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Monthly Archives: May 2010

Not Your Average “Potato”

RUFUS “POTATO” CLARK (1834 – 1910)

Of the many Colorado pioneers buried at Riverside Cemetery, one of the more interesting was Rufus “Potato” Clark.  He arrived here from Iowa in an ox-pulled covered wagon with his wife and child in July of 1859.  He immediately staked out a large farm in an area that is now Overland Municipal Golf Course, along the South Platte River across from Ruby Hill.  There he started farming on a quarter-section of land.  In her book Denver in Slices (written in 1959 but still popular), Louise Ward Arps wrote, “He was a character, this Potato Clark, a seafaring man ‘steeped in sin and prodigious profanity, and the curse of drink.’  But he got religion.”

As a teenager he ran away from home and became a sailor.  Rufus was at sea for ten years, at first serving on sailing boats and whaling vessels in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  Later, as chief mate of the Columbia in 1848, he sailed through the Bering Strait to the Arctic Ocean.  After gold was discovered in California, he spent over two years in the mines there.  He then traveled to Australia (by way of New Zealand because of a shipwreck), where he did more gold mining (and reportedly walked from Sydney to Melbourne, a distance of 400 miles).  He returned to the United States in 1854, took up farming, and married and became a father.

Rufus Clark cultivated several crops, but his main produce was potatoes (hence his nickname).  On one day he hauled as much as $1500 of potatoes to Denver.  His land in Colorado totaled 20,000 acres, but he sold most of that property to developers for the formation of the “Clark Colony” several miles south of Denver.  The colony was divided into several-acre tracts and was heavily planted with fruit trees, although it died out with the 1933 collapse of Castlewood Dam in Douglas County.

His word was better than gold, and bankers lent him money with no collateral other than his promise to repay the loans.  He was an honest, generous, and highly regarded man, despite his penchants for alcohol and colorful language.  But his “hard drinking and profanity” days ended when he attended a religious revival meeting in Denver.

In 1864 he was elected one of the first represent-atives in the territorial legislature.  He served on the Arapahoe County school board and was one of the founders of the town of South Denver (since absorbed by the city).  After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Rufus raised money for the victims by auctioning off sacks of potatoes; the mayor of Denver presented the mayor of Chicago with a check for over $7000.  He donated much money and property to the Salvation Army.  When local Methodists needed a new campus for their college in 1886, he gave them 80 acres; the school became the University of Denver, and it currently is located on the land he donated.  That same year he provided the money to create the Rufus Clark and Wife Theological Training School in Africa.

Both a California ‘49er and a Colorado ‘59er, Rufus Clark died in 1910 at age 87.  On his gravestone in Block 19, at Riverside are the names of his wife Ella and his previous wife Lucinda, who died in 1881.  The inscription on this stone reads, “They lived and gave of their substance for the redemption of Sierra Leone, West Africa.”

By Garry O’Hara