Tom Mix was a budding star when he appeared in his first of many silent movies filmed in the Cañon City area in the 1910s. After winning national riding and roping contests in Prescott, Arizona in 1909 and Cañon City in 1910, he appeared in various rodeos and wild west shows before joining the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago and returning to Cañon City in 1911 to make films.
In addition to entertaining audiences on film, Mix’s after-hours’ activities entertained local residents. From shooting lemons off glasses in a Hells Half-Acre Saloon to escaping his angry, pistol-toting wife by hiding in Cañon City’s Elks Club’s rolled-up awning, Mix had plenty of adventures in the area. Filming could be hazardous, too, with Mix and another actor nearly drowning in an Arkansas River stunt at Grape Creek. In that same location, actress Grace McCue and her cameraman would later perish when she slipped off her horse and was swept downstream while filming Across the Border in 1914.
Mix reportedly spent several nights in Prospect Heights’ jail, where bars were open 24 hours a day to accommodate the round-the-clock shifts of area coal mines. The jail, which still stands at 1315 S. Fourth Street in Cañon City, is now owned by the Fremont County Historical Society and can be toured with previous arrangements.
When Selig Polyscope left Cañon City for California, the Colorado Motion Picture Company, with backing from Denver investors, took over filming in 1913 and made over a dozen films in the area. The lawsuit resulting from Grace McCue’s drowning forced it into bankruptcy, but that was not the end of Fremont County’s role in the movies.
The Cañon City Film Committee of the Royal Gorge Chamber Alliance worked to attract filming activity to the area. Established in 1950 at the suggestion of Cañon City resident Karol Smith, a photographer who had worked as a production coordinator on the 1948 film Cañon City, the organization’s effort resulted in at least 14 films being shot in the area over the next three decades.
In 1969, Smith successfully sought the creation of the Colorado Film Commission. This was the first state film commission in the U.S., and Smith served as the State Film Commissioner until his retirement in 1989. He passed away in 1992.
Buckskin Joe was the location for many films made in the area, while the movie sets and tourist attractions near the entrance to the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park were created by Karol Smith and others in 1957 from buildings moved from area farms, ranches, and old Colorado mining towns. The original town of Buckskin Joe near Alma, Colorado, 80 miles northwest of Cañon City, provided one of these key buildings. The building was eventually purchased by billionaire Bill Koch in 2010 and moved again, reportedly to his private ranch near Gunnison.
Working ranches also served as the backdrop for many films, as well as providing horses, cattle, wranglers, and stunt doubles. The Draper Ranch, straddling the Fremont/Custer County line along CO-67 south of Florence, is an example. George Draper and his family assisted motion picture production companies that filmed in the area by serving as wranglers and stunt doubles for over 20 films from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Barns and other ranch buildings built by area entrepreneur Augustus Rose Gumaer with cement from the Portland Cement Company in the 1860’s are still in use on Draper’s 5,000-acre ranch.