MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
A visit to Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado is a trip into two very different historical periods. With over 4,000 Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites, including the famous cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde has been recognized as one of the world’s premier archeological destinations since before it became a national park in 1906. But the park got a great deal of its charm and infrastructure in 1933-1942, when it hosted a Civilian Conservation Corp camp as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The CCC transformed the rustic park into what it is today. They built roads, fought fires, landscaped, saved trees from insect and porcupine infestations, and built the infrastructure that is still in use. One of the most beloved projects left from their time at Mesa Verde is the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum near the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling.
The museum, though a little worn around the edges, is a time warp of Art Deco/Great Depression era beauty. The centerpiece is the dioramas. Built with the hope that they “will enable thousands of park visitors to visualize ancient life and people as they existed in those early days and be able to view the ruins with better understanding and greater appreciation,” five dioramas were in place by 1939. They depict daily life during five different periods between 13,000 BC and 1200 AD.
Each display is four by five feet and four feet deep. Every item inside was handmade, down to the tiny pot shards and rocks. The figures are made from beeswax and balsam wood (around the scale of a Star Wars action figure). The Step House diorama alone took eight CCC men more than 1,100 hours of work.
At the beginning of this summer, Mesa Verde held the official grand opening of a new 23,620 square foot visitor and research center. The new visitor center has its own displays of life-sized dioramas, and replaces the Far View Visitors Center that was built as part of the Mission 66 plan to expand visitor services throughout the national park system by 1966.
Many people were concerned that this current round of park updates would spell the end of the Chapin Mesa Museum. Happily, even the National Park Service understands the beauty and historical significance of the site and chose to leave the museum as it is.
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At-Large Guide to the West James Orndorf was born in Minnesota, but knew at a very young age that the future lay out west. He is currently photographing and illustrating outside of Durango, Colorado. You can see what he’s up to at inlandwest.tumblr.com and roughshelter.com.