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This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

VICTOR — It started at the bar. At least that’s how Jeff Hellner remembers it, but the details are a little blurry. 

The bar, it can be certain, is the 1899 Mining Claim and Saloon because that’s the only bar in Victor, and his company was almost certainly his husband, Clint Pickett. The two of them co-founded a nonprofit called Gold Camp District Impact Group, gcDIG for short, back in January, and they spent many winter nights scheming over drinks about what to do with it.

That’s where the idea for the troll came up.

In 2018, the Danish reclamation artist Thomas Dambo installed “Isak Heartstone,” a 15-foot-tall troll made of foraged sticks and recycled wood, on the outskirts of Breckenridge. Isak garnered both the love and ire of the town — a handful of nearby residents resented the extra traffic that the troll brought in, while others were charmed by the creation. City council members ended up voting three times on whether to relocate the troll, eventually voting to disassemble Isak and reassembling him near the Illinois Gulch trailhead.

“That was never the intent of my troll project,” Dambo said during a recent interview with The Colorado Sun. “But now all of a sudden I have this magic troll wand, I can just point it somewhere and bring thousands of people to it.” Dambo has installed trolls all over the world, and people travel long distances to volunteer their time to help build them.

Hellner was aware of the draw that the trolls have on people, so one night he tagged Kim Lottig, whom he’d recently brought on as director of gcDIG, in a Facebook post with a photo of one of Dambo’s trolls. She reached out to Dambo’s manager to see what it would take to bring a troll to Victor, and found out that Dambo and his team were already planning a road trip across the U.S. over the summer. They had stops planned on both coasts, but needed a site in the middle of the country.

an aerial view of a wooden troll is crouched next to a pile of rocks with a mine in the background
The Cripple Creek-Victor Gold Mine, seen in the background, is owned by the Newmont Corporation, and is Colorado’s largest producer of gold. The mine looms over the town of Victor and its new resident, Rita. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Dambo and his manager visited Victor later in the winter and immediately fell in love with the town. They wanted to bring the troll to Victor, and Victor wanted the troll. Trolls aren’t free, though — gcDIG is trying to raise about $100,000 by the end of the year — and they’d just barely had time to form, let alone fundraise. But both camps were so enthusiastic that they agreed to a discount and a payment plan, and Rita the Rock Planter was underway. 

Victor’s newest resident

Dambo is a whimsical man. He estimated that he’s spent maybe a year and a half — out of his 43 years — working for someone else. The rest of the time, he said, has been spent “taking ideas out of my head and building them.” 

It started with birdhouses. Dambo collected scrap wood and turned it into birdhouses, a fun project that acted as a vessel for his message: “The world is running out of resources and drowning in trash,” which has become something like a tagline for him. 

A turning point in his career came after a multiday Danish music festival where he and his friends built around 1,000 birdhouses and distributed them to festivalgoers at the train station after the shows ended. 

“So all of a sudden I have like a thousand people involved in my project. And all of them are really happy to be involved, because it’s funny and it’s special and different, and it has a positive message,” Dambo said. “That’s one of the points I really understood like, OK, I want to help people understand that trash should not suffocate the world, it should save the world. And if I can get free trash, and people who are bored and want to be a part of something positive, that’s like a perfect combination.”

Dambo found exactly what he was looking for in Victor. A historic mining town with fewer than 400 residents, Victor is not overrun by tourists, it has scenic expanses and an enthusiastic community willing to collect and haul the roughly 200 wooden pallets needed to build the troll. 

Slowly then all at once

Lottig had recently quit her job when Hellner approached her about starting gcDIG. She was overwhelmed as the director of Victor Main Street, working alongside city government, so she gave them six weeks notice and went to the 1899 Saloon to triumphantly declare “I just quit my job, guys!” to whatever crowd was there. Hellner was among them.

A couple of days later Hellner approached her about building a nonprofit. It wasn’t exactly the return from burnout she’d envisioned (she had been thinking about starting a hair studio). They met about it, she texted him questions, she entertained the thought, she took her time. 

“Sometimes life gives you an opportunity and it’s like: ‘Hey, you scared? You a little bit scared?’” Lottig said. “Maybe we have to dive into that sometimes, just to see what we can pull off.”

She accepted the position and immediately started researching how to build a nonprofit. Lottig, Hellner and Pickett filed paperwork to create a nonprofit, pulled together a board of directors and started scheduling meetings. By the time gcDIG really took shape, talks had already begun with Dambo’s people. Before the board had even been finalized, they had their first project to work on. 

