The South Conejos Street neighborhood was tiny, stretching about two blocks wide and four blocks long near downtown Colorado Springs.
Tiny enough that, after residents moved away and its grocery store closed, not much of the neighborhood was left. It was scraped by city bulldozers in the early 2000s to make way for America the Beautiful Park.
Gone, too, is Josephine Ontiveros’ childhood home. She lived in the neighborhood until she was 17.
“Before you knew it, (the neighborhood) was gone and never mentioned again,” Ontiveros, who is 81, said. “We were forgotten.”
For former residents such as Ontiveros, there’s so much to remember about the close-knit place where they grew up.
The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum is giving space for those memories through a new exhibit called “Una Familia Grande: The Conejos Neighborhood Project.” It opens Saturday.
Museum staff has been working on the exhibit for two years, finding former residents and gathering their stories, photos and artifacts. In doing so, Leah Davis Witherow, curator of history, has learned a lot about the once-vibrant neighborhood.
It was filled with people who worked at area mines, mills and railroads. “They literally and figuratively built Colorado Springs,” Witherow says, and their children loved to play at the “dragon” park.
“Conejos was a place of love and hard-working people and dreams and faith,” she said. “Conejos residents are an important part of our community and history.”
Witherow also learned this about the neighborhood: “It’s all but forgotten. Not by the former residents, but by the rest of Colorado Springs.”
She’s hoping this exhibit changes that.
“Because the neighborhood no longer exists, a lot of people have never heard of it,” she said.
The exhibit includes photos of families at church and birthday parties, a hand-drawn map of the neighborhood and residents’ belongings.
Museum staff members built a reconstructed version of Rio Grande Grocery and Market, which served as an anchor and meeting place for the community. It closed in 1985.
“We hope that when people come to visit, they experience a day in the life of what Conejos was like,” Witherow said.
That starts with opening-day activities, such as dance performances by Ballet Folklorico de la Raza, live music and traditional Mexican food.
Witherow says people with Conejos connections are flying in from all over the country to attend. And former residents such as Ontiveros, who lives in Castle Rock, will be there to share their stories.
For the retired schoolteacher, Conejos was just like the exhibit’s name suggests: One big family.
“You remember like it was yesterday,” she said. “Everybody was loving, everybody was caring and everybody got along. We weren’t strangers.”
There’s only one building that’s still standing from the neighborhood: Chadbourn Church, which was recognized in 2009 by the National Register of Historic Places.
Ontiveros plans to visit the church Saturday.
“It’s a beautiful thing because people will go back and be able to say, ‘This is where my family came from and what life was about then,’” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world, growing up there.”
Unlike the neighborhood, the permanent exhibit won’t be going anywhere.
“I want everyone to be reminded that everyone’s history matters,” Witherow said. “Their history should not be overlooked.”