Furry Friends

“Cat” and “Dog” are such small words for critters that fill our hearts.

Prologue

Arriving after two tumultuous decades marked by Depression and War, the 1950s were a time of rapid change in the United States.  For example:

        • Booming population: The population surged by 18.7%, the largest since the large immigration waves of 1840-1910; but in the ‘50s it was due to the baby boom, not immigration.

        • Television: In 1950, fewer than 10% of households had a TV; by decade’s end it was 87%.  The most popular TV show? Many iconic shows are still in syndication reruns; the most popular from 1951 to 1957 was “I Love Lucy.”

        • Automobiles: In 1950, there were fewer than 0.6 cars per household; by 1960 it had more than doubled to 1.27.

        • Suburbia: Americans began flocking to the suburbs, most of them new, as conceived and first accomplished by William Levitt, and his Levittowns. Homeownership jumped from about 50% at the close of World War II to over 60% … where it remains today.

        • Pets and furry critters: Humans have kept pets to work and for companionship for millennia. Until then, companion pets were largely for the upper classes and well off. Now, that trend changed: animals were for companionship. And Americans indeed loved animals, as marked by the 1951 inaugural of the PATSY Awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year); hosted by Ronald Reagan – then a strong union man and President of the Screen Actors’ Guild.

      We might be always changing, but we’ve always loved furry animals. Must be in our human nature.  Many remain in our collective memory.  Here are the stories of two such loved animals.

      Room 8

      Elysian Heights is a neighborhood on LA’s northside, lying on the northside of a rise that separates it from Major League Baseball’s Dodgers’ home stadium in Chavez Ravine.  It’s a historic and mostly residential neighborhood, reaching back to the late 19th century.

      In 1886 the LA city government was wondering what to do with a rock quarry on that hill that was up for auction, not so creatively named “Rock Quarry Hill.”  They all agreed to acquire the hill, restore it so much as possible, and set aside much of it as a park, open to the public in perpetuity.  The hill and region were re-named “Elysian” (Greek for paradise, or even eternal resting place, taking its name from the mythological Elysian Fields) – and lent this name to the Elysian Park and Arboretum that would follow.  It is rather like Eden: peaceful and providing wonderful views of the Los Angeles valley to the south and southwest.

      Soon enough a neighborhood developed there, across the Park, also rather like Eden: warm and verdant.  Named Elysian Heights, it was large enough to have its own elementary school, built in 1915: Elysian Heights Elementary.

      Starting in the ‘20s, the area became a magnet for artists, Progressives, and other social and political iconoclasts.  Many probably had cats, and dogs, and pets of all sorts. Elysian Heights was welcoming to all, including communists and many eastern European immigrants.

      One day in 1952 a stray cat sauntered right into the Elysian Heights Elementary school like he owned the place.  Like a lion king.  The tabby explored the building for a brief while, and then decided he’d taken a liking to Room 8, a sixth-grade classroom, whose teacher was Valerie Martin. Rather like their recusant community, the students in room 8, the entire school, and principal Beverly Mason all reciprocated, and took a liking to him.  He would be quite welcome. For the remainder of the school year, he returned every day.

      Room 8, Elysian Heights Elementary mascot

      Of course, he needed a name. Why not name him after his favorite room, “Room 8”?

      The school year ended, the building was closed, and Room 8 disappeared over the summer.  When school started back up in September, Room 8 returned to … well, he returned to room 8, still Valerie Martin’s 6th grade classroom.

      The students of course were delighted. This pattern continued without interruption until the mid-1960s.  All through the school year Room 8 lived at the school, mostly in room 8.  During the summer months he disappeared.

      Room 8 6th Grade class photo, with Room 8 front and center

      Almost every year the 6th grade class photo featured Room 8 prominently, front and center.  The most desired job in class was Room 8’s feeder.

      Word got out.  News cameras would show up the start of each new school year to capture Room 8’s image and return.  He got fan mail; thousands of letters. Students, acting as his secretary, sent return notes. He was featured in Time magazine, Look magazine, My Weekly Reader and on Art Linkletter’s show.  Leo Kottke wrote an instrumental called “Room 8” that was included in his 1971 album, Mudlark.

      I pledge allegiance to … Room 8<?>

      Room 8 was – and probably still is – the most popular cat in America.

      In the mid-60s Room 8 got into a cat fight.  He was injured and came down with feline pneumonia.  His health waned.  A family across the street offered to take care of him, and that’s where he stayed … only when school was out.  The school janitor would gently carry him across the street at the end of each school day.

