Slaves of the Silver Serpent might sound like a heavy metal band, but they weren't an opening act for Black Sabbath in 1973. The group was actually a secretive fraternal club that emerged in Denver in the wake of the Silver Crash of 1893.
To boost the city's morale and the local economy, the mysterious organization threw one of the biggest bashes Denver has ever seen: The Festival of Mountain and Plain. Some of the inaugural festival's events in 1895 drew more than 100,000 people; Denver's population was about 120,000 at the time.
The weeklong hootenanny, held in late September or early October at Civic Center Park and other venues in and around downtown, was envisioned as a "Mardi Gras of the West." It commemorated the state's pioneer legacy and included sporting exhibitions and contests of mining skills, grand parades and balls at the Brown Palace, and a rodeo known as the Rough Riders Tournament.
The 1901 rodeo champion won the eye-catching trophy belt that's on display at History Colorado Center in Denver. Made of sterling silver, the belt consists of eight interlinked panels engraved with the names of past winners as well as images of a bronco rider, a Native American and a roper on horseback. The pièce de résistance of the buckle is a fearsome bison with blood-red glass eyes.
"This trophy belt was one of my favorite objects to research," says Julie Peterson, public historian and exhibit developer for History Colorado. "They would have these huge celebrations and big parades as a way to recover after the Silver Crash."
Economic development aside, many of the festival's events had a notably strange edge to them, from the elaborate floats to masked parades and balls. The Slaves of the Silver Serpents' moniker, a nod to the Masonic symbol for "divine wisdom," might just have had a double meaning. It reads as something of a critique of an economy that was all too dependent on a singular precious metal.
After an annual schedule from 1895 to 1899 and a pair of one-year 20th-century revivals, the Festival of Mountain and Plain folded once and for all in 1912, but the guiding vision was ultimately realized: Denver's economy is today one of the most diverse in the nation.
While elaborate parades and competitive rodeos are no longer on the agenda, the festival was revived in 1983 as A Taste of Colorado, held in Civic Center Park over Labor Day weekend. The secret society that sounds like a heavy metal band no longer organizes the event (it was supplanted by the Downtown Denver Partnership), but the event's spirit remains similar to the sometimes bizarre festival that inspired it.