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Colorado’s Cow Mountain Inspired the Root Beer Float, then Cripple Creek Forgot

On a cool August evening in 1983, a full moon hung in the dark navy sky drowning out the shining stars surrounding it. Just beneath the night’s natural light, the ivory peak of Colorado’s Cow Mountain reflected the moon’s golden glow concealing the shadowy mountains below it. From a quiet spot in the Gold Camp wilderness, a man gazed upon the snowy peaks of Cow Mountain in admiration. He thought the sight resembled a perfect scoop of vanilla ice cream floating at the top of a glass of dark soda. That evening he went home with an idea that created tradition.

Originally called the “Black Cow,” Frank J. Wisner, was inspired by the Colorado mountains to invent this concoction. (Kelly Branyik for PULP)

Over 125 years ago, in August 1893, the root beer float was born. If you didn’t already know, the sweet masterpiece was created right here in the Colorado mountains. Cripple Creek, Colorado to be exact.

In the 1800s, root beer, or root tea, was created and used for medicinal purposes. Charles Hire, a pharmacist in Philadelphia, was the first person to produce the beverage using some of nature’s flavors like sarsaparilla, wintergreen, birchbark, vanilla, and juniper berries. After mastering the recipe, the drink and recipes were distributed to people throughout that nation.

Thus, bringing us to the root beer float.

Root beer floats have been a long-loved summer treat that few have questioned the history of. It’s surprising to think that the history of the delicious beverage dates back to the 1890s and was created in the Colorado mountains. So, who created this time-honored beverage?

The kudos for mixing a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream with the sweet and thick root beer goes to Frank J. Wisner. At the time of his creation, Wisner was the owner of Cripple Creek Brewing. As with many inventions in this world, his idea to create a root beer float stemmed from his connection to nature.

The day after seeing those snow-capped mountains on August 19, 1893, Wisner concocted the frosty beverage in his brewery, naming it “Black Cow” after the mountain that inspired him. To this day, the Black Cow beverage is known as the traditional Root Beer Float that we know and love.

Regardless of the root beer float being invented in Cripple Creek, visitors won’t find an establishment in town selling it or praising its history. But why?

“No one has picked up on it,” says Cripple Creek’s Manager of Heritage Tourism, Michelle Rozell.

Cripple Creek, Colorado is a small mountain town known for its casino activity and mining history, but is increasingly becoming known for its outdoor recreation. The city is also known to celebrate their heritage year-round through annual events, mining tours, and museums that draw over a million visitors a year. On occasion, visitors who attend events can spot local city representatives manning Root Beer Float booths which for a brief moment celebrate the heritage.

“It is a nice fundraiser during special events,” says Rozell.

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So, why is there no single business promoting root beer floats year-round? An even larger challenge for monopolizing on the idea of root beer float cafes may go deeper.

The city is thick with commercial real estate that sits empty and lonely on Cripple Creek’s main drag, Bennett Avenue. Although there are many empty buildings ripe with opportunity, many of those properties are incredibly expensive. This alone poses an unrealistic risk for investment for small business owners looking to open up shop in Cripple Creek.

For example, the property at 317 Bennett Avenue, which used to be known as The Creek fine dining restaurant, has been on the market for a few years at the listing price of $875,000. The property has been well-maintained and appears to be fully furnished from the outside looking in, and yet no one has purchased the building.

“It is definitely a challenge. It is also challenging to support a year-round business,” says Rozell. Her comments reference the large decline in Cripple Creek’s tourism during the winter months. Many of the visitors are either retreating to warmer climates or hesitant to brave the mountain pass that takes them to Cripple Creek.

After nine years with the City of Cripple Creek, Rozell still cannot fathom how business owners haven’t promoted this piece of heritage.

“I really don’t know why no one has ventured to have them,” says Rozell. “The General Store has ice cream. Maybe it’s too much to have a root beer keg in place? No merchant is set up for it.”

Regardless of it being sporadically celebrated in Cripple Creek, there may still hope for the opportunity to build on the history of this drink. If nothing more, root beer floats are just another beautiful invention Coloradoans can be proud of.

Every year, people around the nation celebrate the creation of the Root Beer Float in August for National Root Beer Float Day. This year, the national holiday falls on August 6, 2019.

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