‘They Moved Where?’ – Why Florence, Colorado Is More Than Meets The Eye

*Note: This audio essay first aired on KRCC (Colorado Springs’ NPR affiliate, 91.5 FM) on May 20, 2021. The link to the program is here; the audio file and the text from the essay are below.

They moved where?” I said to my wife.

My in-laws built a house in Florence this past fall, about 40 miles south of Colorado Springs.

In my head, I thought …”the prison-place? Really?” 

I didn’t know how wrong I was.

On a recent visit to those in-laws, I found Florence is a blast from the past in all the right ways. 

Highway 115 runs right through town, and you can’t help but notice oil is everywhere—a huge sign says “Historic Oil Town” and you can actually turn on “Petroleum Avenue.” 

That’s because the town is part of the Florence Oil Field, where oil was first discovered in 1862 and is recognized as the oldest oil field west of the Mississippi River. 

That oil comes from the Pierre Shale rock formation, of the Cretaceous period, about 70 million years ago.

We took the kids to Pathfinder Park, on the banks of the Arkansas, and were greeted by a 20-foot high sculpture of the early American explorer and politician John C. Frémont.

Yes, “United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility Florence”—AKA “supermax”—is nearby. It still holds the perpetrators behind some of America’s worst memories, like the Boston Marathon Bombing and 9/11.

But, like life, those bad memories sit alongside the good ones.

Florence is the Antique Capital of Colorado. When they looked for a town name, an early surveyor suggested the name “Florence” after the three-year-old daughter of one of the town’s pioneers. And so it was that a little girl gave a town its name.

Now I’ve got two reasons to go back again—first, for my in-laws (of course), but Florence’s cool backstory makes for a close second. 

Until our next mountainside chat—be good, be well, and no matter what, climb on.

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