By Beth Dodd:
Bert Bergstrom, known around Teller County as “The Big Swede”, was an integral part of Teller County’s illegal gambling scene back in the 1930s and 40s. Although he is also remembered for helping to start the Ute Pass Stampede by donating the land for the rodeo grounds in Woodland Park, he frequently worked on the dark side of the law.
Bergstrom came to the United States from Sweden around 1912 when he was just sixteen years old. By the 1930s he was living in Cripple Creek, which at that time was struggling to keep itself going as a community while gold mining faded under the weight of the Great Depression. The town turned to tourism to bring home the bacon.
Bergstrom helped lead the way by opening the Cripple Creek Inn on Bennett Ave in 1934. He had the first liquor license in town after the repeal of Prohibition in December of 1933. Jack Schwab, who came to Colorado from the Dakotas sometime before World War II, opened the Cottage Inn on Bennett Ave in 1945. He and his wife Evelyn served liquor and wild game. While Schwab and Bergstrom appeared to be simple restaurant operators, they partnered to offer illegal gambling on the side.
Schwab had a large number of illegal slot machines that he moved from place to place in order to hide them from the law. He was investigated by the FBI at least once. Schwab was also known to be very free with his gun, playfully shooting a hole in a friend’s hat while the man was still wearing it, and bringing two women who had departed without paying their bill back to the Cottage Inn at gunpoint to finish eating their supper and pay up.
A story about told about Bergstrom from the same period is more sinister. A local by the name of Jimmy Sterrett liked to frequent Schwab’s Cottage Inn, but was known to work for Bert Bergstrom. One winter night Sterrett interrupted a group of miners drinking at one of the local watering holes to show them an unconscious or possibly dead man trussed up in barbed wire in the back of his pick-up truck. He told the men to “Take a good look boys ‘cause you ain’t gonna see this fellow again. He stole from the Swede!” His statement was taken to mean that the man was destined for a one way trip down Ute Pass or perhaps down an abandoned mine shaft.
Around 1945 Bergstrom sold the Cripple Creek Inn, which continued to be popular for many years under its new owner. He moved to Woodland Park, and ran the Ute Inn, the Eldorado Club – now the Preschool in the Pines, and the Thunderhead Inn, where he continued to host illegal gaming. The Thunderhead Inn is rumored to have provided prostitutes as well. At one point Bergstrom was busted and indicted by the feds. The local legend is that Bergstrom offered The Thunderhead to his defense attorney, Martin Murphy, in exchange for getting the charges against him dismissed. Without taking any time to discuss the case, the jury found Bergstrom not guilty. The Murphy’s ran the Thunderhead Inn until 1954.
In spite of all this, both Bergstrom and Schwab were generous benefactors of charitable causes in their communities and were well-liked by most of their fellow citizens. Schwab raised the money to build a new furnace room at the St. Nicholas Hospital in Cripple Creek. He was also a staunch supporter of Donkey Derby Days, which started in 1931 and continues to be an important annual event today.
Gabe Brock, who owned the Crystola Inn for many years back in the day, acknowledged the gambling in Woodland Park in the late 1940s and the early 1950s in an interview he gave around 1986. Brock claimed that both he and Bergstrom had large numbers of illegal slot machines placed all over the county, known but ignored by the county sheriff. He said that part of the money from the slot machines built the Woodland Park Community Church and paid to purchase a new building for the VFW. However, the illicit gaming in Woodland Park ended in 1952 when a new mayor shut it down.
Bergstrom, of course, helped get the Ute Pass Stampede up and running in 1949. When the Woodland Park Saddle Club was organized in 1947, their first rodeos were held in a dusty field circled by cars at the Paint Pony Ranch. In 1949, Bergstrom negotiated the purchase of a five acre parcel in the center of Woodland Park and donated it to the saddle club. The annual rodeo held there became known as the Ute Pass Stampede and included a parade and a dance. It was popular with both the locals and the guests at the many dude ranches and summer camps around Woodland Park and was a not-to-be-missed part of Woodland Park’s summers through the early 1990s.
Others recall elk hunting trips with Bergstrom on the Dolores River in Southern Colorado. He would set up his tent in the same place every year and people from all over would come to enjoy the generous amounts of food and liquor that he shared with guests at his hunting camp. Bergstrom was also the founder and benefactor of the Woodland Park Santa Claus Club.
When Bergstrom died in March of 1986, more than 500 people filed past his casket at the Woodland Park Saddle Club to say goodbye. Bergstrom is buried with other members of his family, including his wife Clara who passed in 2008, in the Woodland Park Cemetery. His old friend and business partner from Cripple Creek, Jack Schwab, had died many years earlier in 1961. Schwab is laid to rest in the Mount Pisgah Cemetery in Cripple Creek with his favorite watch and a quart of whiskey.