Meet The Whale-Hunting, Gold-Mining Potato King Of Colorado

Headshot of Rufus "Potato" Clark
Rufus "Potato" Clark (c. 1880-1900) | Plains to Peak Collective, History Colorado

A whale-hunting, gold-mining, shipwreck-surviving farmer named Rufus “Potato” Clark arrived in Colorado on an ox-wagon in July 1859. The Pikes Peak Gold Rush was raging on, but unlike many who flocked to Colorado during that time, Clark didn’t come in search of gold. He came to farm potatoes for the prospectors pouring into the area.

An illustration of Colorado gold prospectors from 1859
Prospectors digging for gold in Colorado, Illustration (1859) | Denver Public Library

Clark had already gotten gold lust out of his system a few years earlier. After leaving his family’s Connecticut farm to join whaling expeditions through the South Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, news of the California Gold Rush drew him back to the states.

 

He didn’t work the California mines long. When the Victorian Gold Rush in Australia ignited, Clark couldn’t resist the call of the far-off country he’d visited during a whaling voyage.

 

Clark’s journey from California to Australia was anything but smooth sailing. After spending weeks at sea, he and his mates were shipwrecked on the Samoan Islands in 1852. A passing ship bound for New Zealand rescued them and delivered them to Australia.

 

In the hazard-riddled gold mines of Sydney and Melbourne, Clark labored for two years until the shine wore off that penny. Nearly broke, he returned to the states in 1854 and pulled together the money to build a sawmill in Iowa. Surely a good living could be made.

 

It didn’t pan out that way. Clark exited the sawmill business five years later, and revisited the trade in which his family’s livelihood had been rooted for generations: vegetable farming.

Potato farmers in a Connecticut field in the 1800s
Farming potatoes in Connecticut (undated) | University of Connecticut Photograph Collection

Traveling from Iowa to Colorado with his wife and daughter, Rufus Clark established a 160-acre homestead along the South Platte River in the present-day location of Overland Park.

 

Back then the area was known as the original townsite of Montana City, a placer-gold digging settlement founded in 1858 by members of the nugget-hungry Lawrence Party. Their high hopes for Montana City were squashed when the South Platte failed to yield gold. They dismantled their cabins and floated them downstream to Auraria in the spring of 1859.

 

In the summer of 1859, Clark homesteaded the grounds of the abandoned Montana City. He built a farmhouse, prepared the land for farming, and sowed the seeds for the underground tubers that would soon earn him the nickname “Potato King of Colorado.”

 

The potato industry in Colorado was already taking off when Clark planted his crop.

 

In the Pikes Peak region, a town named Eastonville had dubbed itself the “Potato Capital of the World.” The bumper crop of large potatoes shipped out by the trainload put it on the map. According to local legend, two-pound potatoes were commonly pulled from the ground. The seeds of these high-yield, dry-land spuds were in high demand.

Old railroad sign for Eastonville, Colorado
Old railroad station sign for Eastonville, Colorado (1955) | Denver Public Library

Farming potatoes proved to be an immediate success for Rufus “Potato” Clark. His first year was a banner year, producing enough potatoes to earn him a sizable fortune.

 

To transport his crop to Denver, Clark carved out the original footprint of the north-south road that would later become Broadway Street. In a single day, he hauled nearly $1,500 of potatoes to Denver. From there they were sold to miners coming through the city.

 

By 1860 Clark was considered the principal farmer in Denver. He was given the title “Potato King of Colorado.”

 

As Clark’s fortune grew, so did his philanthropic spirit. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Clark auctioned off sacks of potatoes and donated the proceeds to the relief efforts. He sponsored the construction of the Salvation Army headquarters in Denver, founded a theological school in Sierra Leone, and contributed to the expansion of irrigation in Douglas County to aid farmers in their agricultural pursuits.

Three men operate a tractor in Douglas County in the 19th century
"Clarence, Bill, and Frank Ready to Go" in Douglas County, Colorado (undated) | Image courtesy Douglas County Library

Perhaps the most notable of Clark’s charitable endeavors came in 1884, when he donated a whopping 80 acres of land south of downtown Denver to establish the University Park campus of the University of Denver (DU).

 

The desirable land offered stunning views of Pikes Peak and Longs Peak. It also provided students and faculty an escape from the moral and environmental pollution plaguing its downtown location. Saloons, gambling halls, and brothels were becoming more numerous around Denver.

 

Clark wanted the new location to be unsullied. He had just three stipulations for the land: trees must be planted, roads laid out, and the sale of alcohol prohibited.

 

Years later, debts were piling up at DU following the costly construction of Old Main. It seemed the university had no choice but to sell to a buyer, who planned to turn it into a glue factory. Rufus “Potato” Clark, along with other benefactors like Dr. Henry Buchtel, stepped in to ensure the debts were settled and the university saved from that fate.

An illustration of University Park from the late 1800s
City of Denver, University Park, Illustration (c. 1890-1900) | History Colorado

After living a long life of farming potatoes and pursuing philanthropy, the “Potato King of Colorado” passed away at home in 1910. He was 88 years old. The bulk of his estate was bequeathed to the theological school founded by Clark and his wife in Sierra Leone.

 

The potato farm Clark homesteaded in 1859 eventually became the Highlands Ranch Golf Club. A community garden named the “Potato Patch” was established in his honor. The University of Denver unveiled a mascot named “Rufus Clark” in 1999. The red-tailed hawk wearing a cowboy hat was later renamed “Ruckus.”

 

It has also been said author James Michener took inspiration from Rufus “Potato” Clark when developing the character Hans “Potato” Brumbaugh for his novel “Centennial.”

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