      As a part-time stray, it’s likely that Room 8 had burned through 8 lives.  Only one to go.  Finally, one sad day, August 13, 1968, Room 8 ran out of lives. He’s buried at the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park, in Calabasas, CA. (Coincidently, quite close to where Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others perished in a helicopter crash, January 26, 2020).

      It’s estimated that Room 8 lived his terrestrial life for 21 years.

      Room 8’s final resting place

      Elysian Heights Elementary is still in the same place, and, based on Google Street view, it looks much the same as it probably did in 1952, when Room 8 first ambled in and made himself at home.  It’s now a K-6 Arts Magnet School.  Its school logo, included on their website and official correspondence, still has the image of a cat.

       

      _________________________________

      Shep

      Hard to believe that Boulder and Denver were once completely different cities with different cultures from each other.  Boulder’s beginning as a town, snuggled up against the Flatirons, placed it where Boulder Creek exits the front range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.  Denver lies some 30 miles to the southeast, and, relatively speaking, out in the prairie.  Its origin was also somewhat water-based, lying at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek.

      Boulder and the University of Colorado, near the Flatirons of the Front Range

      In Colorado’s early statehood, Denver won the designation as permanent State Capital, wresting it from several other candidate-cities, including Cañon City, Colorado Springs, Gunnison, Pueblo, and Salida.  Boulder won the right to be the seat of the State’s flagship university: The University of Colorado. [1]

      For decades they each evolved and grew their own merry ways. Yes, they were linked by railroad and stagecoach.  Both were awkward. Rail lines were mostly set up to move product from scattered towns, mostly coal mining and grain or flour.  When cars came along, the road from Denver to Boulder generally followed the old meandering Cherokee Trail, before turning abruptly north in modern day Broomfield, and heading toward Wyoming … then to the gold fields of California.  To get to Boulder, cars would usually turn due west, at 9-mile corner, along Arapahoe Road.

       

      In 1927 CU Engineering Professor Roderick Downing began a campaign to build a direct highway between Denver and Boulder.  Cars were growing more prevalent, and traffic ‘twixt Boulder and Denver was growing too.  Between them lay nothing but widely scattered farms, and a few old mines.  He pressed for a turnpike (as it could not be funded, it would require tolls to pay off bonds) for decades.

      But the Depression and the Dust Bowl years hit. Progress faltered. Still, Downing pushed on.

      Following World War II, with America’s increased consumption and growing love of the automobile and freedom to travel, the movement to build a turnpike between Denver and Boulder gained additional backing and momentum. Finally in July of 1950 the deal was sealed and over 6 million dollars in bonds were sold. Construction began, and at a near breakneck speed.

      Shortly after construction on the new highway began, a young stray dog began hanging around the workers and equipment.  He was engaging and friendly.  The workers took to him quickly.

      The stray was clearly part Shepard, so that’s what they named him: “Shep.”  He made the rounds at mealtime, getting tidbits and handouts.  Maybe that’s why strays like hanging around construction sites.

      Life was good for Shep.  At least as long as the building was underway and there were lots of “friends” around.  Someday soon, though, the construction would be complete and cars would be speeding along.  No place for a dog to be rambling around looking for friends… and handouts.

      Beginning in 1952 the turnpike was open, running from Federal Blvd in north Denver to Baseline Road in Boulder. There was a single tool booth, at the halfway point near the new intersection. Toll fees? Exiting halfway, it was a 15-cent toll; going all the way required an extra dime.  At two bits for the full length, that’s about $2.50 today – quite a bargain.  The booth site and interchange was at the current location of Wadsworth (CO-121) and the US-36, AKA “the turnpike.”

      Developers and investors noted that the new intersection and the new turnpike highway made a very amicable and likely location for a new bedroom community to spring up.  And one did, just a few years later; first called Broomfield Heights, and now known as Broomfield, my current hometown.

      Early Turnpike, built to near-Interstate standards, before there were Interstate Highways

      Obviously, there were no RFID readers, or computer cameras to read license plates, or credit card swipers … or anything electronic.  So, when the turnpike opened there were cash toll collectors working 24/7 in the booth.

      As turnpike construction came to a close, the dog-friendly construction laborers made sure that the toll booth workers knew all about Shep.  And to take care of him.

