Phoebe continued to run the beer hall until 1907, when she sold the property to her neighbor to the north, Palmer, who summed up his feelings in a giddy letter to Charles Perkins, the park's majority owner. For Palmer, the acquisition was a land grab of sobering proportions.
"... Have just closed at last with Fatty Rice's widow, so that I am your sole neighbor on the North and East," wrote Palmer, going on to crow, and grouse, about the deal.
"Now as soon as you have established your Park adjoining," Palmer urged his friend, in an excerpt in Gehling's account, "I will put up new, or improve these buildings, so as to have an attractive little country inn, where visitors may obtain lunches, teas, and other light meals with sandwiches 'out of glass,' but not intoxicants ..."
By the time the 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealed the 18th, bringing Prohibition to an end Dec.5, 1933, Garden of the Gods was a park, deeded by Perkins' descendants to the city in 1909. Fatty's Place was long gone, lost to a fire of "mysterious origin" shortly after Palmer's purchase.
History is mum on whether Fatty knew he'd started up his joint more or less in the spot that, in 1859, was proclaimed to be a "capital place for a beer garden" by a Colorado City surveyor who happened upon the dramatic rock formations - spurring companion Rufus Cable to utter the famous retort that gave the park its name: Beer garden!?! Why, it is a fit place for the gods to assemble!
If Fatty could see his old haunts - now a craft-beer boomtown - today, I'd like to think he'd approve.
Three brewing companies - Red Leg, Fossil and Trinity - sit within 2 miles of the park. Expand the radius to 3 miles, and you've got five more to choose from.
So on the anniversary of Prohibition's repeal 84 years ago, let's raise a glass to Fatty Rice and Colorado Springs' long, colorful legacy of beer visionaries.
MORE INFO: Richard and Mary Ann Gehling have spent decades researching the history of the Pikes Peak region. Their publications are available, in digital format, on Amazon.