“It was something to look forward to, to sink our teeth into right away as a team,” Lottig said. 

The town that struck gold, but can’t keep it

Victor’s small-town charms are also its challenges, as is the case in many historic mining towns across Colorado. Unlike most of those other towns, though, Victor never completely settled into the “historic” part of its title. Not with Newmont Corp.’s fully operational 7-square-mile gold mine lodged right between Victor and its neighbor, Cripple Creek. 

Even with the towering walls of excavated dirt as the town’s backdrop, Victor’s regal but crumbling main drag is reminiscent of its original boomtown days, full of late-1800s brick buildings that look straight out of a Wild West movie set. And just like a movie set, many of these buildings are vacant. One of the goals of gcDIG is to spark the economy to the point where people want to open businesses in those buildings, Hellner said.

Victor Avenue is part of Main Street America, a national historic preservation program that began in 1980 to bring economic activity to emptying downtowns across the West. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

In the past few years both the pizza parlor and the soda fountain closed, leaving the town with a single restaurant, a bakery, and the 1899 Saloon. There hasn’t been a grocery store in town for decades. Hellner understands that there must be open businesses in order for Victor to truly benefit from a draw like Rita the Rock Planter. Without open businesses, visitors won’t come to town. But without enough visitors, businesses won’t be able to stay open. 

“That’s where we’re at a little bit of a Catch-22,” said Jon Zalewski, manager of Victor Main Street, a funding program that revitalizes historic downtowns nationwide. “It’s the old thing of ‘people beget people,’ you know, like the ‘Field of Dreams’ thing.”

Victor’s main street is actually called Victor Avenue, and it’s one of nine “graduated” main street programs in Colorado. This designation gives them access to scholarship and microgrant funding issued every five years by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. Zalewski’s job is to facilitate opportunities for economic development in downtown Victor. 


“Not like bringing a Walmart to town,” Zalewski explained. “Nothing against Walmart. But when we’re looking to bring economic development to our community, we’re looking to do it while preserving our culture and history.”

Sometimes that means setting up meetings between owners of Victor Avenue’s vacant buildings and state preservationists, or helping people find grants, or pairing local entrepreneurs with building owners willing to lease them some retail space. Sometimes it even means career coaching. 

“I’ll work with people who are worried about having customers for only six months of the year,” Zalewski said. “So I’m like, what can you do with the other six months? Can you build websites? Can you do search engine optimization? You just have to figure out people’s talents to carry through the slow seasons.”

Zalewski is the perfect man for the job. He has lived in Victor for about 30 years with his wife, who he says is “even crazier” than he is when it comes to volunteering for local boards. He sits on multiple committees, can point out newcomers on the town’s expansive trails and, importantly, he thinks that Victor is the greatest place in Colorado. 

three men standing with beers in hand
Danish artist Thomas Dambo, left, chats with gcDIG leaders Jeff Hellner, far right, and Clint Pickett, who persuaded the artist to build his newest troll in Teller County. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The historic town’s future

“Community cohesion” is one of the issues that Lottig thinks Victor faces, and that an organization like gcDIG can help address. 

“It’s tough here, man,” she said. “It’s stunningly beautiful up here, but we have really big challenges. People who come and want to rehab these buildings, it takes a lot. To live here, thrive here. But to do so, it’s just so cool.”

Rita the Rock Planter has already attracted a steady flow of visitors into Victor, both Lottig and Hellner said. Hellner, who owns the Gold Camp Cafe and Mercantile in Cripple Creek said he estimated about a 50% bump in business since word about Rita got out. The bartender at the 1899 Saloon said she’s seen a lot of new faces coming through town, as well. A local standing at the bar agreed. He pointed at the row of tables against the wall. “Everyone over there is probably here to see the troll,” he said. Then he started pointing out people at the bar. “Here for the troll, here for the troll, troll, troll.”

“You know, it’s a historical community. People come here and learn a lot about the last hundred years, and it’s fascinating,” Lottig said. “But our community now, it’s up to us to figure out the next hundred years.”

Parker Yamasaki covers arts and culture at The Colorado Sun as a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow and former Dow Jones News Fund intern. She has freelanced for the Chicago Reader, Newcity Chicago, and DARIA, among other publications,...