      Well, Shep being a people-dog, it didn’t take him any time at all to connect with the operators.  And of course, they always shared part of their meals with him.

      Colorado is known for cold weather, especially at night.  It can happen almost any time of year. One especially chilly night, the toll workers began to worry about Shep. He was outside, trying to sleep. The workers wooed Shep into the booth, where he slept comfortably. And the tradition began.  Shep would ever sleep inside the toll booth, and the booth keeper would ever have a companion.

      In short time, the regular turnpike drivers also became fond of the friendly furry critter in the booth. They began bringing him food.  Some donated extra coins for a “Shep Fund.”  Others brought dog toys.  Shep cheered them up.  Shep became the “site to see” of the turnpike.

      Shep at the toll booth, making sure everything goes well, and everyone gets to see him

      The workers put up a bucket on each side of the booth to collect coins for Shep.  Kids would fight over who got to toss in coins.  People even got out of their cars to have their pictures made with the mascot of the turnpike.

      Although Shep enjoyed all the attention, he would always be a stray.  Curious by nature, many days he would just drift off to explore the wildlife, terrain and farms around the toll booth – much to the disappointment of drivers who passed by when Shep was away.  The toll booth workers often worried about Shep too, but he always came back … eventually.  Probably most often right around dinner time.

      Shep with bandaged foot at toll booth

      By the summer of 1958 communities were starting to spring up near the turnpike.  But there was still plenty of space to roam.  And there were farms. Apparently, Shep had made an enemy of a nearby farmer somehow.  He was shot in the foot.

      Broomfield veterinarian, Clyde Brunner, donated his services to treat the celebrity, Shep.  It took a while, but Shep healed and was back to his usual shenanigans.  Brunner was a good vet.  Shep and Brunner became friends; Brunner took care of Shep for the rest of his life.

      Shep lounging around on a sunny day

      No one knew when Shep was born, but by 1964 it was clear his final days were counting down. He was a very old dog: deaf, nearly blind, sleeping most of the day and sometimes incontinent.  It was a difficult truth for the toll booth staff, but the reality was that Shep would get one, and only one, more visit to Dr Brunner.

      A burial plot was established for Shep right next to the toll booth.  It seemed proper.  A donation then came in for a tombstone. Shep’s grave was protected by a low metal fence.

      Shep’s headstone: “Part shepard, mostly affection/”

      So popular had cars and personal transportation become that the turnpike was paid off 13 years early, in 1967. So, a toll plaza was no longer needed. The highway was no longer, technically, a turnpike. But Shep’s grave site remained. Motorists would often point it out to visitors and newcomers, especially when fresh flowers had been laid there.

      The area around where the toll booth had been continued to be developed.  Traffic volumes grew.  The “turnpike” and the interchange with Highway 121 were expanded. Population and traffic continued to grow.  Decades later, a new ramp was needed; it would go right through Shep’s gravesite.  What to do?

      The new ramp for the intersection was built, but not before Shep’s remains and grave were re-located to the Zang Spur Park in Broomfield, right next to the Broomfield Depot Museum.  We’ve ridden our bikes over to the park and museum several times.  Certainly, we visit Shep and pay our respects to the loyal and friendly dog.

      Although Shep and Room 8 were contemporaries, Shep never achieved the wide-spread notoriety of Room 8. Yet, he was loved and cherished by just about everyone in the Denver-Boulder area.  (Well, except for whoever shot him).

    • _____________________________________________

      We do love our furry friends.  As we go through our own rapidly changing times, let’s hope that all those adopted “Pandemic Pets” also continue to be loved and cherished by faithful owners.

      Joe Girard © 2022

      Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here . Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

      [1] the University of Colorado was actually founded and placed in Boulder several months before Colorado officially became a state, in 1876.

      [2] The roads that followed the old Cherokee Trail in the area was also awkward, as it was not a straight line, and didn’t even go to Boulder.  From Denver it roughly followed current US highway 287, i.e. from near downtown up Federal Blvd, west on 120th then turning rather abruptly near what was then “downtown” Broomfield (i.e, what passed for a train depot), toward points north: Lafayette, Ft Collins, Virginia Dale and Wyoming … eventually meeting other trails heading to either the California gold fields, Utah or Wyoming.

      [3] Room 8’s gravesite

2 thoughts on “Furry Friends”

  1. Peggy Gutmann

    Bravo Joe! 👏 What a fun & interesting read. I just loved learning about Room 8 & Shep💞

Comments are closed.