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Sticks and stuffing can build bonds

Western Welcome Week tradition gets new life from wise hands


While their hearts are definitely in the right place, their hands no longer always want to cooperate.

“I grew up in a family that says if you live in a community, you contribute to that community,” said Fran Wells on May 21, as she painstakingly assembled a head for a stick horse in the exercise room at River Pointe Senior Community in Littleton. “Some things I can do, and some things I can't. Arthritis.”

Wells and a dozen or so of her fellow RiverPointe residents signed up to help make 50 new stick horses, each of which will hopefully become a little one's buckin' bronco during Western Welcome Week's 20th Annual Stick Horse Stampede, set for Aug. 9 at Arapahoe Community College.

As the ladies stitched, sewed, stuffed and glued, they chatted about how such craftiness has played a role throughout their long lives.

“I used to have a rag-doll business in the '50s,” said Joan Zilis. “It was called the Merry Doll. I gave 15 or 20 women throughout the Chicago area work for several years. Some made dresses, some made other parts. Everybody had a different job. But it was something they could do at home, that was my whole idea. Because they couldn't leave their children. … I got into it because I had four boys, and one little girl who liked dolls. … My mother was a really good seamstress. Those were years when you did everything to make stuff and save money. You just did it.”

Although Wells recently returned to Littleton after earning her degree at the University of Denver and flitting around the country as a master librarian for 75 years, the community has remained important to her.

“Denver was just a little cow town then, and that was fine,” she remembers. “It's changed a lot since then. Littleton was just a widening in the road.”

She has a unique connection to Western Welcome Week, as well. Her son-in-law is a member of the Carson family, which originally built the Carson Nature Center as its home atop Jackass Hill. In 1986, the Carsons donated the building to South Platte Park, which will host WWW's 22nd Annual Stampede for Open Space on the morning of Aug. 8.

Such unique connections aren't really so unique in a city like Littleton, the ladies agree. It's one reason they ended up making horse heads in the first place. Marketing director Donna MacCauley got to know WWW's executive director, Cindy Hathaway, over the last several years while working RiverPointe's annual Swing Dance, happening this year on Aug. 11.

The stick-horse team over the years became known as “Jane's Posse” in honor of Hathaway's mom, Jane. When MacCauley realized that one of the RiverPointe residents, Norma Ellison, had been Jane's friend and neighbor, it seemed like a great way to tie up a loose end.

“It just all kind of fell into place,” she said.

While the swing dance is open to the public and an official WWW event, MacCauley said it's just one part of RiverPointe's celebration of its own community. There's an ice-cream social and even a honky-tonk piano player during the week — “Sometimes what happens in RiverPointe stays in RiverPointe,” she said with a laugh.

Tracy Smith, head of the posse, said WWW is extremely grateful for the help.

“It's allowing us to get our older generation involved, helping and doing something they can participate in,” she said.

But for the ladies, the joy of helping often lies in handing down skills, traditions and values. Melanie Joy Sullivan, 10, regularly visits her grandmother, Beth Meleney, and was on hand to help with the stick horses.

“I used to sew, but take a look,” she said, holding out a hand that's held those of her children and grandchildren, made them meals and brushed their hair, wiped away tears and applauded their victories. “She's better than I am at this stuff now. Somebody gave her one of the horses. I wasn't going to give her the horse, because I thought she needed to learn to give to others. But she is giving to others by helping with this.”


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